Recent years have seen major advancements, though, in alternatively fuelled vehicles such as hybrid cars or all-electric cars. The world has simultaneously seen big steps forward in solar technology.
So the big question is whether the two will ever be able to come together to give the planet a solely solar-powered car.
The short answer is “probably” – but it will take a while.
There are already solar-powered cars that take part in solar challenges such as the North American Solar Challenge in the U.S. and Canada, and the World Solar Challenge across the Australian outback – whereby teams of budding engineers from universities around the globe build and race solar-powered cars.
Tokai University’s Solar Car “Tokai Challenger”. The winner of 2009 Global Green Challenge. Source: Wikipedia/Solar Car
These are very lightweight vehicles, which are wide and flat for minimal wind resistance and maximum solar panel allowance. They usually carry only one person, but can reach speeds of 50 mph and cover hundreds of miles, crossing entire continents without using any fuel; not so much low emission cars as no emission cars!
At the moment, though, the large solar panels and battery packs required to make such cars practical for everyday use mean solar isn’t a practical option. But it’s on is way, gradually, and the technology developed in the engineers’ challenge events is used by major manufacturers.
As battery technology develops and they get lighter, and solar power improves further by means as yet unknown, then it seems we will see a solar powered car – i.e. on which continually recharges a powerful battery in the same way that all-electric cars currently work. Before that happens, it seems likely that we’ll see solar playing an ever-increasing role in recharging the batteries of electric cars as a supplement rather than sole power source.