Solar powered fan cars are typically custom-built affairs that prioritize function over form.
Daniel Theobald, the CTO of healthcare company Vecna, has been driving a solar-powered Volkswagen bus for a year.
His project won’t transform the auto industry overnight. But by taking on what most engineers would consider foolishly ambitious—a solar-powered car—he’s created a proof of concept that could lead to commercial solar vehicles, at least for some uses. In the process, he and his colleagues have created power electronics technology that could be applied to other products for Cambridge, MA-based Vecna, including its delivery robots for hospitals.
Certainly, combining solar power and electric vehicles isn’t new. Many EV owners have rooftop panels on the homes. And some Toyota Prius models are equipped with solar cells embedded into the roof, which power a fan to cool the car. But making car-attached panels serve as the primary energy source is very hard. The big challenge is that on-board panels put out a tiny amount of juice compared to the power a car needs to run.
Theobald was also under the impression that a solar-powered car was essentially impossible. But he wanted an electric or hybrid car that could transport his large family, so he decided to challenge his assumptions and see where it would lead. He bought a 1966 Volkswagen minibus off Craigslist, converted it to electric power (in an afternoon), and started reengineering the vehicle for solar.
His conclusion: “You can have a practical vehicle that runs completely on solar.”
Their shapes are usually dictated by aerodynamics and the placement of solar panels, and there’s often room for only one occupant.
But in taking on the challenge, Theobald and other Vecna engineers working on the project have created technology they’re seeking to patent, which could lead to new business opportunities. For example, airport service vehicles are outside for long periods of time and don’t need to go long distances. This is a situation in which having a solar-powered vehicle—one that wouldn’t necessarily need to be charged by plugging in—could make sense, Theobold says.
“Making practical solar vehicles is something most people wrote off so in many ways, it’s a fairly unexplored problem,” he says. “But there are a lot of applications where solar-powered vehicles make a ton of sense.”
There’s some crossover with Vecna’s current business, too. Engineers are now working to outfit the bus with a lithium-ion battery, which will be used in Vecna’s healthcare robots.
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