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Who First Thought About Solar Powered Cars?

Who first thought about solar-powered cars? Not just electric cars, mind you, but cars that run on solar power alone.

Recent news stories have surfaced about Toyota's plans to build solar panels into the roofs of their successful Prius gas/electric hybrids. The additional power would take care of air conditioning.

The new Mindset AG Six50 sedan also sports solar panels for providing power on-the-go. The company claims that 10,000 of them will go on sale in 2009.


(Six50 by Mindset AG)

Still at the prototype stage (indeed, at the moment there’s little else), the car is designed to weigh about 800 kgs and be 4.2m long. It is yet one more auto in the long line of hybrid vehicles trying to be the most efficient method of private transportation. But we have to admit that the lines of the vehicle certainly caught our eye.

The front circular headlights are reminiscent of the 60’s but the rest of the vehicle screams future-forward. The roof comes equipped with solar panels that power the lithium-ion batteries, providing around a 100km drive per charge. The most striking, and possibly coolest, feature? Gullwing doors.

But who first thought about a solely solar-powered vehicle? The vehicle that is widely claimed to be the first example is this DIY model by Alan Freeman of Rugby in England in 1979.


(First solar powered car)

In 1955, what was billed as the world's first solar-powered automobile, designed by William G. Cobb, was demonstrated at the General Motors Powerama in Chicago. However, I believe that this was a small fifteen inch model, called a "sunmobile." But at least the concept was there. It was powered by 12 built-in selenium photoelectric cells. The light was converted into electric current that powered a tiny electric motor with a driveshaft connected to the rear axle by a pulley.

Frankly, I don't know who was first. However, Robert Heinlein's description of the steel tortoise from his 1940 story Coventry is the earliest I know about:

He turned and commenced loading his steel tortoise...

The vehicle he had chosen was not an unreasonable substitute for burros. It was extremely rugged, easy to operate, and almost foolproof. It drew its power from six square yards of sunpower screens on its low curved roof. These drove a constant-load motor, or, when halted, replenished the storage battery against cloudy weather, or night travel...

It could maintain a steady six miles per hour on smooth, level pavement. When confronted by hills, or rough terrain, it did not stop, but simply slowed until the task demanded equaled its steady power output.
(Read more about Heinlein's solar-powered steel tortoise)

Any other references to actual prototypes or references to vehicles prior to 1955 (or 1940) would be appreciated. In recent history, there have been lots of great contests for solar-powered vehicles.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/11/2008)

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