Are energy-independent vehicles the future of transport?

Looking beyond electric vehicles that need self-contained power sources

By Morand Fachot

The wider introduction of electric vehicles is seen as a major move in cutting emissions of harmful substances and dependence on fossil fuels. Going a step further, some transport sector analysts forecast that a new generation of vehicles relying on the on-board conversion of harvested energy, rather than on self-contained power sources, will have a significant impact on the future of transport. Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman of IDTechEx, a market research and business intelligence company, shared with e-tech details of some of the current developments in this area.

Solar Impulse Solar Impulse, the Swiss experimental solar-powered aircraft, is about to complete its trip round the world (Photo: Solar Impulse)

Beyond purely electric vehicles

e-tech: Dr Harrop, can you tell us what are the prospects of ever seeing vehicles that do not rely on on-board energy storage or power sources such as batteries or fuel cells?

Harrop: There’s a realization now that where we’re headed goes beyond a purely electric vehicle, it goes even beyond having EV charging from solar roads that provide electricity without stopping. It’s attractive and it has been demonstrated to work, but it’s expensive to introduce on a mass scale.

The endgame goes even beyond that; it’s an endgame that won’t be reached for everything but for lots of things, such as vehicles, that won’t ever need electricity. We call these vehicles energy-independent vehicles, or EIVs. EIV is a term that has started popping up on occasion. A couple of weeks ago, at an event on e-mobility organized by AVERE, the European Association for Electromobility, several speakers touched on energy-independent vehicles. 

Not a crazy dream

e-tech: But these EIVs are nowhere to be seen…

Harrop: Right now you can actually buy some EIVs, it’s not a crazy dream.

Today, in China you can buy a tourist microbus for eight people. This vehicle, which looks like a slightly large golf cart, has been very cleverly designed with very efficient electrics and very efficient solar panels on its roof. This is a real indication of the endgame, because you can buy it with a battery, but if you want you can also buy it without a battery. Then it’s what we call a lizard electric vehicle: it wakes up with the sunshine. They’re thinking of tourist areas that want to be green and not even have a battery, and find it’s OK to drive it only in daylight.

There are also fixed-wing aircraft that can fly in the upper atmosphere and stay up there for five years at a time, autonomously. Well, they are EIVs: you can’t refuel them and there’s no way they can be plugged in.

These days we can observe the Swiss experimental solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse on its way to complete its trip around the world.

Four years earlier we saw a German-Swiss boat, PlanetSolar, circumnavigating the globe on sunshine alone, a big boat, quite fast as well.

These are energy-independent vehicles. 

Flying with the sun

e-tech: A solar-powered microbus may not be ideal for northern Norway in the winter…

Harrop: Well, the interesting thing is that when you don’t have the weight of that battery, when you have really efficient solar cells, very efficient drivetrains, motors that are 10% more efficient than usual, and all that, it’s amazing what you can do.

Let’s consider another totally different EIV. In Canada, which is not noted for its sunshine, they have developed something that is not an airship; it’s inflated but it’s in the shape of a wing. It’s called Solarship, and on its top, you find solar cells. In Canada it works by being inflated with helium and then it can go very slowly powered purely by Canadian sunshine during the daytime. It has batteries for night-time and it does heavy lifting of cargo on Canadian sunshine. Even if you don’t have helium you can inflate it with air and it will still fly because it’s shaped like a wing. The sun allows it to be propelled fast enough on the ground to gain lift and take off. 

Thinking the unthinkable

So we’re thinking the unthinkable here, we’re talking about electric vehicles that have no energy storage; we’re talking of electric vehicles that work even on Canadian sunshine, and there are many others being developed. Obviously that is not going to be in every street in your city soon. That is going to be only a part of the picture even in 10-20 years from now, but the work on these EIVs, like the solar-powered Nuon Solar car, which won the 3 000 km 2015 World Solar Challenge in Australia, does draw people’s attention. We had a lecture recently by an Australian who is going to use this technology to make a [solar] sports car, the Immortus, that will be street legal. We think that this Immortus project is very exciting. 

Beneficial spinoffs

Put all this together and these people are just like those in Formula 1 racing: they’re giving us things which we can use for everything else. The Nuon Solar Team has spun off five companies already, with its technology.

The Immortus project’s proposal for raising money includes a commitment to spin off companies. So, they say “even if we make few vehicles which we sell for huge sums of money to very rich people, even if we don’t sell many, you should get a return on your money because we have invented, say, shock absorbers that make electricity."

In the same vein, Formula 1 racing gave us the disc brake and the flywheel recovery system that is now used on London buses – it’s gone from F1 racing to London buses!

It’s obvious that the discipline of EIV is going to benefit what we do, and the vehicles we ride. It’s cascading down. We think it’s a big sea change, a major breakthrough in electric vehicles. 

Solar Impulse Solar Impulse, the Swiss experimental solar-powered aircraft, is about to complete its trip round the world (Photo: Solar Impulse)
PlanetSolar boat PlanetSolar completed the first trip around the world powered exclusively by solar energy thanks to the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar (Photo:
Solarship Canada's Solarship, a hybrid aircraft powered by solar cells and batteries, is designed to service remote areas (Photo: Solar Ship)
Nuon Solar concept car The Nuon Solar won the 3 000 km 2015 World Solar Challenge in Australia
Immortus solar sports car The Immortus is a concept solar electric sports car with on-board storage capacity (Photo: Immortus/EVX Ventures)
Stella Lux solar family car Stella Lux is an intelligent solar-powered family car developed by the Solar Team Eindhoven (Photo: TU Eindhoven, Bart van Overbeeke)