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Solar-powered cars are challenging some of the most popular EV brands — and they can drive for weeks without charging

"This is not like going from the flip phone technology to a smartphone."

Electric vehicle

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Auto manufacturers are racing to develop the latest and greatest cars. One trend we're seeing is the rise of solar-powered cars, but how are these sun-powered machines different from other electric vehicles?

What are electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are battery-powered cars that use electric motors rather than an internal combustion engine for propulsion. When you charge an EV, the electricity gets stored in a large traction battery pack. This electricity gets used by an electric traction motor to drive the car's wheels.

Gasoline vehicles have internal combustion engines that burn gasoline fuel to drive the wheels, releasing toxic fumes and harmful carbon pollution. These engines also produce noise pollution, or excessive noise and vibration.

Each year these gas-powered cars produce 3.3 billion tons of carbon pollution worldwide. Carbon air pollution traps heat from the sun within our atmosphere, causing the planet to overheat and extreme weather events like hurricanes to intensify. 

It affects our health, too — fumes from car exhaust can cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory issues.

Since EVs only run on electricity, they don't pollute the air. One study even found that having more EVs meant fewer emergency room visits for breathing problems. And compared to internal combustion engines, electric engines don't produce nearly as much noise pollution.

A disadvantage of EVs is that we can't always control where the electricity that charges these cars comes from — sometimes it means using dirty energy to drive a clean-energy car.

Why isn't everyone adopting an EV?

EVs now make up 10% of all new car sales, but early adoption of new technology — like cars that don't need to stop for gas — can be scary, though this technology isn't very new anymore.

Today, there's an abundance of EVs on the market at the lowest prices we've ever seen, and public charging infrastructure is expanding across the nation. This still isn't enough for some drivers to trust the switch to electric cars

One of the biggest hangups is range anxiety — defined as the fear an EV will run out of charge before reaching its destination and leaving its passengers stranded.

Though this is a bigger issue for long-distance travel rather than the majority of Americans that drive less than 30 miles a day, range anxiety is still enough to stop people from even considering the money-saving and electric alternatives to gas-powered cars.

Solar-powered cars, on the other hand, can practically erase these fears with the ability to get energy for free.

What are solar-powered cars?

Solar-powered cars (SPCs) are EVs completely or partially powered by direct solar energy. An array of photovoltaic cells converts sunlight into usable electric energy. 

The panels on today's SPCs can add between 15 and 45 additional miles in sunny conditions. When this free energy isn't powering the car's propulsion, it gets stored in the car's battery.

SPCs have the same clean air and noise reduction benefits as other EVs but offer greater range independence.

California-based Aptera Motors and Dutch company Lightyear have led innovation by producing some of the first SPCs to hit the market. And there's more to come. The 2024 Kia EV9 is partially powered by a solar panel built into the hood.

There have been a few setbacks for these solar car companies, and it will take some time before we start seeing SPCs in Super Bowl commercials

"This is not like going from the flip phone technology to a smartphone, where they suddenly obsolete everything else," AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson told CNBC. "This is a decadeslong journey from the internal combustion engine to electrification, but it's here."

In the meantime, there are a few solutions. One is to power charging stations with clean energy, like the English Shell station that converted to chargers equipped with solar panel awnings. 

Another solution is to reduce EV charging anxiety — using electric vehicle apps to find charging points, ensuring your EV has a full charge before a long journey, and taking stops along your route as opportunities to charge. 

To help other EV drivers, you can also call in any issues with a charging point to get them resolved.

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