California High School Students Race Solar Powered Cars

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When we think about solar car races, it’s usually multi-million dollar cars being raced by college teams across vast areas. With their only power coming from the sun, it’s a big challenge that often results in average speeds of around 15 MPH, and takes a grueling amount of time to complete. But, there’s another way to get kids involved in solar transportation to learn about STEM careers, and it has a lot more in common with the first solar-powered car than with what college teams or companies like Aptera are into.

The First Solar-Powered Car

The first solar-powered car wasn’t really a car, but it sort of was. It was built by GM for the 1955 Powerama car show, but it wasn’t something anyone could drive. It was a miniature car with a tiny solar panel on top, which drove a small electric motor that pushed the car forward. That may sound silly today, but keep in mind that in 1955, a tiny solar panel was extraordinary and expensive. The idea that even a toy-sized car could move forward without any fuel was a truly innovative idea.

In fact, a number of people were inspired by GM’s Sunmobile. One of them was an adventurer named Hans Tholstrup, who went on to build a solar-powered car you could actually ride in. And ride in it he did, taking the Quiet Achiever all the way across Australia to promote solar power. Crossing Australia with no fuel got a lot of publicity, and that led to organized solar car races. GM again entered the picture with its Sunraycer, which put the company on the path to making the Impact electric car prototype and eventually the EV1. As Who Killed The Electric Car showed us, the EV1 was a big part of the history of electric vehicles, leading to today’s electric car boom.

You can read all about this in much greater depth in this series of articles I wrote.

My point in sharing this story? Don’t discount the importance of a little bit of inspiration. Even a tiny car can lead to great things!

SMUD’s Solar Car Race

Every year (except for the last two because of Coronavirus), the Sacramento Municipal Utility District puts on a Solar Car Race for high schoolers to participate in. The rules are pretty simple: SMUD gives you the same solar panel as every other racer, to make it a fair race. You bring the rest of the little car, ready to plug it in and go. This engineering challenge is what the race is all about. Here’s a video from the 2017 event:

As you can see, not every car is very successful. Some go a LOT faster than others, and some don’t really go much at all. But everyone has fun and everyone comes away learning about science and engineering. Sacramento’s KCRA attended this year’s event, and you can see footage of it here.

Is this the single most important piece of cleantech news we’ve ever written? It isn’t, but like with the Sunmobile, one of these kids might go on to do things that transforms the entire industry. At least some of them will make more normal contributions, which is something we still desperately need. So, events like this are extremely important. Our kids are our future, and this is what that’s all about.

Featured image by Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1985 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba