Meet eVe, the sun racer from down under

High-performance Italian sports cars have been the inspiration for Australia’s latest solar-powered racing vehicle.
With a carbon fibre shell, the racer, dubbed eVe, is a prototype propelled by four-square metres of silicon solar panels, which cover its roof and hood.

They are thin, flexible and light, and convert energy from the sun into electricity that in turn drives two in-hub rear-wheel electric motors. Power can also be stored in a 16-kilowatt-hour fuel bank built from lithium-ion laptop batteries, which gives the hybrid vehicle a proven range of 650km.

“It has four wheels, it has two doors and really looks like a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. That’s what we sat and looked at when we were designing the car,” explains Alex To, a photovoltaic engineer on the Sunswift team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney.

While it may lack the punch and panache of celebrated European designs, this ecological crusader boasts vivid curves with a suspension that has been tuned to mimic that of a sports car. Student volunteers at UNSW have high ambitions and believe it has the potential to become Australia's first practical solar-powered car. 

They have ditched the three-wheel, thin-tabletop, Jetsons-like designs common of solar racers to create a sun-soaking vehicle that wouldn’t look terribly out of place on the school run or the commute to the office.

Behind the wheel at the Sydney Motorsport Park in New South Wales was Sam Paterson, the project’s director.

"It is something that is sleek and beautiful, and we’ve put a lot of design effort into it in terms of not just functionality but aesthetics and appeal to attract more attention,” he said.

The eye-catching exterior of eVe leads to a Spartan interior. Carbon fibre bucket seats, built in Britain, are positioned so low that driver and passenger sink almost to the floor. Everything is lightweight, and at least when at rest, the car feels somewhat fragile and insubstantial, leading to thoughts about how it would handle highway traffic and its predicted top speed of 140kph. Paterson, though, reassures that safety concerns have underpinned every step of development and construction.  A steel roll bar has been fitted to conform to international racing standards.

The team has laboured more than a year to design and build eVe. On this day, the students merely want to witness it in motion. A posse of furrowed-brow technicians steps away, the sun obligingly shines and a period of waiting begins. Underfoot is the acrid rubber of past drag-racing duels that seem from a very different world, and with a gentle roll, eVe takes her bow.  The narrow wheels turn slowly before sharply picking up the pace. Success.

“We’ve put so much work into this, so many hours and hours, so to see it work is one just a massive relief,”  says To, the photovoltaic engineer, as he watches the shimmering jet black fuselage disappear down the track.

With zero emissions, the Sunswift car is also quiet, apart from the light hum of its electric motors, almost inaudible over the din of motorcycles tearing around an adjacent practice track. 

For eVe, more gruelling tests await. It will join entrants from more than 25 countries in October for the World Solar Challenge, a weeklong 3,000km race from Darwin to Adelaide through Australia’s desert heart.

“It’s all about bright young people not only dreaming of a cleaner, greener future, but working hard to make those dreams a reality,” says Challenge organiser Chris Selwood.

The students from UNSW have an enviable history. The Sunswift programme holds the world record for the fastest car powered by the sun, at just over 88kph – a speed eVe appears primed to shatter.