The day I toured the UK in a solar-powered car

Solar Powered Vehicle

When you’re a teacher, you hope to inspire the next generation to make a positive difference to society. To that end, I’ve been fortunate enough to get involved in a strange but thought-provoking endeavour called the Ardingly Ifield Solar project.

Over the past decade, more than 1,000 pupils have designed, built and raced solar-powered cars, primarily across the Australian outback as part of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (BWSC). We’ve competed with pupil teams twice: in 2015 with the roadster, and more recently in 2019 with the Basking Beastie. It’s a unique outback experience, covering a total of 3,000km from Darwin to Adelaide, and it’s
not for the faint-hearted. It tests the operational parameters of the car, in a setting where nearly everything wants to kill you.

Although the BWSC itself is challenging, the biggest battle is changing people’s perceptions of EVs and ensuring that the electricity used comes from a green source. And what better way to do that than showcasing the Ardingly Ifield car with the help of the IMI, all while raising much-needed funds for industry charity BEN?

So, rather than heading down under again, we decided to bring the solar-powered car back to the UK for a GB Solar tour, from John o’ Groats all the way down to Haywards Heath in West Sussex. Pre-COP26, it seemed like a great statement from the pupils. What could possibly go wrong?

The first step was making the vehicle road legal. Sadly, there are no simple procedures for the registration of such a car: no neat classification available, no box to tick for solar power.

What is the car anyway? Is it a bike or is it a quad? The Basking Beastie has the power of approximately six hairdryers, a top speed of 110kph, an operational weight of 450kg, a range of approximately 350km, 14kWh of battery capacity, brushless hub motors which are 95% efficient, power consumption of 3kW at 55kph, and 5m2 of solar panels producing approximately 1kWh. It has a carbon-fibre body fixed onto a chromoly roll cage, equipped with remote telematics and a full battery management system. And it stands at 4.8m long, 2.2m wide and 1.7m tall.

However, due to its unique shape, the car has neither windscreen washers nor wipers, and it relies on rear-view cameras. Those two points spelt non-compliance with the MSVA Heavy Quad classification, so a vehicle special order (VSO) was applied for in February 2020 through the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA). Naturally, COVID-19 delayed things, so the VSO was reapplied for in March 2021. This was finally signed by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, seven days before our trip. The road registration was processed even closer to the deadline: just three days before departure.

This was only possible with the support of MPs Nusrat Ghani, Jeremy Quin, Henry Smith and the Undersecretary of State Rachel Maclean, as well as Michael Hepworth at the VCA, Chuks Oguibe at the Department for Transport, the Daily Mail’s motoring editor Ray Massey, and Byron Lewis at the DVLA. With that weight of people behind us, we’re now the only road-registered solar-powered car in the country. It’s quite a unique accolade for two small schools in West Sussex!

The GB Solar tour started on Saturday 31 July with a 21-strong team of pupils and dedicated teachers (giving up their holidays) from Ardingly College and Ifield Community College. In the convoy, we had one Ford Transit, a nine-seater (with trailer), a supply lorry, a scout car and the Basking Beastie itself.

On the first day, we had a clear run up to Barnard Castle and had our first go at setting up camp before we pushed on to Inverness, where we camped on the shores of Loch Ness. Unfortunately, the swimming party came back with no evidence of another beastie – sorry Nessie fans!

The sun was out, and the Scottish Highlands were at their best. The next day, we were guests at Inverness Castle, meeting the public and showing off the car. It was here that a technical fault developed with the solar cells, which had to be fixed before a shake-down run through the streets of St Andrews. This was undertaken in convoy fashion, as per our VSO restrictions.

Thankfully, the only challenges we encountered were one small curbing issue and a slight traffic jam when we caught the local motorists by surprise. It was almost as if they’d never seen a solar-powered car before…

After a well-deserved rest, the team set off for Glasgow to visit the Scottish Event Campus, the setting for the all-important United Nations Climate Change Conference. Hopefully someone took note of a solar car driving around the building. That was followed by a mad trailered dash to Edinburgh, with a quick visit to Holyrood before dinner.

The next morning, we were back in a damp England, and after a brief diversion to the Railway Museum in York and excellent fish and chips courtesy of Sue and Michael Reed, it was off, after a very wet night, to the National Space Museum in Leicester. It was here that the team gave an excellent, and well-attended, talk.

Then we were off again, this time to Towns Thorns Residential Centre in Rugby, which is supported by BEN. Unfortunately, the minibus broke down en route and we were delayed by a car catching fire on the motorway. And we thought solar power was going to be the challenge! So, with only half the team in tow, we visited the residential centre. This, for me, was the real highlight of the GB Solar tour, as the welcome we received in the afternoon sunshine was so very warm.

The next day, after spending the night in yet another wet and muddy field, we were invited to take part in the British Museum’s Electric Vehicle Rally, appearing alongside the Cambridge University Eco Racing team. It was good to talk to like-minded individuals in the sunshine and to show off the Beastie.
On the way to the next campsite, we briefly trailered the car to Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat Farm shop to perhaps tempt the man himself to drive a solar car. The quest may have been in vain, but you don’t know unless you try.

After beating a hasty retreat, the next day was an early start, leaving camp at 4:30am and hitting London (not literally). The solar car undertook a brief tour of London, venturing down the Strand, around Trafalgar Square, down the Mall and past Buckingham Place. It was a brief but symbolic trip – and probably the first time a solar car has ever driven the streets of our capital city. Luckily, despite the solar convoy chase car having to jump several red lights (photographic evidence available), no traffic notices were received.

We then visited the IMI’s HQ at Fanshaws in Hertfordshire. It was good to meet the IMI team, and we were also joined by Michael Reed and Douglas Wragg, who were awarded a special commendation in recognition of a decade working on and advising the project. The Ardingly Ifield Solar project was even awarded the IMI Centre Approval certificate by IMI CEO Steve Nash, and the non-barbecued food was a very welcome change for the group.

The final night was spent at a campsite, before venturing home via Elekta in Crawley and a small reception at Ardingly College. As Callum Porter drove the car through Ardingly village, we all became aware of everything we had achieved on the trip, thanks largely to the support we have received from both sponsors and patrons.

Dr Andrew Spiers MBE is Director of Science and Technology at Ardingly College, West Sussex

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This is an edited extract from IMI's new MotorPro magazine, received free as part of IMI membership. Time to find out more about becoming a member of the most influential community in UK automotive…?