August 31, 1955: The first solar powered car makes its debut
Solar power has been around in some capacity since at least the 3rd century BCE when the Romans used mirrors to reflect the sun’s light and ignite their ceremonial torches. Fast-forward several hundred years to 1954 when the first photovoltaic cell was invented, allowing us to convert sunlight into raw, usable energy. From there, it’s been an ongoing and ever-improving process to harness the power of the nearest star and put it to use.
PVC: More than just a pipe dream
Photovoltaic cells or PVC are the tiny individual units that, together, make up solar panels. In the most basic sense, solar cells work by directing the electrical current generated when photons from the sun strike the surface of the cell, releasing electrons from their atoms. This flow of electrons generates, you guessed it, electricity. For a more detailed explanation of how solar panels work, we’ll let NASA do the talking.
Soaking up the sun
The first solar-powered automobile was revealed in 1955. Designed by William Cobb of General Motors, the tiny vehicle was barely more than a foot long and was powered by a dozen photovoltaic cells on the roof. At 15 inches long, the Sunmobile was too small to drive. Three years later, the International Rectifier Company fitted a 1912 Baker electric car to run off of solar power, though they didn’t release their design until 1962. Despite being late to the solar-powered car party, their refitted classic became the first drivable solar-powered vehicle in history.
Today, we’ve hit crunch time for sustainable energy. With more incentive than ever to create vehicles that run off of anything but fossil fuels, automotive designers are toying once again with the idea of the solar-powered car. Photovoltaic technology has come a long way from where it was in the 1950s, but are we ready for a fully-solar vehicle? As of 2019, yes we are.