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Solar-powered cars date back 70 years. Tesla’s new ‘Charge on Solar’ shows the idea in a new light

tesla black porshe against sunset with robert downey jr's face on a solar panel
Image Credit: Dmitry Novikov // Unsplash. Illustration by Nate Merritt

It all started with the Sunmobile: the world’s first solar-powered car, which debuted at the end of the summer of 1955 at the Chicago General Motors Powerama auto show. It didn’t exactly take the world by storm, however, because it was only a futuristic model vehicle; a 15-inch long mini-Corvette with just enough solar power garnered through the hood’s 8 photoelectric cells to roll across the stage.

In 1987 — long before the stakes of climate change and the need for a clean energy transition were mainstream — GM showed the world that a solar-powered vehicle wasn’t merely a pipedream. It raced the Sunraycer at the very first World Solar Challenge. The full-sized solar-powered space age-designed speedster not only competed in the 1,950-mile challenge across the Australian terrain but won.

As the National Museum of American History puts it, “Solar vehicles did not enter widespread use, but the GM Sunraycer laid the theoretical and practical foundations that made modern electric and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles feasible for everyday transportation.”

GM Sunraycer at the National Museum of American History
GM Sunraycer at the National Museum of American History // Creative Commons

Still, taking after the Sunraycer’s design, automakers from Toyota to Tesla have toyed with the idea of solar roofs, whether it be with UFO-like racers like the Sunraycer, more modern EVs like the solar-hybrid Prius Prime, or with cars that look like they belong on the animated set of the Jetson’s like Tesla’s Cypertruck.

However, as EVs enter a new age, escaping their niche past, solar vehicles could be a norm on the road. But instead of with large plate-like solar cells secured to the hood like the Sunmobile or PV-paneled roofs, these cars could be charged on sunlight, much like the way a battery-electric vehicle is charged.

This week, Tesla officially launched ‘Charge on Solar’ a feature for newer Teslas that enables them to be charged with home’s excess solar, via the company’s Tesla solar system. Initially named ‘Drive on Sunshine’ when the feature was announced in May, the feature works for Tesla drivers with both home solar and a Powerwall charger.

Charge on Solar Tesla app feature on a phone
Charge on Solar Tesla app feature // Image Credit: Tesla

While Tesla is not new to the idea of solar-powered charging, and powering an EV via a home’s solar arrays is not new, the feature gives Tesla owners a degree of control when doing so like allocating any excess solar power for vehicle charging during a storm or severe weather, setting charge limits, or enabling charging even when the Powerwall is off the grid.

Not to mention, it could help encourage the electrification of homes for existing Tesla owners.

Tesla isn’t the only automaker showing the potential of solar-powered cars, with startups niche like Lightyear, Sono Motors, and Aptera, and student-led teams at the annual Solar Car Challenge all taking the idea a bit more literally.

Plus, they might be giving popular EV-makers like Tesla a run for their money, as some can reportedly drive for months without charging. But automakers, big and small, aren’t giving up on the idea of a mass-market (literally) solar-powered car.

Like the ‘50s style Sunmobile, in 2024, Kia will be debuting the EV9, a hybrid that will be partially powered by a solar panel built into the hood and by the end of 2025, the Dutch automaker Lightyear will begin production of its four-door battery-electric fastback with both a plug and solar panels. Its sticker price is promised to be under $43,000.

For now, however, the closest most EV owners can get to a solar-powered car is by charging with excess power garnered by their rooftop solar panels. However, that may not always be the case.

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