When people think of a solar-powered car, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a solar racecar, the kind built in a garage by university students. While they look cool in some ways, they are only barely cars. With no creature comforts, no room for more than one driver, and no room for cargo, these vehicles just aren’t something normal people would use for anything. Today’s EV revolution owes (in part) its success to these seemingly useless cars, as many of the technologies used today were pioneered and proven for solar racing.
Solar Team Eindhoven started out competing in these races, building cars that were good for only those competitions. But, they eventually realized that they could put their skills and money to better use, building more useful vehicles powered completely by the sun.
One really cool project we wrote about a couple years ago was their solar-powered RV. They started out with a vehicle shape that isn’t too far off from a solar racecar, but expanded on it. Typically, there is limited room in small, low-profile vehicles for RVers to enjoy basic comforts like standing up, sleeping on a bed, or sitting at a table. To solve this conundrum, they incorporated a pop-up roof, similar to that of many camper vans. Even better, they integrated some slide-out solar panels to produce more solar power when parked, allowing for a much more useful solar vehicle.
This wasn’t just an art project, either. It worked, and worked well, on a real European road trip! The students embarked on a journey from their hometown, venturing all the way down to the southernmost part of Spain. Along the way, they made several stops in cities and towns, showcasing their vehicle and serving as a source of inspiration for fellow students, politicians, and individuals in the automobile industry. This remarkable expedition took more than a month and covered a distance of 3000 kilometers (1800 miles), proving that the electric RV could really RV.
But, there’s one thing that little solar vehicles hadn’t really been tested for: off-road duty. You might think that a lightweight vehicle built for efficiency couldn’t possible handle the rigors of that. It would probably shake apart, get stuck and need to be towed out (assuming that’s even possible), or just break down.
Despite the challenges, the team proved that it really could be done, proving it with their new vehicle, the Stella Terra. With rooftop solar panels and robust construction, Stella Terra operates independently of fossil fuels and even EV charging infrastructure, and can do so anywhere in the world. It’s also no slouch, as it’s road legal, has a top speed of 145 kph (90 MPH), weighs only 1200 kilograms (about 2650 lb), and has a range of 630 kilometers (almost 400 miles) under good sun.
I don’t know about you, but those are some seriously impressive numbers for a solar vehicle that’s designed to work off-pavement.
“Stella Terra must withstand the harsh conditions of off-roading while remaining efficient and light enough to be powered by the sun. That is why we had to design almost everything for Stella Terra ourselves, from the suspension to the inverters for the solar panels,” said Wisse Bos, team manager of Solar Team Eindhoven. “We are pushing the boundaries of technology. With Stella Terra, we want to demonstrate that the transition to a sustainable future offers reasons for optimism and encourages individuals and companies to accelerate the energy transition.”
Initially, the team was only able to test the vehicle in the Netherlands, but they point out that the vehicle isn’t very well-tested by the limited diversity of environments available in their home country. So, they decided to take it to Morocco for some more serious testing of mettle.
They started the journey in Tangiers, a city at the north end of Africa. Like many off-road expeditions, it started on pavement, which wasn’t a problem because the vehicle is completely roadworthy and street legal.
Later in the journey, the team showed off a couple of design elements the vehicle borrowed from their electric RV: both a small pop-up roof section for more interior space (probably just enough for sleeping), and a fold-out solar panel to gather more range from the sun during meal and pit stops.
Like any good off-pavement journey, something broke!
By October 21st, they completed their 1,000 km journey across Morocco, after having faced steep climbs, dry riverbeds, and sand.
Why This Matters
Like many clean tech enthusiasts, I enjoy seeing science projects and weird vehicles that aren’t useful in the real world, largely because they help move the state of the art forward. In many cases, technologies and techniques developed for university races can take decades to reach the automotive world, but the skills learned and experience gained leads to changes in the industry a lot faster.
But, the projects Solar Team Eindhoven has been getting into do more than push the theoretical envelope. They take emerging solar and battery technology and push it to the real-world limits. Most people wouldn’t want to spend weeks crossing only 600 miles, but proving that this can be done only on the power of the sun takes one of the biggest excuses and criticisms of clean technologies away.
The idea that we can only do things off-grid and away from civilization using fossil fuels needs to not only be challenged, but proven to be wrong in a decisive fashion. Taking an overlanding trip using nothing but the power of the sun takes us another step in that direction.
It’s important to keep in mind that solar technology isn’t done improving. At present, solar panels tend to only have 20-25% efficiency. There are near-production panels out there that can convert over 30% of the energy that falls on them into electricity. Other designs that approach 50% efficiency are probably a decade or two away, and some researchers think 90% is possible.
But, even achieving 50% means doubling the power, and thus doubling the available solar range available. For this vehicle, the range would double, and the travel time would be halved. But, for vehicles like an Aptera, the daily range added would also double, providing up to 80 miles.
It’s good to see student teams pushing to get the most from this technology early instead of waiting for better technology. That way, once it’s more viable, most of everything else will already be figured out.
Featured image provided by Solar Team Eindhoven.
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