There are several races in different countries and the competitors compete with special vehicles: aerodynamic solar cars. Students from universities or private schools build special cars that run off the solar energy provided by the sun. Some business corporations also enter the competition with their own aerodynamic solar cars. Aerodynamic solar cars are still in the infancy stage of development as people learn how to convert more solar energy into electricity for the car to run on.
Aerodynamic solar cars are powered by one source: the sun. They are basically electric vehicles that are powered by direct solar energy. They are covered with solar panels that contain photovoltaic cells, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity energy for the car to run on. The photovoltaic cells are different from solar thermal energy because while solar thermal energy converts energy into heat, photovoltaic cells convert energy into electricity. For competitions and races, the aerodynamic solar car’s propulsion can only be powered by energy from the sun. In addition to energy from the sun, the aerodynamic solar cars entered in competitions and races need to be truly aerodynamic in design. They need to have as little drag as possible because drag slows the cars down, which usually is the leading contributor to an aerodynamic solar car losing the race. A car that is truly aerodynamic in design doesn’t fight the headwind as much as another car that isn’t as aerodynamic. The less headwind that is fought, the less energy is wasted, which means more energy to go longer distances.
The technology that goes into aerodynamic solar cars usually are combined from several industries: aerospace, alternative energy, automotive, and bicycle industries. Since the technology is still in its infant stage, there is a limit on how far a design for solar cars can go. There isn’t enough energy input from the sun to allow for a normal sized car, which means the aerodynamic solar car has to be as frugal as possible in its design. In other words, aerodynamic solar cars can only have a single seat for the driver, no space for cargo, and the body of the cars have to be made out of ultra light composites, which allows the car to save weight. Since the body of the cars are ultra light in materials, they aren’t as safe as the traditional, gas powered cars that have armor.
While there have been great improvements on the aerodynamic solar car, they aren’t available for purchase right now. The cost factor is a big reason for the unavailability of solar cars. The energy the photovoltaic cells harness from the sun is free but the cost of the photovoltaic cells and solar panels can be prohibitive. In addition to cost factors, safety is a big issue in aerodynamic solar cars. The body make up of solar cars are very light and would provide little to no protection in an incident such as a collision. As long as there are other cars on the road with a heavier body make up, it isn’t safe for the light aerodynamic solar car. In the future, as technology improves, we may be able to convert solar energy into more electricity, making the solar powered car more effective in its running power. As it becomes more effective, we may be able to add more armor and meet safety requirements for the solar car. Over time, the cost of solar panels may go down and when it goes down, aerodynamic solar cars may become a common sight on the streets. Until then, they are usually only found in races or being worked on with a team of university engineering students in the engineering lab.