Image: Richard Freeman. UNSW Sunswift solar powered EV car.
With 0-100kph acceleration in 10-12 seconds, solar electric vehicles (s-EVs) will not be a contender for a spot in a Formula 1 race. Ever.
However, a former Red Bull team manager thinks he can at least make them useful for the kind of driving that Australia wants: super long distance.
“I’m not convinced that battery electric technology is the ‘droids we’re looking for’. There needs to be other solutions out there. Those solution will be a mixture of all,” Richard Hopkins, a professor at UNSW Sydney, told The Driven.
“There will be a sense of modularity that we can choose a vehicle depending on our user needs. We won’t necessarily choose a car because we like the look of it, we’ll be choosing it because it suits our needs, or our family needs, or it suits a distance. You could order a battery EV Uber to get around the city but hire a fuel cell car to drive from Sydney to Canberra.”
For Hopkins the “mix” of solutions means a car that uses a combination of low pressure hydrogen fuel cells (seed funding for a prototype to be built in the next 12 months is in the offing) melded with a solar panel-fueled battery.
Guinness test for local S-EV
Part of Hopkins’ theory will be tested on Saturday when the student-built Sunswift 7 attempts to set a Guinness record for Fastest Electric Vehicle over 1000km on a single charge on a 10 hour sprint at the Australian Automotive Research Centre in Wensleydale, Victoria.
“There isn’t a production electric car on the market today that could go 1000km on a single charge, not even the most advanced Tesla, so we are trying to demonstrate what is ultimately achievable if you focus on efficiency,” he said.
To date, the 1000km mark has been successfully tested by Toyota’s second generation hydrogen fuel cell car Mirai, which cracked that milestone in May 2021 with 9km left in the tank.
The Sunswift 7 team is also looking to make a mark in distance rather than speed — given it accelerates at 12 seconds from 0-100kph.
“Our car is built for efficiency, it’s not built for performance. So the motors we run are very low in torque, whereas a Tesla motor is high in torque. With our car you put your foot on the accelerator and you might need a calendar for when you get to 100,” Hopkins said.
Solar panels on the roof, bonnet and boot and a standard 38 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery power motors in each rear wheel in an overall system that is 98 per cent efficient.
The “ridiculously slippery” car can get 1300km from it 38kWh battery and solar panels. To put that in context, the Tesla Model S gets just over 500km from a 100kWh battery.
“We get more performance in the sun. We can go further and the car can arguably drive faster in the sun. If you take the sun away the car is reliant on the battery and you get less ‘performance’,” he said.
He compared the car to a Tesla Model S: 560kg (without windscreen wipers, safety features or air con) versus around 2000kg, and energy consumption of about 3.2 kWh per 100km compared to 22 kWh per 100km.
First production S-EV
In late November, Dutch company Lightyear launched what it says is the first series production solar electric car.
The Lightyear 0 production car out of the factory will be built at a factory in Uusikaupunki, Finland, with plans to produce one car per week before scaling up in 2023.
The Lightyear 0 has a small 60kWh battery providing a promised range of 625km supplemented by its own solar power delivering some 70km of additional daily range.
Sono Motors and Aptera Motors are both seeking to produce solar EVs and also claim the ‘first’ title.