South Africa

Solar-powered cars: How soon can we ditch petrol, diesel and Eskom?

The onslaught of power cuts, electricity tariff hikes and ever-increasing petrol and diesel prices has left South Africans fed-up.

The recent increase in the price of 93 octane petrol by R1.08 per litre to R25.22 and 95 octane petrol by R1.14 per litre to R25.68 has burdened their budgets even more when it comes to travelling. South Africans are fed up. They want change.

Fortunately, there are signs that that change is not too far away, as demonstrated by Bridgestone’s recent Ilanga Cup event, an endurance challenge for solar-powered cars.

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The Solar Flair 2. Image: Devina Haripersad

Solar-powered cars?

A group of car enthusiasts are working on developing cars that run on sunshine. But, it is still a concept that is early in its technology, and one that so far is mainly being pursued by auto-buffs, high-schoolers and university engineering students.

ALSO READ: Solar-powered car makes record breaking trip

Although it might appear that the future’s hopes rest solely in the hands of amateurs, their creations should not be underestimated.

As the Ilanga Cup has illustrated, these are fully operational vehicles that can compete effectively.

The Unisolar team helps its driver out of the pit stop. Video by Devina Haripersad

Ilanga Cup

The Bridgestone Ilanga Cup is the first closed-track endurance race in southern Africa, aimed at promoting renewable energy innovation. It is in its second year running. The annual event provides a controlled setting for local solar car teams to assess their vehicles’ performance, efficiency, and durability ahead of the Sasol Solar Challenge, which is more of an international stage for this technology.

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The Voltwagen. Image: Devina Haripersad

On the track

At the crack of dawn on Wednesday, 4 October 2023, as petrol pumps across the country changed to reflect the new exorbitant price hike in fuels, members of the five solar-car teams woke up to make their way to the Red Star Raceway in Delmas, Mpumalanga, where they would battle it out in a 12-hour long endurance challenge on the racetrack.

red star race track
Red Star Raceway in Mpumalanga. Image: Devina Haripersad.

The vehicles are designed specifically around electric vehicles technology, with the difference that they get their power from the sun rather than a charging station. The teams push their self-assembled vehicles to complete as many laps as possible within 12 hours.  

ALSO READ: TUT Solar Team the new Ilanga Cup Solar Challenge 2022 champions

The teams were the Tshwane University of Technology Solar Car Team (university students), Mpumalanga’s SolarFlairs (car enthusiasts), Genuine JV (high schoolers from John Vorster Hoer Tegnologies Skool), UniSolar (university students from Unisa)  and EVNXT (engineers).

the solar car teams
Pictures: Devina Haripersad

Unique event

Unlike a typical day on the racetrack, there was no revving of loud, boisterous engines or the smell of rubber and fuel burning. There were no exhaust fumes, no high-speed action with near death experiences, and no screeching tyres either.

The solar-car endurance challenge takes a different approach – an environmentally friendly one.

Also, the cars are also not sleek, avant-garde, and easy-on-the-eyes.

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Unisolar’s Tiger has cutting-edge technology beneath its rugged exterior. Image: Devina Haripersad

In fact, they look quite hideous. But, they boast a technology under their rough-around-the-edges hood that is well beyond its time and has the potential to save drivers billions of rands in the future.

@devinaharipersad6 Introducing the ‘Voltwagen’z by the Genuine JV solar car team, a group of high school kids fuelled by a passion for sustainable technology #ilangacup #solarchallenge #solarcar #STEM ♬ Sunrise – Official Sound Studio

Rob Walker, founder and director of the event, said: “The important thing to understand about these vehicles is that the teams were given the freedom to design bold and what you see with all the vehicles here today are different shapes and sizes and that is based on what the team believes is the most efficient design that fits with what they want to achieve, their strategy and their budget. So, it’s very open to allowing the different teams to come up with very different solutions to solve the same problem.”

The challenge lies in optimising the car’s design to maximise the surface area available for solar panels, ensuring it captures sufficient sunlight to generate the required energy for powering the vehicle.

@devinaharipersad6 Meet Bumblebee by The EVNXT team, a group of engineers based in Secunda #ilangacup #solarchallenge #solarcar ♬ It's a Beautiful Day (Reprise) – The Kiffness & Rushawn & Jermaine Edwards

“By definition, these cars are electric vehicles (EVs) so they have an electric motor, powered by a battery. The real difference between them and more commercial EVs is that those EVs get their charge from a charge point and these vehicles get their charge from the solar panels they carry,” he said.

The cars also had to be built from materials that were not too heavy, so it doesn’t need too much power to move it. It also can’t be too light which will put it at risk of being carried away when driven too fast.

“Energy management here is the most important thing. It’s understanding the balance between energy and weight and finding that balance… we call it the search for efficiency… it’s finding that beautiful middle ground where everything balances and you get a solar car that runs into perpetuity,” he said.

Driving experience

Megan Potgieter, driver of ‘the Voltwagen’ designed by pupils of John Vorster Hoer Tegnologies Skool, said that driving the vehicle was “loads of fun” and not too different from driving an automatic commercial vehicle, except for the odd shape which one has to get used to when manoeuvring into parking spots.

“It’s a little bit wider than a normal car, but you get used to it. It’s also really comfortable inside,” she said.

She said the design has incorporated ‘vents’ that keep the car cool on the inside and eliminate the need for a powered-up air-conditioning unit.

Unisolar driver, Teboho Makgotso Hlatshwayo, explained that driving the solar car was very different from a normal car. “It’s much lighter than a normal vehicle and you feel this. There isn’t much leg room but that can be fixed later. But it’s really, really smooth driving,” said the fourth-year mechanical engineering student, who was heavily involved in the design and assemby of the vehicle.

unisolar driver Teboho Makgotso Hlatshwayo
Teboho Makgotso Hlatshwayo in her solar-powered car. Image: Devina Haripersad.

More than a million rand

While these vehicles might appear as if they were assembled in an ordinary garage, they are the product of countless hours of meticulous craftsmanship and consist of components valued at more than a million rand.

Emma-maryn Gouws, sponsorship relations manager for the event, explained that most of the tech had to be imported from overseas.

“The average car cost around R1.3 million to make. Because of this, we have the Ilanga Cup event to test these cars to attract sponsors to the projects. This is done just ahead of the Sasol solar car challenge, with a focus specifically on national teams to help them be on an equal footing as the international teams,” she said.

Key Accounts Manager and Diversified Product Consumer Operations Executive for Bridgestone, Shailesh Singh, explained that the company’s involvement in the Ilanga Cup is in line with its commitment to sustainability, and innovation and encourages the youth to get involved in engineering.

Bridgestone key accounts
Bridgestone’s Shailesh Singh. Image: Devina Haripersad.

He said Bridgestone provided specialised tyres that were designed specifically for solar cars.

“We really try to support the event from a brand perspective, but we leave the engineering and innovation up to the individual teams,” he said.

How much longer before SA can drive solar cars?

Walker does not believe that South Africa will be seeing the mass production of solar-powered cars soon. At least not in the form or shape of the sort of cars society is used to. “The reality is that the energy requirements of a commercial vehicle are so high, that generating enough power from solar panels isn’t a reality just yet.

“But the important part here is that the technology that is being developed in these cars gets commercialised into vehicles you and I can drive.

“We have to think about it in terms of Formula One. The technology they developed in F1 finds its way into commercially available cars. And that’s what we are doing: developing sustainably technology that can then be commercialised into vehicles that we can all drive,” he said.