The Tech Behind the Winning Solar Car

A mix of satellite-grade solar cells, good batteries, a new motor, and a little luck

3 min read

The race stats are impressive: 3000 kilometers over four days on zero gas, zero emissions, and an average speed of 100 kilometers per hour. That's how Japan's Tokai Challenger solar car came in first at the 2009 Global Green Challenge in Australia on 29 October, roughly three hours ahead of second place Nuon Solar Team from the Netherlands and the team from the University of Michigan, which came in third. There were 29 other also-rans as well. The race (previously called the World Solar Challenge) has taken place every two or three years since 1987 and runs from Darwin in northern Australia through the country's sun-baked center to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.

The victorious Tokai Challenger broke a streak of four previous consecutive wins by Nunas,  a succession of cars designed and built by teams at the Netherland's Delft University of Technology. The only other Japanese team to triumph before was one from Honda Motor Co., in 1993 and 1996.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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