The History of the Solar-Powered Car

The history of solar-powered cars began as a humble 15-inch solar-powered car model made of balsa wood in 1955. Along the way, many marvelous innovations have emerged. There are now solar car races around the globe, the fastest solar car achieved a speed of 56.75 miles per hour, and there are mass-produced solar-powered cars on the close horizon. This timeline of solar cars from Solar Power Guide celebrates the advances in solar technology and can help us to imagine the bright opportunities to come:

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What Is a Solar Car?

A solar vehicle uses self-contained photovoltaic cells to propel itself using solar energy. These vehicles typically contain a rechargeable battery that can store energy from the solar cells as well as capture kinetic energy from braking. Some solar cars can be plugged in to supplement the power of sunlight.

What Was the First Solar-Powered Car?

When was the solar-powered car invented? In 1955, General Motors employee William G. Cobb constructed a solar car prototype called the Sunmobile. It was a 15-inch solar-powered automobile model that was comprised of 12 selenium photovoltaic cells, a balsa wood body, and a tiny electric motor. These solar cells converted sunlight directly into electricity, which in turn powered a small low-inertia motor. This motor rotated at 2,000 rpm and operated on 1.5 volts. The motor’s energy was transferred to the Sunmobile’s drive shaft, which then traveled through its rear axle by a pulley to the wheels, which propelled the car forward. He showcased this model solar panel car at the 1955 General Motors Powerama to more than 2,000,000 visitors. This was the first ever demonstration of a vehicle being powered by solar energy.

What Was the First Solar-Powered Car That Could Be Driven by a Person?

In 1976, Alan Freeman developed the first solar car that could be legally driven. This three-wheeled vehicle, crafted with fiberglass into an aerodynamic shape, was powered by both sunlight and pedals. By 1981, road tax for electric vehicles in the U.K. was reduced to zero, so Freeman insured and registered his invention. Unfortunately, the unreliable sunlight in Britain made the vehicle inefficient overall, but it paved the way for future solar car innovations.

What Was the First Long-Distance Solar-Powered Car?

In December of 1982, the Quiet Achiever became the first practical long-distance solar-powered car when it completed the first transcontinental journey powered entirely by photovoltaic solar cells. It was manned by Australian adventurer Hans Tholstrup and developed by Australian brothers Larry and Garry Perkins with a sponsorship from BP. The Quiet Achiever traversed Australia from west to east, approximately 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers), with an average speed of 14 miles per hour. This incredible journey was completed in under 20 days! To put this into perspective, the first gasoline-powered car took 30 days to complete the same trip.

Thostrup initially had the idea of solar car racing because he had an interest in conserving non-renewable resources. Inspired by the Sunmobile, the Quiet Achiever was crafted by hand from fiberglass and steel tubing, similar to a lightweight aircraft. It was equipped with a photovoltaic power system rated at 1 kilowatt, consisting of two rows of ten 36-cell solar panels that were linked together. When the journey began at Scarborough Beach, a bottle of seawater from the Indian Ocean was collected. It was carried across Australia in the Quiet Achiever before being poured into the Pacific Ocean at Sydney.

The awe-inspiring success of the Quiet Achiever’s trek compelled Tholstrup to launch the annual World Solar Challenge in 1987, a solar-powered racing contest located in Australia. It is now considered to be the world championship of solar car racing.

The Fascinating History of the Solar Car


Event and Date


Invention of the first model solar panel car
General Motors employee William G. Cobb designed the Sunmobile, which was made up of 12 selenium photovoltaic cells and a tiny electric motor.
Debut of the first solar car that could be legally driven
Alan Freeman developed a three-wheeled vehicle that was powered by both sunlight and pedals. In 1981, the UK stopped taxing electric vehicles, so he registered and insured his invention so it could be used on the road.
Debut of the Ugly Duckling, the first civilian car powered partially by solar energy
Developed by a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University, it weighed more than 1,320 pounds and had 432 solar cells creating 400 watts of peak power.
December 1982
The Quiet Achiever becomes the first practical long-distance solar-powered car
Larry Perkins and Hans Tholstrup performed the first manned transcontinental journey using only solar power, traversing the width of Australia. The car was hand-built in a similar fashion as a lightweight aircraft and had an average speed of 14 miles per hour.
Switzerland hosts the Tour de Sol, the first ever rally for solar-powered vehicles
Seventy-two vehicles participated, and 50 finished the trek, powered entirely by onboard solar power and one initial charge of the onboard accumulators. Thousands of spectators lined up on the roads to observe the race. It triggered a revolution
First ever Australian World Solar Challenge
The first ever international solar racing event drew 23 participants inspired by the trailblazing feats of the Quiet Achiever. GM’s Sunraycer takes first place with an average speed of 42 mph.
First ever American Solar Challenge
The University of Michigan’s Sunrunner won the first edition of this annual solar car race, originally called Sunrayce USA, which spans nearly 2,000 miles across the United States.
The Solar Car Challenge commences
An annual U.S.-based solar-powered car race for students that attracts teams from around the world. The first race was won by Los Altos Academy of Engineering’s Cool Runnings.
First ever Formula Sun Grand Prix
An annual solar-car race that takes place on closed-loop race tracks, governed by the Innovators Educational Foundation. The first edition was won by the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s Solar Phantom V.
Nuon’s Nuna 3 wins the World Solar Challenge
Developed by the Delft University of Technology, it achieved an average speed of 63.85 mph.
January 2007
Jaycar Sunswift III breaks the world record for the fastest solar car journey across Australia
The team finished the journey within 5.5 days, beating the previous record by 3 days. The car was capable of carrying a passenger (facing backward), which was the first step toward a practical everyday-use solar car.
First ever Sasol Solar Challenge takes place in South Africa
Tokai University’s solar car, the Tokai Falcon, won the race.
First Palestinian solar-powered car built from scratch
Engineering students constructed a solar-powered vehicle with limited funds and resources that was capable of reaching 12 mph.
Debut of the Solar Spirit III
The vehicle was built by TAFE South Australia for the 2011 World Solar Challenge.
January 2011
Guinness land speed record for solar-powered vehicles is achieved
Invented by the University of New South Wales, the Sunswift IV set a record of 55.2 mph over a 1,600-foot distance.
The World Solar Challenge is renamed the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge
Racers from around the globe raced in solar vehicles across 1,878 miles (3,000 km) of the Australian outback. There were three classes to represent the diversity of solar electric vehicles.
The Phoenix wins the Formula Sun Grand Prix
Created by the solar team at Oregon State University, the Phoenix raced 661 miles on nothing but solar energy.
The Stella Lux “family car” wins in the Cruiser Class of the World Solar Challenge
Developed by the Eindhoven University of Technology, it was considered the world’s first solar-powered family car.
Sky Ace TIGA earns the Guinness world record for the fastest solar-powered vehicle
This solar-powered tricycle, constructed by Ashiya University and driven by Kenjiro Shinozuka, achieved a speed of 56.75 mph (91.3 km/h). Since it had three wheels, it was not classified as a car.
Sunswift eVe breaks the record for the fastest electric car over 500 km (310 mi)
It achieved an average speed of 66 mph (107 km/h).
The Guinness world record for the lowest energy consumption by an electric car driving across Australia is achieved
The record was set by Sunswift VI (Violet), which was invented by the UNSW Solar Racing Team.
Lightyear One, a long-range solar-electric car, is announced by Atlas Technologies
“Designed for independence,” the vehicle costs $170,000 and is expected to be available in 2022.
Sunseeker wins the 2019 Formula Sun Grand Prix
Created by the Western Michigan University solar race car team, it cost just $7,000 to build (other teams’ solar arrays cost up to $1 million).
December 2020
Aptera Motors begins taking pre-orders for the Aptera, the first mass-produced solar-powered car
Costing $25,900 to $44,900, the Aptera has been described as the first solar electric vehicle that requires no charging for most daily use. It can achieve 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
January 2021
Sono Motors reveals the Sion solar car
Available for preorder for $34,000 from German company Sono Motors, the Sion has an expected range of up to 190 miles (305 km).
July 2021
Squad Mobility launches the Squad Solar City Car, a two-seater that can run entirely on sunlight
Available for preorder for $6,800 from Amsterdam-based startup Squad Mobility, the Squad Solar City Car has a range of 12 miles and a max speed of 28 mph, making it ideal for city errands.

Written and designed by Joe Robertson