• Anushka Shirke

SOLAR CARS - PRACTICAL OR NOT?

Electric Vehicles are all the rage now, with people becoming increasingly aware of the adverse effects that traditional internal combustion engine vehicles have on the environment. This paradigm shift has taken place over some time, and now more and more people are looking at purchasing an electric automobile instead of the cheaper gas-powered variants, thus attempting to reduce the carbon footprint of their choices.


This smart choice could be even more effective if the electric car in question were solar. The developments in the solar-powered vehicle industry have made the possibility of seeing such cars ply on roads a reality in the foreseeable future. But much to our dismay, it is not as rosy as it seems.


Solar cars, though highly promising, have a few underlying technical challenges that we must overcome.


A solar car runs on power supplied by solar cells embedded in panels. For sufficient energy to run the car at a decent speed, the efficiency, the voltage supplied, and the area of the panel are vital parameters to be considered for calculations. The efficiency of a good quality solar panel is around 20%, with some even as high as 22.8% (Offered by SunPower)-this means that of the total energy given out by the sun, only about 20% gets converted to electricity that runs the car. More often than not, this energy is not enough unless the area of the panels is considerably large - which is quite arduous in this age of compact cars. Take a look at the cars that compete in competitions like the World Solar Challenge or the American Solar Challenge - these cars take on a long journey, where their endurance and practicality are put to test. The area of the solar panels used is large, and the efficiency is as high as possible, which means that the cost incurred by the panels only is pretty high.


Again for the cars to run, they should be extremely light in weight, so the materials used to build the solar car should accordingly be so, yet robust and durable. Which brings expensive, but sturdy and reliable composites into the picture. Also, more often than not, to keep the weight to a minimum, most solar cars are designed to be single occupancy types. There are multiple occupancy solar cars at the competitive level as well, but they are not as common yet, due to difficulties in achieving high speeds and efficiencies. The inability to travel at elevated velocities may be an issue in some cases, but for regular, day-to-day applications, that is not much of a hindrance.


Unlike gas-powered vehicles, solar cars are dependent on weather conditions to some extent. Despite new technological breakthroughs that make it possible to harness the energy of falling raindrops to generate electricity during rough weather, it is still difficult to rely entirely on the panels in all seasons. Also, since sufficient radiant energy is not available at night either, the dependency on batteries increases. These high-grade batteries, capable of storing energy, add to the expense of the car.


Regardless of these designing and operational challenges, a solar car could still be a smart choice. They operate in a completely noiseless fashion with negligible vibration, thanks to the electric motor used. Production of instant torque makes it possible for the car to start from a dead stop quicker than its conventional counterpart. Due to the design and aerodynamics, the driving experience is enhanced and made smoother and more slick compared to driving a traditional car.


Thus, apart from the savings on fuel and emission-free operation, the potential of achieving high speeds is sure to satisfy a user.

Statistics indicate that most people travel to work in their multi-seater conventional car solo, and the problem of congestion arises. This issue can be resolved by some tweaks to the existing single-occupancy solar cars, thus proving that they aren’t that impractical after all.



The debate on whether or not a solar car is feasible for regular use is ongoing, and the results are uncertain. But with the current technological advancements, and the electric vehicle market booming like never before, thanks to favorable government policies(FAME India, for example), the prospect of seeing a solar electric car or a hybrid solar car, like Hyundai’s Sonata hybrid, seems quite high.


A solar car is a one-time investment, with minor maintenance costs. If used and made with care, that is, if the panels and other components are kept free from dirt and moisture, and the batteries and solar cells are manufactured sensibly, then sustainability goals can be achieved, and longevity of the cars life is possible.

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