On August 31st 1955, William Cobb, an employee at General Motors, gave a demonstration of his new, solar powered “Sunmobile” at the General Motors Powerama car show in Chicago, Illinois.
The Powerama car show lasted about a month, at a cost of 7 million dollars, and displayed all the latest, high tech automobile inventions. More than 250 free exhibits were spread out over about a million square feet of real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan. Millions of people attended the event.
William Cobb's vehicle was a 15-inch-long, miniature model of an automobile. Cobb's creation was the first introduction of photovoltaics (solar power) to the auto industry, and to Powerama's two million attendees. Cobb's model showed how rays from the sun are converted into electricity when reflected off particular surfaces. Cobb's car, which had a very light body made of balsa wood, along with a tiny electric motor and a simple, pulley operated drive mechanism, moved forward on its little rubber tires when the sun's rays hit it. It was the new big thing. The applause must have been deafening! Soon, all automobiles would be powered by nothing but sunlight.
As of today, the best thing the auto makers have come up with is a hybrid automobile that runs partly on electricity, but mostly on gas. The 1997 Toyota Prius was the first example of a hybrid car. Only a small part of the car's options (like the air conditioner, for instance) are run by solar power. Toyota also has another model planned, which relies even more on solar energy, and recharges from solar panels placed on the roofs of the owners' homes. Still, if what you really want are power and speed, you basically have to burn something. The sun, from such a great distance away, has very limited power to make things run on earth.
At the time, it was noted by General Motors that, even if the solar cells ran at 100 percent efficiency, it would only produce 12 horsepower, which was not enough to power an average (drivable) vehicle.
The first drivable solar powered car was created in 1962. It was a redesigned Baker with ten thousand solar cells. In 1982, a vehicle powered entirely by photovoltaic solar cells, called the Quiet Achiever, successfully trekked across Australia from east to west. It traveled at an average speed of about 14 miles per hour.
Still, even today, a mass produced, solar powered vehicle has not yet hit the market. However, solar car competitions are held all over the world, in which photovoltaic cars race each other and drive long distances. For instance, the 2008 North American Solar Challenge involved a 2,400-mile race from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
So far, no entirely solar powered vehicles are road ready. The ones that do exist are kind of like golf carts, designed to be driven around estates at about the speed a person can jog. However, many gasoline stations now include battery recharging stations for electric and hybrid transportation devices.