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  • 10.23.15

These Incredible Solar-Powered Cars Are Racing Across The Australian Bush

Could solar vehicles help replace fossil fuels? These models are lighter and more practical than ever before.

It’s pretty impressive for a solar-powered car to average 60 mph over a long stretch of 1,800 miles, even if some of the roads in the Australian Outback lack speed limits.

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That’s the top speed of any car in the World Solar Challenge, a race across Australia now having its 13th outing. “To put that into perspective, that’s not easy to do in a conventional car,” says event director Chris Selwood.

Speed is just one of the ways the cars, which rely on solar panels for 90% of their energy needs, have improved over time.

The rules for the contest have tightened considerably, says all-around race mastermind Selwood. In the early days, the cars carried as much as 140 kilograms of a lead battery. Now, some of cars get by with just 18 kilograms of lithium polymer. That makes them smaller and lighter and more efficient. Plus, all the cars need to be four-wheeled these days, which makes them more stable.

Indeed, several cars look more and more like “conventional cars”–more compact, certainly. Look at the Solar Riser from the HS Bochum SolarCar-Team, in Germany. It looks like a sports car.

The student team behind Eindhoven University’s Stella Lux describes it as a “family vehicle.” The car is remarkable for being energy positive–it captures power when its owners aren’t using it during the day.

“In the urban commuting cycle in their country [the Netherlands], the car collects more energy than it uses in that community. It provides a contribution to their household electricity,” Selwood says.

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Several teams, including Principia and Nuna, are using gallium arsenide solar panels, which, because of their greater efficiency, reduce the amount of surface needed for solar. That in turn “gives their designers much more flexibility to play with the shape of the car and the aerodynamics,” Selwood says.

Here is Nuna overtaking another Dutch team, Twente:

So, what does the race indicate about the future of cars? Will we see normal-sized solar cars or aspects of them assimilated to normal road vehicles? It seems possible, especially if solar panels reduce how much battery power EVs need to carry.

But then it all depends on what you think a “car” is. Is it an everyday run-around vehicle or something really ready for anything?

“If you’re looking for a practical outcome for your personal mobility, the choices will depend on your car use,” Selwood says. “In Australia, the guys want a big car that’s gonna tow the boat they’d like to buy, up the mountain they don’t live near, once a year. If you’re living in the city, why would you have a 5.7 liter car anyway?”

In other words, solar or solarized cars could be just fine for a lot of driving.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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