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Solar-powered cars may seem like something out of a sci-fi movie, but they're actually way older than you think

The SunMobile is widely recognized as the world's first solar car.

SunMobile, Solar-powered cars

Photo Credit: iStock

Though electric cars and solar power seem like recent eco-friendly trends, they've actually been in development for much longer than many of us realize. Case in point: William G. Cobb of General Motors debuted the world's first solar-powered vehicle, the SunMobile, in 1955.

What is the SunMobile?

The SunMobile is widely recognized as the world's first solar car. Though the vehicle only extended 15 inches in length — more suitable for transporting action figures than human-sized passengers — it showed that solar power could be a viable energy source for the future of transportation.

Cobb first displayed the SunMobile at GM's Powerama auto show in Chicago, which lasted a month in the summer of 1955, according to History.com. While other exhibits showed off military equipment and other oil-based machinery, Cobb's project gave many visitors their first real-life taste of photovoltaics, the conversion of sunlight into electricity. 

The SunMobile featured 12 photoelectric cells composed of the conductor selenium, which, when exposed to the sun's rays, generated electricity that powered the vehicle's motor, according to History.com. Solar power allowed the SunMobile to travel without gasoline or other oil-based power.

Why is SunMobile important?

Though the SunMobile never grew into a drivable, human-sized model, it demonstrated to scientists, businesspeople, and consumers alike that solar-powered vehicles weren't just the stuff of futuristic fantasy but an achievable innovation with real-world applications.

Finding alternatives to gasoline-powered transportation is vital in our collective efforts to curb the dangerous overheating of our planet. The average non-electric car creates over 100,000 pounds of carbon pollution per year, according to the EPA, so it's abundantly clear why we must move away from gasoline and other dirty energy sources. 

Luckily, the prevalence of electric vehicles continues to grow — and that includes solar-powered vehicles, too. 

A Dutch company called Lightyear has attempted to create a new solar-powered car, and the California startup EdisonFuture is actively developing a new solar-powered pickup truck that could hit the market as early as 2025. Meanwhile, more established automobile manufacturers like Kia are finding innovative ways to integrate solar elements into their new electric vehicles.

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