The Aussie sports car that’s more efficient than a Tesla Model S

Moving Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 23 September 2019

Forget sci-fi. Solar-powered cars are closer –  and more efficient – than you think. 

Once a distant dream, solar-powered cars are edging closer to becoming an everyday passenger-vehicle reality. Far from the ‘winged’ spaceships-on-wheels that competed in the earliest world solar car challenges, the cars competing in this year’s Bridgestone World Solar Challenge are designed to encourage mainstream acceptance for sustainable solar cars. 

A shining example entered in this year’s challenge is a car its designers have named Priscilla – in the hope that it will be Queen of the Desert when it completes the 3000-kilometre odyssey from Darwin to Adelaide in October. Sleek, slim but with a touch of ‘muscle’, it looks more like a sports car than a collaboration between academics at five Australian universities.  

Under the banner of the Australian Technology Network (ATN), the designers worked in five states on different components and assembled Priscilla at RMIT University where it was unveiled this week. 

Sleep, futuristic black car that is solar powered

Introducing Priscilla, queen of the solar-powered desert roadtrip.

RMIT University handled the exterior design and build, University of Technology Sydney did the interior, the University of South Australia was in charge of telemetry, Curtin University looked after low-voltage systems and Queensland University of Technology took the lead on high-voltage electronics and the battery.

The biennial Bridgestone World Solar Challenge has come a long way since the first event in 1987 when competing vehicles were the stuff of science fiction. While the race still includes a challenger class for slick aerodynamic vehicles designed solely for speed, the single-seat designs are largely impractical and unlikely to attract commercial interest.

Rather it is the ‘cruiser class’ that encourages the development of efficient passenger solar cars. 

“To be successful in the cruiser class, you need a lot more than speed; you need energy efficiency, practical ‘real car’ features and … market desirability,” says race director Chris Selwood.  

With that in mind, Priscilla’s lead designer Matt Millar, an RMIT University masters student, says he wanted to design a solar car that looked like a sports model. It has room for two, plus luggage, an on-board entertainment system and even cup-holders for the long drive.

He originally designed a solar ute because of its marketability until he found that design wasn’t aerodynamic or efficient enough. Instead, he created Priscilla with a low-profile, high-tech, aerodynamic carbon-fibre body. It looks sleek enough to impress while also helping the environment with its power efficiency.

“It’s cool to look at. We wanted to build a car people want to drive,” says ATN crew chief Andris Samsons.

We’ve advanced to the point where solar cars are not sci-fi any more; Priscilla is nothing like the flying saucer on wheels from years ago.”

Priscilla, which uses just 2500 watts of power, or the same energy as a hairdryer, to travel at 80kmh, could be the future of sustainable vehicles, he says. 

“This is seven times more efficient than the Tesla Model S or, in other words, Priscilla uses one-seventh of the power [of] the Tesla at highway speeds. We’ve advanced to the point where solar cars are not sci-fi any more; Priscilla is nothing like the flying saucer on wheels from years ago.” 

The first Solar Challenge winner in 1987, Sunraycer, had an average speed of 67kmh, but the new kids on the block are much faster. ATN team manager Anna Lidfors Lindqvist says Priscilla is capable of a top speed of 130kmh and can drive for 1200 kilometres without external power, even in poor weather. “This is much more than electric vehicles on the market today [can do],” she says.  

Running from 13 to 20 October, this year’s World Solar Challenge has 53 entrants from 23 countries, including eight from Australia. Australia has won the challenge just once, in 1999, when the Aurora team took top honours.