Electric cars finally seem to be taking off in a big way. It helps that companies like Porsche and Tesla have made electric cars sexy and a sort of status symbol. It also helps that electric cars are now actually practical. Some Tesla vehicles have a rated range of 300 miles on a full charge. Infrastructure has also been coming along nicely in some parts of the world. Charging stations are popping up in major city centers and along main routes pretty quickly. Using these high-speed chargers, it’s usually possible to be back on your way in 20 minutes – still slower than filling up with fossil fuels, but much faster than it used to be. In the past you could expect to leave your car charging for half a day.

Despite the rapid increase in charging infrastructure, the lack of extensive charging station coverage is holding the adoption of EVs back quite a bit. But what if you didn’t have to rely on a grid-based solution to keep your electric car charged? What about a solar-powered electric vehicle?

Doing it Before it Was Cool

Fully solar vehicles were around long before the current revolution in practical electric cars. There have been competitions to see who can get the most range out of efficient solar vehicles. These cars have invariably been special, one-time projects. The sort of cars that have been fully solar in the past were made by teams of MIT students or companies who felt like putting some money into good PR. These solar cars are usually incredibly small, light, and spartan. In other words, they aren’t meant to ever become commercial products, but only to advance the possible levels of efficiency.

tokai challenger

The cars are put into solar races, which are actually pretty awesome to follow. So if solar cars are only engineering curiosities, why even bring them up? Well, not too long ago electric cars were also just a curiosity. Despite being around for longer than the internal combustion powered car, they had been impractical for so long that most people gave up on the idea. Now the writing’s on the wall in such bold lettering that many countries are banning ICE engines in the next few years.

Major breakthroughs in battery and computer technology made modern electric cars possible. Solar energy has also been around for ages, but only recently have the various sciences converged to bring us drastically more efficient solar panels and improved related technologies. So who’s to say that total solar vehicles aren’t going to have the same path?

Wait, what does “total” solar mean anyway?

A New Kind of Hybrid

If you look at how much power a modern all-electric car needs versus how much surface area it has for solar panels, then it should be obvious that current solar panel technology isn’t going to cut it as a total energy solution. That doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to put solar panels on an electric car. While you can’t run a practical commercial car on solar panels alone, it can help extend the range of the car significantly.

Think about how much time your car spends outside just parked in the sun. If it was a solar-assisted electric car, it could spend that time filling up the battery again. For example, the SONO solar car can gain about 30 km of range a day just from the sun. In my case that’s more than my daily commute, which means I could literally drive to my job and back just using sunlight!

hyundai sonata

Chasing the Sun

Will it ever be possible to have a practical car that can run off nothing but the power of the sun? It’s dangerous to answer a question like that with any sort of certainty. Plenty of people have said that some particular thing will never be possible, then just a decade or two later that same thing is commonplace. We are surrounded by technological miracles which we largely take for granted.

In order for a practical solar car to be possible, there would have to be advances in several areas. Cars would have to be lighter – made perhaps from some form of carbon fiber. Solar panels would need to become much more efficient, since cars generally have so little surface area. Battery capacities would have to improve dramatically. Perhaps future solar cars would use something like a supercapacitor instead of batteries.

One method would simply be to make the cars bigger again, so that more solar panel surface is available. We might see large, sleek, and futuristic cars grace the roads of the future. I don’t know if it will ever be a reality, but here’s hoping that a car that runs on nothing but sunlight can one day be a reality.