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Put Some Sunlight in Your Tank

Can a car run on solar? Yes —as long as you don’t need to fit a whole lot in your trunk. And as long as you don’t mind that it doesn’t actually have a trunk. The new solar car from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team might be small on size, but it’s big on ambitions.


Called “Eleanor,” the solar car has a cruising speed of 55 miles per hour — on a sunny day. Even if it’s cloudy, the team said that on a full charge the car’s batteries can hold enough power to drive from Boston to New York without needing any sunlight. That’s more than 200 miles on solar power.

There should be plenty of sunlight where they’re going — the car is set to compete in the World Solar Challenge race across Australia in October. This will be the 10th World Solar Challenge race, which draws teams from around the world for a 1,864 journey from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia. The MIT team grabbed third place in the 2003 race, averaging 56 miles per hour with its last car, the “Tesseract.”

The new car (and the team behind it) will already be road-tested by the time it gets Down Under — the team plans to drive Eleanor across the U.S. this summer in preparation for the Australia race. And even though there’s only room for one in the car, the driver won’t be completely alone. The car, which is powered by about 20 square feet of monocrystalline silicon solar cells, is equipped with wireless monitors so the team’s lead and chase vehicles can keep an eye on the car’s performance in real time.

The driver also gets to sit up this time around. Previous solar cars have been almost flat, to cut down on drag. But that meant that drivers had to lay down when they were in the vehicle. New race regulations are bringing the solar cars closer to regular cars, requiring the driver to sit upright, with the seat back less than 27 degrees from vertical.

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