Solar electric cars are the future – and “that future is now”

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In the wake of this year’s Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, the global race to bring solar PV integrated EVs to market is hotting up. And Australia is a key contender.

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Arrow STF on day one of the Solar Challenge. Image: Bridgestone World Solar Challenge

The 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge came to a close last Friday, but the race to build the world’s first commercial, road-registered, consumer friendly solar passenger vehicles is only just gearing up. And Australia is looking very competitive.

One company to watch is Brisbane-based outfit Clenergy TeamArrow. The team claimed third place in this year’s Cruiser Class contest with the Arrow STF – in fact, it was one of just three teams to complete that part of the Challenge, which is less a race and more a practical demonstration of solar cars that people might actually buy and drive one day.

But with the race out of the way for another year, TeamArrow has returned its focus to the big game: to make Australia’s first road registered solar electric vehicle that is highly desirable to the general population.

The team says it is currently at the stage of evaluating the level of interest in its prototype ‘commercial’ solar car that it plans to have completed and road registered by the end of this year and ready for commercial sale by the end of 2018.

The solar PV integrated two-seater sports coupe has a top speed of 150km per hour and can travel 1000km – at speeds between 50km/h and 70km/h – before needing to recharge. On the open road, it has a 300km range.

“These things are real cars that can do real highway speeds, and this is just the beginning,” said team president Rob Mair. “We don’t know where things will go, so we’re keen to simply make one and see where the technology goes.”

Of course, the commercial iteration of the Arrow STF will be quite different to the model that raced from Darwin to Adelaide over the past week. According to TeamArrow founder Cameron Tuesley, changes to an on-road model will include the switch to regular road tyres, a different motor, a boot, air conditioning, and radios.

“The version (used in the race) features a pared-back, race-configured cockpit suitable for long-range events like the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge,” said Tuesley. “For individual buyers we will build customised versions which have all the features you would expect in a luxury sports car, including air conditioning and infotainment.

“We’ll do that over the next six months or so and then the plan is basically to make the vehicle available for sale towards the end of next year which is something we’re really excited about.

“Every time we show someone our car the inevitable question is ‘can I have one?’ and now you’ll actually be able to.”

Indeed, ever since the Cruiser Class was first introduced into the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in 2013, the competition to design a car people would, and could, buy – rather than some space-aged vision from the far-flung future – has been getting closer to a reality.

“That future is now,” said Cruiser Class event director Chris Selwood.

“These incredible solar cars have been designed with the commercial market in mind and have all the features you’d expect in a family, luxury or sporting car,” he added.

“When your car is parked at home it can be charging and supplying energy back  to the grid.”

In keeping with the results of this year’s Challenge – the 30th anniversary of the event – the Dutch appear to have the jump on the pack, announcing plans to bring the world’s very first solar-powered family car to the market in July.

The Lightyear One – launched in the US this year – is a commercial model of the Dutch designed “family saloon” car that won the Cruiser Class contest in its first year, in 2013.

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Capex to Opex: despite a high upfront cost of €119,000, the Lightyear One is theoretically free to run. Source: PV Magazine.

The car is made by team Eindhoven, the same Dutch university team that won all three categories of this year’s contest – efficiency, practicality and overall winner – with its Stella Vie solar car.

The Stella Vie, which in the race carried 3.4 people using only 46kWh of energy, was noted by judges for features including an app which recommends sunny parking spaces, an upholstered spacious interior, and the ability to install a rear-facing child’s car seat in the rear.

The PV integrated car the Eindohoven team is bringing to market has an 800km driving range, and the ability to travel 10,000km a year on Dutch sunshine – a distance that could double to more than 20,000km in sunnier countries, like Australia.

Like regular electric vehicles, it has a standard charging point, but the team behind it claim it can be operated completely without plug-in charging.

Naturally, however, all this does not come cheap: interested buyers are looking at a €119,000 price tag. But as at July this year, the Lightyear One team had five orders for their solar car, and are hoping to have booked as many as 200 orders by early 2018.

Back in Australia, another team that competed in this year’s Cruiser Class, the UNSW Sunswift team, also has its eye on delivering a commercially viable road registered vehicle.

And its sixth generation solar car, Sunswift Violet, has come a major step closer to meeting that challenge.

“Violet looks like a family sedan, but uses as much power as a four-slice toaster,” says Sunswift team founder Simba Kuestla.

“She’s got entertainment and air conditioning systems, including navigation, reverse camera parking sensors, and there’s even Wi-Fi aboard. And she’s got plenty of front and rear boot space.”

The car has a top speed of 130km/h and a range of 800km running on its 284x SunPower monochrystalline cells alone. It also has modular lithium-ion batteries which store the solar power and which can power the car on their own for a range of 400km.

Elsewhere in the world, Chinese thin film developer Hanergy launched plans for its solar powered car in July, although these plans should be viewed in the light of that company’s recent fall from grace.

And in Germany, Sono Motors is hoping to crowdfund the commercialisation of its six-seater Sion family car; that targets a range of 250km at a price tag of less than €16,000 (AU$18,000).

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