SOLAR CARS – LIGHTING THE WAY

Pull the handbrake up, shift the gear in free and ponder for a minute how much money you spend on fuel. You need an average of about €25 per week for petrol or diesel for your car, which adds up to €1300 per year. That’s an approximate monthly wage on refined oil that’s not doing the environment, or your wallet, any favours. Think of all the things you could’ve done with that money. It makes your blood, and your fuel tank, boil.

Now look out your car window, or just look through your sun roof, if you’ve got that fancy little feature. That big bright ball in the sky that’s practically grilling everything under its gaze is the Sun. It is the primary source that provides this planet with its basic energy. It generates so much infrared, visible and ultraviolet light that society has found a way of powering a good percentage of their utilities just through it. If you think about it, it could even get your vehicle moving at a reasonable rate on a hot summer’s day… for free. So why are we still paying extortionate prices for fuel when we’ve got a solar station just hanging above us?

Many of us can vouch for the miraculous decrease in electricity bills after the installation of solar panels in our homes and offices. More importantly, they’re helping us lessen our carbon footprint, making us lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle. So perhaps it’s high time scientists put their heads together to come up with motors that solely run on this very same energy.

Oh, guess what. They already have.

Back in 1987, the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge held its first race from Darwin Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia. 13 vehicles, purely generated by the scorching Australian sun, raced and crossed an entire continent through its outback at an average speed of 67Km/h. The tradition has lived on, its purpose to promote the advancement of solar-powered cars, and the next race will be taking place from the 18th till the 25th October 2015. A number of university teams from all over the world participate in the challenge, and prior to this, they put together their own vehicle which will withstand the 3000Km route.

Bridgestone World Solar Challenge 2014 – Day 5, the final

 

In their attempt to achieve maximum solar energy consumption, extensive research is carried out in the design of the model. Several factors come into play, namely weather conditions, lightness and endurance. The creativity and innovation of engineering students knows no limits, and it’s evident in the futuristic designs of the biennial entries. The running theme for most of the designs tends to be a flat surface covered in solar cells, in order for the vehicle to gain as much surface area for solar exposure. Light materials such as carbon fibre and slim wheels are also used to make the car as aerodynamic as possible. The heaviest part of the car is probably the battery, which acts as a back up storage for, quite literally, a rainy day. While the solar panels drive the car through direct sunlight as it’s moving, the battery absorbs any excess electricity and stores it for when the sun’s not shining.

So, how would these impressive models fare in Maltese roads, or any urban landscape for that matter?

They’re fragile. Considering the overall fragility of solar-powered cars, their thin wheels and low-floor bodywork wouldn’t remain unscathed for the maximum of a 15 minute drive. We’ve got enough potholes and uneven sleeping policemen to scratch and puncture the underbelly of a safari range rover. These cars were designed to cross a straight and generally smooth tarmac road, and even in these conditions, some participants encountered one or two crashes in the history of the race.

They were not designed to be parked. Honda’s entry in 1993 had a little screen and camera within the cockpit to help drivers see what’s behind them, but even with this, the shape and three wheels of the car would render it nigh impossible to park without someone calling the car insurance people.

car-1

 

They’re huge. Solar cars’ dimensions exceed even those of the most elaborate muscle motors. They make the Lamborghini Egoista look like a Toyota Vitz. A World Solar Challenge entry wouldn’t be able to stay within its lane because its wingspan wouldn’t allow it. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some of them even look like flying saucers. Try getting that round the Mikiel Anton Vassalli roundabout without it crashing it into someone’s mirror, or flipping it over.

They’re hot. You’re cocooned in an adult incubator big enough just for you to twist your head left and right, protected by a mass of heat-absorbing cells and metal. You’re going to get roasted and parboiled in your own sweat. And before you suggest switching the a/c on, it hasn’t got one, as this would defeat the purpose of energy consumption.

That is not to say that they’re a bad idea. On the contrary, the concept is absolute genius, especially if the car is destined to be shipped to countries where there’s sunshine all year round. In fact, Ford is currently developing a passenger car whose roof is installed with solar cells. It may not be an entirely solar-dependent vehicle, but it’s most certainly economical and will emit much less fossil fuels than its fellow four-wheeled friends. Cars such as these would be guaranteed an unlimited supply of direct sunlight most of the time, and it would greatly help alleviate air pollution. Who’s to say this won’t pick up?

What do you think about solar-powered cars? Would you buy one?

Let us know in the comment section below.