The 2017 World Solar Challenge is underway with its largest-ever field, unsurprising given the astonishing strides solar-powered and electric cars have made since the last race. The 42 teams involved aren't about to mass market their products, but the recent explosive growth of both solar-powered and electric cars has made combining them a live issue.
The first day of the event saw Tokai University's Tokai Challenger take the lead in the Challenger Class, where cars are judged on speed. It averaged 80.8 kilometers per hour (50.2 miles per hour) over the 322-kilometer (200-mile) first stage from Darwin to Katherine in Australia, but still had plenty of competition snapping at its heels.
Meanwhile, in the Cruiser Class, where vehicles carry a passenger and are more similar to something that could one day be road-worthy, the contest looked to be over from the get-go. The leading cruiser – the Dutch Stella Vie – scored 80 points on a system that incorporates practicality and energy efficiency. The second-ranked team had 50.5 points, despite the fact that the South Australian Minister for Tourism predicted that the Dutch team, which won the class in the last two challenges, would get “a run for their money”.
The second day confirmed the closeness of the cruiser race, with the Tokai Challenger dropping its average speed slightly and being overtaken by the Dutch Nuna 9, which was just 0.2 km/h (0.12 mph) faster. Meanwhile, among the cruisers, Stella Vie outscored the next two teams combined.
Building a solar car is still no easy feat. Tushka Hashi III barely made it out of Darwin before hitting trouble, but as the product of a high school (Mississippi Choctaw) it is perhaps more remarkable it made the race at all, later recovering and completing the second stage. In the meantime, cars with more institutional backing also spent time on the sidelines.
The origins of the competition trace back to 1982, when Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins did what many considered impossible – they crossed a continent in a car powered entirely by sunlight. At the time, solar panels were largely used for satellites – where most other power sources are impractical – or for applications that use only small amounts of power. Even many renewable energy advocates doubted that the then inefficient and very expensive photovoltaic cells would play a big part in the world's future.