Delft, Netherlands - The age of the electric car is just about upon us; this much is made clear by the stands at this week's Frankfurt motor show being littered with battery-powered production cars and concepts.
But replacing the internal combustion engine with cars that get charged at wall sockets is, according to some, itself just a stepping stone to a future of self-powered cars that require neither combustible fuel nor electricity from pollution-generating power stations.
They believe the real end game is to have a solar electric car that's charged by nothing more than the rays of the sun, and to kickstart this idea of a fume-free utopia the inaugural Energy Independent Electric Vehicles conference is being held in the Netherlands on September 27-28.
"Energy independent electric vehicles (EIVs) are propelled entirely by electricity produced on-board from ambient energy," says a conference spokesman.
One such car being developed is by Solar Team Eindhoven, a group of engineering students from the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. After winning World Solar Challenge races with its Stella and Stella Lux energy positive solar cars the team has launched a new start-up called Lightyear to build a street-legal version of the racing car.
Using the sun as a free and abundant source of energy is nothing new; making it practical is the trick, but the team believes it can build a car that people will be happy to drive to work every day.
To achieve positive energy output - meaning cars that can produce more energy than they consume - Solar Team Eindhoven designed the Stella Lux to be extremely aerodynamic and employed lightweight materials such as carbon fibre and aluminium. However, it was built for competition and making a street-legal vehicle that can be sold to the public is somewhat more demanding. Nevertheless Lightyear thinks it's getting there and claims it's created “the electric car that charges itself”.
“The Lightyear One charges itself with clean solar power," says a Lightyear spokesman. "In sunny conditions it can drive for months without charging, a truly unique capability. The battery stores energy to ensure you can drive at night. It offers great peace of mind.”
The student engineers claim that the car will be able to generate enough energy to travel 10 000 to 20 000 km per year depending on the climate.
They're already taking reservations, with a refundable deposit of €19 000 (R346 000) for an expected final price of €119 000 (R1.9-million). It's a pricetag that will scare off anyone but the most devoted and well-heeled greenies but, as with most things, ongoing development and economies of scale could eventually push the price down into something the masses can afford.
For now things are happening on a very small scale. Lightyear is planning to start with a first production run of ten cars in 2019 and then build 100 more in 2020. But you have to start somewhere, and many a great idea (the horseless carriage itself, for instance) was ridiculed at the concept stage only to become the norm. Perhaps solar-powered cars will be commonplace amongst our great-grandchildren.
The breeding ground for solar cars
The World Solar Challenge in Australia and the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa are biennial international competitions for teams to design, build and drive solar-powered vehicles as far as they can.
The Dutch Nuon team from Delft University of Technology achieved 4 717km in winning last year's eight-day Sasol Solar Challenge from Pretoria to Cape Town, breaking the world record of most kilometers driven in a solar race with their single-seater Nuna 8 car (below).
Solar Team Eindhoven's Stella Lux won the Cruiser Class (for more practical solar cars with 2–4 occupants) of 2015 World Solar Challenge in Australia by driving 3 022 km through the Australian Outback at an average speed of of 76.73 km/h.