A Tank Full of Sunshine

Solar-powered cars of the future

It doesn’t come with cup holders, but the Stanford Solar Car team’s latest creation is a green-tech marvel.

Nathan Golshan

How do you get the chance to meet the President of India, be featured on MTV, and take a prince out for a late-night joyride? The answer, according to Alexis Ringwald, is to drive a snazzy-looking solar car.

“We wanted a creative way to highlight solutions to climate change in India, mainly to inspire young people to take action on climate change,” says Ringwald, a Yale alumnus and former Fulbright scholar who drove 2,100 miles across India in a solar-paneled electric car.

She and two of her friends spearheaded the India Climate Solutions Road Tour in 2009. The Indian manufacturer Reva Electric Car Company supplied the vehicles—lightweight, colorful solar cars outfitted with batteries that could travel for 90 miles on a six-hour charge. Solar panels on the cars’ roofs provided about 10 percent of the cars’ energy requirements.

Accompanied by a solar-powered band, a Bollywood dance troupe, and a luggage truck fueled by locally produced plant oils, the caravan made its way from Chennai to New Delhi over a three-month period. Along the way, they stopped in dozens of cities and villages, giving presentations at schools and temples, founding local chapters of the Indian Youth Climate Network, and documenting innovative alternative-energy solutions that are being used all across India.

Along the way, Ringwald and her friends demonstrated the real-world readiness of Plug-in Electric Hybrid Vehicles (PEHVs).

“It felt just like a normal car,” Ringwald says. “Electric vehicles are definitely taking off and have tremendous potential.”

Are solar cars the vehicles of the future? Probably not, says Wesley Ford, head of the Stanford Solar Car Project, a group of Stanford University students who design and build solar-powered race cars. Ford says that the amount of sunlight that falls on the earth is insufficient to power a modern car equipped with air conditioning, heated seats, and other energy-hungry amenities we’ve come to expect.

But that doesn’t mean solar car technology isn’t important. Alumni of the Stanford Solar Car team include the founders of Bay Area-based electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors. Students working on the solar car project have helped to develop several key technologies that are now found in most electric vehicles.

“Homes that use a combination of solar, wind, and other sustainable fuel sources could power a nationwide fleet of battery electric vehicles,” Ford says. “Our team’s cars serve to highlight the potential connection between green energy sources, electric transportation, and the future of the automotive industry.”

Xenith, the Stanford team’s most recent creation, boasts an array of cutting-edge engineering achievements that enable the spaceship-like vehicle to achieve constant speeds of more than 55 miles per hour, powered entirely by solar panels. The car was driven successfully across the Australian outback. The Stanford team plans to unveil an even more aerodynamic and efficient vehicle in 2013.