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In Energy History: The World’s First Solar-Powered Car Debuts

While new electric cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are making waves in the automotive industry, concepts of vehicles running off of alternative energy are older than many people may realize. The world’s first solar-powered automobile debuted at the General Motors Powerama auto show in Chicago, Illinois back in 1955.

William G. Cobb of General Motors Corp. demonstrated his 15-inch-long “Sunmobile” and introduced the field of photovoltaics (the process by which sunlight is converted into electricity when exposed to certain surfaces) into the gasoline-fueled automotive industry.

Built into the rudimentary Sunmobile were 12 photoelectric cells made of selenium. When sunlight hit the cells, an electric current was produced that powered a tiny motor, which was connected to a driveshaft connected to the vehicle’s rear axle by a pulley.

Although more than a half-century later the world has yet to see a mass-produced solar-powered car, that doesn’t mean that nobody’s trying. Solar-car competitions are held around the world, in which design teams pit their solar-powered cars against one another in road races.

And in Japan, Toyota Motor Corp. is working on a long-term solar-powered car project. According to the Nikkei, Toyota’s solar car, which won’t be available for years, will get some of its power from solar cells on the vehicle and will be recharged with electricity generated from solar panels that will be installed on the roofs of car owners’ homes.

The company has also said that it will install solar panels on the roof of the next generation of its electric-gasoline hybrid Prius cars that will supply electricity to help power the car’s air conditioning system.


The History Channel, “William Cobb Demonstrates First Solar-Powered Car

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