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Did You Know That The First Solar-Powered Car Came Out In 1955?

Most people are no strangers to solar power. It’s been used since the 3rd century BCE, when the Romans used mirrors to reflect sunlight, and now it’s used by millions to make their morning coffee or tea before work.

But everything changed when the first photovoltaic cell was invented in 1954, allowing us to convert sunlight into raw, usable energy. It was a game-changer, and you wouldn’t have incredible solar-powered homes without this groundbreaking discovery. But solar powered cars seem to have eluded the mass market, although they are getting closer…

Photo: Flickr.com/King Huang

Photovoltaic Cells

What exactly makes up solar panels? Photovoltaic cells. Without getting too technical, photovoltaic solar cells direct the electrical current generated when photons from the sun strike the surface of the cell. This releases electrons from their atoms, and generates electricity. Of course, you can always ask NASA for a more detailed explanation. But photovoltaic cells were key when William Cobb of General Motors made automotive history.

Photo: Flickr.com/General Motors Powerama 1955

The First Solar-Powered Vehicle

The first solar-powered vehicle was unveiled in 1955 by Cobb at the General Motors Powerama auto show in Chicago. Called the Sunmobile, the car was only about 15 inches long, and was powered by photovoltaic cells on the roof. When sunlight hit 12 photoelectric cells made of selenium that were built into the Sunmobile, an electric current was produced that powered the car’s tiny motor. The motor turned the driveshaft of the vehicle, which was connected to its rear axle.

However, the car was so small that obviously nobody was able to drive it. While it was displayed and promoted as a mini car of the future, it was definitely not the luxury car you would imagine today. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1958, that the International Rectifier Company fitted a 1912 Baker electric car to run off of solar power, making it the very first drivable solar-powered vehicle ever.

Photo: Flickr.com/Benton Greene

Still Working On It …

Even more than half a century after Cobb’s debut of the Sunmobile, there’s still no mass-produced solar car available for purchase by the public.

Of course, plenty of people have come up with designs for what they think the perfect solar powered vehicle should look like. So many in fact, that competitions are regularly held worldwide to let designers show off their sun-powered creations, and pit them against others in road races like the 2008 North American Solar Challenge.

Today, everybody is all about sustainable energy, and being as natural as possible. That means creating vehicles that run off anything besides fossil fuels, giving you a sweet ride that’s nice to look at as well as good for the environment. What comes next when it comes to photovoltaic technology? Only time will tell, but it’s a good bet that there’ll be a solar powered car manufactured on a wide-spread basis, one of these days.