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Solar-Powered Cars: How Do They Work?

A solar vehicle is primarily powered by direct solar energy. Photovoltaic cells (PVC) are installed on the car to collect and convert solar energy into electric energy. Made of silicon and alloys of indium, gallium and nitrogen, the semiconductors absorb light and then release it, creating a flow of electrons that generate electricity.

The first solar car was introduced in 1955 at a Chicago auto show. It was 15 inches long, featured 12 PVC cells and was called the Sunmobile. Its solar-power-operated, 1.5-volt motor turned the driveshaft and transferred the energy to propel the wheels.

Seven years later, the first full-size solar-powered car, a 50-year-old Baker, was unveiled as a concept car. But it was never mass-produced. Numerous other solar-powered cars, some with odd names like Bluebird and Quiet Achiever, had their moments of fame in auto shows and competitions.

In more recent years, several Japanese and American carmakers have also introduced solar-powered hybrid cars. The concept-only vehicles have ranged from using solar power to run accessories to cells installed inside headlights. In the mid-1980s, Mazda’s solar offering was the Senku, while Ford unveiled the Reflex and Cadillac had the Provoq.

None of the manufacturers’ solar-powered cars made it to the public. And likewise, the ambitious French-made Venturi Electric, which combined a solar-, wind- and battery-powered engine, didn’t make it. The Venturi held only three passengers and had a maximum speed of 30 mph.

Transforming concept solar cars into publicly available solar cars poses a few questions. How does the car travel at night? Is the solar car only feasible in states where the sun shines a majority of the time? Ford aims to solve these issues with the introduction this week of the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept car.