How Do They Develop Those Darn Solar Cars Anyway?

Vehicles competing in the Solar World Challenge race may seem hopelessly impractical. However, the 2000 mile competition is a real life test for batteries, motor technology and power-management systems that will hopefully be used in hybrids and electric vehicles. Like Formula 1 and other big-budget motor sports, the solar challenge helps to develop the vehicles that will be up for sale.

"It pushes the technology from the books to real life," said Spencer Quong, senior car analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It opens the industry's eyes to how to build a more efficient vehicle."

For example, the Chevrolet Volt range-extended EV, the upcoming electric car that General Motors has all but staked its future on. The Volt descended directly from the Sunraycer solar car that General Motors developed with AeroVironment and Hughes Aircraft in 1987. Sunraycer did great in the inaugural World Solar Challenge, making a big impression in Detroit.

"The unexpected success of the Sunraycer made GM leadership take notice as to what might be technologically possible," said Jon Bereisa, a veteran member of GM's advanced-propulsion group who is currently working on the Volt. "It finished the race across Australia a full three days ahead of its competitors, powered by an electric motor that consumed as much power as a hair dryer, at speeds up to 45 mph, and the solar-powered batteries were still fully charged."

GM execs were impressed enough to approve the Impact concept car, which developed into the inovative EV1 electric car. GM canceled the EV1 in 2003, but the car continues on in the Volt, which is scheduled for production by the end of next year.

"One might say sunlight and solar started a bright idea after all," Bereisa said.

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