Can the answer to sustainable cars be solar?

A perfunctory panel used to be the extent of solar power in the automotive world. But as more people and industries go green, things are changing.

Take a look at the latest and trendiest car prototypes, and you’ll see vast swaths of solar panelling. But only now are there real, road-worthy cars coming to the open market, for the likes of you and me to do our weekly shop. More than just a gimmick, these solar powered cars could change everything – here’s how.

The car status quo

In 2016, the World Health Organisation estimated there were 2.1 billion vehicles on the road. Their Global Status Report on Road Safety, publishes data on the number of vehicles, per country, worldwide. The countries with the most vehicles per person?

Proving small but mighty, San Marino, Monaco and Liechtenstein are within the top 6 of the list. The top few countries also include Iceland, New Zealand and the United States. 

Today's solar paneled cars 

So, speaking of sunlight – what are we talking about when we reference a solar powered car? As opposed to a car with solar panels added as an afterthought, a solar powered car derives a significant portion of its energy from the sun. This is then supplemented with electricity.

There are two models hitting the open market with this distinction – the Lightyear One and the Sion

Lightyear One has five square meters of solar panels swathed across its sleek roof and is a marvel of efficiency. Each wheel is powered by its own electric motor, with the minimal excess energy being recaptured and reused by the vehicle. The batteries store enough power to cover 450 miles, and using its solar capabilities, it could power the car across 12,000 miles/year, given the right conditions.

The car is as beautiful as it is ground-breaking, and it has a hefty price tag to match. The start-up company responsible for the car, Lightyear, estimates it will retail at about €150,000 when it goes into production in 2021.

If you don’t have a spare €150,000, the solar powered car for everyman could be a more suitable option.

Sion, is expected to retail from €12,000 and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than itself – a city car dripping in solar panels. The no-thrills compact design proudly displays its panels across every spare surface, so it can squeeze as much power out of both direct and diffuse sunlight.    

How will this change the world?

Of course, a move to solar powered cars would have a tremendously important impact on the environment. 

What other results could we expect? If in 2019 there are two new car manufacturers who’ve made solar powered cars – one of which is reasonably affordable - what does the future look like?

The more sunshine you have, the more free power you’ll get to drive your car. It’s a fact that becomes more seductive if you live somewhere with plenty of sunshine. I.e. the current leaders in most vehicles per person could easily shift from the current status quo of European countries, to countries that straddle the equator. Many developing countries with year round sunshine will suddenly get a major discount when it comes to the costs of operating personal cars.

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The abundant sunshine of these countries near the equator will not only cut day to day spending for the locals who can afford solar powered cars, but it could see fleet based companies seeking lower operational costs move into continents like Africa and South America.

Another interesting feature of the Sion in particular is the built-in socket at its nose, which allows you to plug in your domestic appliances. This means you can park your car and go about your day as the sunlight charges it up, then use that energy to charge and power your appliances.

This concept could radically change the daily life of people living in countries with a high cost and low availability to energy. Adding a car like the Sion would not only save money on the oil needed for powering generators, but it'd cut down the pollution pumped into the atmosphere by countless households.

Oh, the possibilities

Even if the initial cost of these cars proves prohibitive for locals of these sunnier climes, there may be adventurous souls with the cash to spare, who’ll happily relocate. 

That creeping migration of people could lead to a slow and steady increase in these countries’ GDP. As these regions’ wealth increases, nations that previously languished in poverty could enjoy an increase in health, opportunity and quality of life, for billions of people.

Lofty? Perhaps. Possible? Absolutely.

One city likely to adopt solar based cars is Dubai. Find out how they're working towards an autonomous future. 

Topics: Sustainability, Solar panelled

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