The World Solar Challenge over, now the real race begins

Will 2018 be the year of the road-legal solar car?

Speed bumps

TeamArrow are not the first to attempt the feat. UNSW has been trying to get its solar-powered Sunswift eVe car road legal for close to two years.

While states and territories approve vehicles to run on their own roads, the UNSW team sought national registration from the outset.

Documentation for national registration were first submitted at the end of 2015, and the team has been playing “bureaucratic ping-pong ever since” someone close to the project told Computerworld.

The university has hired an independent automotive engineering consultant to help them through the process which is nearing completion. The team is now dealing with a kick-back from NSW authorities, requiring they modify a door latching mechanism.

The Sono Motors Sion concept car
The Sono Motors Sion concept car

Others have joined the race too. German company Sono Motors unveiled a fully functional prototype of its Sion solar car earlier this year. The company is now seeking its target of 5000 pre-orders (it currently has close to half that number) to commence commercial production, which is slated for mid-2019.

Chinese firm Hanergy launched four concept solar cars last year, saying it expected to go into production within two or three years. Those plans may have been scuppered by the company’s founder Li Hejun who was last month disqualified from the management of any corporation in Hong Kong for eight years.

Sunny side up

Using a solar-powered car for day to day driving will require some changes in behavior by the driver, Tuesley explains. But that needn’t be a chore.

“With these cars – they’re much smaller, they’re lighter, they’re more aerodynamic – you can drive to work, leave it out in the sun in the car park at work, and drive home. You’ll have more power than you had when you left in the morning. So they can genuinely be used as general everyday road going cars, without plugging them in,” Tuesley says.

“You run out of battery, you go get a coffee. We’ve had test days where we run out of battery and we just go and get lunch.”

While the ArrowSTF will have a 1000-kilometre charge range, on cloudy days, drivers can make use of the more than 350 electric vehicle charging stations across Australia, with more being added all the time.

Although that slightly misses the point, Tuesley says. While electric cars are better for the environment since they don’t emit harmful pollutants, they can hardly be considered ‘green’.

“You go and plug your electric car into a wall – the vast majority of Australian power still comes from coal or gas. So you’ve taken your petrol powered car and you’ve basically turned it into a coal powered car,” says Tuesley.

“Even if you’ve got a Tesla, which is great, they’ve got a 100kilowatt battery in them. If I charge up a Tesla in Brisbane it would take three or four days with the biggest solar array I’m allowed to put on my house to charge that car up. So instead I’m charging it out of the wall, from a power station in Ipswich which runs on coal. That’s the reality.”

Solar cars won’t be for everyone, but like Tesla has, TeamArrow may find a market among the rich and forward-thinking. And with Australia’s petrol car manufacturing industry now declared dead, solar cars perhaps promise a new dawn for the sector. 

The ArrowSTFs will be built to order – the Gorilla glass coated solar cells are individually handcrafted – and sold for around $250,000.

“They’re not going to be cheap and cheerful. They’re going to be an exotic item, like a Ferrari or Lamborghini, where they’re not necessarily practical, but they are desirable for different reasons,” says Tuesley. “People will seek to own one for the prestige of having something different and having something interesting.”

Arrow STF planned specifications:

  • Two seat sports car
  • Five square metres of 24.4 per cent efficient custom-made solar arrays. "Creating the most efficient ultra light weight solar array in the world," the company says
  • Approximately three times more aerodynamically efficient than a traditional car
  • Twin motor configuration.
  • Power systems by Tritium, world leaders in solar electric car power systems and used by every category winner in the 2015 World Solar Challenge
  • Lightweight lithium Ion battery pack
  • 300 to 400 km range at highway speeds
  • 1000+ km range at city driving speeds
  • Fast charger compatible plug
  • Storage space in both boot and bonnet

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