Possibly the most popular such race is the Panasonic World Solar Challenge. Held every year in Australia, (chosen partly due to its extremely sunny climate), over 20 teams compete to see who can build the most reliable, fastest solar-powered car.
With a distance of 1877 miles to cover, the engineering challenge presented by this event is daunting, and attracts some of the brightest young minds in both the academic field and industry.
Winning the race is not as simple as strapping solar panels onto the roof of a race car and setting off towards the horizon. Intricate planning, materials choice, aerodynamic design and teamwork must come together in order to create a vehicle capable not only of winning but surviving the race.
Vehicle weight is of paramount importance, as is wind resistance. Both of these factors play a huge part in both the amount of energy required to overcome the initial inertia of the vehicle and then keep it rolling up and down hills, not to mention around other traffic.
As the race is held on public roads, all vehicles must respect road regulations and safety rules. Weather also comes into play, as the solar panels that charge the vehicle’s batteries need uninterrupted sunlight to operate at the level required to have a chance of victory.
Since drivers may only drive between specific daylight hours imposed by the event organizers, planning and communications must be top notch in order to assure a safe resting place each night and to keep maintenance personnel in the loop regarding the condition of the car.
Public perception of solar-powered cars is often one of fragile novelty vehicles teetering along the road. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. The race cars in the World Solar Challenge careen down Australia’s highways at speeds of over 130 km/h, easily keeping up with and in many cases passing local traffic.
A solar-powered vehicle may not be the most practical solution for a daily driving environment that is perhaps not as bright and sunny as Australia.
However, the technologies that are refined and put into practice during this event trickle down into consumer products such as home solar panels and power generation stations, demonstrating that once again, the pursuit of performance and perfection almost always benefits the market at large.