The world's longest solar-powered car race is underway and, for the first time, includes Canadian stops. From July 17 to 27, approximately 30 university teams are competing in the North American Solar Challenge, driving from Austin, Texas, to Calgary, Alta.–roughly 4,000 kilometres–powered solely by the sun.
The race started in 2001 to promote a greater understanding of solar-energy technology. Solar cars still have their setbacks: thanks to the space taken up by the panels, they have limited seating (one or two people) and very little room for cargo; they also can only be driven during the day. Daniel Yum, solar-team project leader for the University of Waterloo, says the inherent problem with solar cars is the limited amount of power you get from the sun in a square metre area.
Solar cars aren't cheap, either. Right now, the solar array alone–the 3,000 or so solar cells that cover the car–costs almost half a million dollars to develop. When you include the rest of the parts, research and development, and the thousands of man-hours going into a single solar car, the vehicle's total cost comes close to a million dollars, according to Jeremy Wilson, Queen's University's student solar-vehicle team business manager. With budgets of about $300,000, the Canadian teams competing in the challenge rely on sponsors and donations to build their cars.
Even though solar cars are limited, the technology is being incorporated into practical applications. One example is Audi's A8 models, which offer solar sunroofs. The glass sunroof panel uses light-sensitive elements to power the ventilation system inside the car. Even when the car's ignition is off, fresh air flows through the vehicle at all times, reducing the temperature inside by as much as 50%.
You can bet team drivers will be feeling the heat during the race–solar car cockpits are known for getting toasty. Armchair drivers can follow the race online at www.americansolarchallenge.org, thanks to Calgary-based CSI Wireless Inc.'s tracking technology, Asset-Link. When the cars roll into Calgary on the 27th, let's hope it's a sunny day.