ASC 20: Solar cars and the Oregon Trail

Given that the American Solar Challenge is going to be following the Oregon Trail this year, I thought that it would be fun to do a comparison between the “prairie schooners” of two centuries ago and the solar cars of today.

At the time of the “Great Emigration” of 1843, aluminium was known, but could not yet be produced on an industrial scale (that came in 1854, and was initially very expensive). Steel likewise existed, but the Bessemer process for producing it came later (1855). Fibreglass composites came a century later (1936), and carbon fibre later still. Modern electronics could not even have been imagined. The “prairie schooners” were built using a much older technology.


Prairie schooner and solar car – picture credits NPS (left) and Anthony Dekker (right)

ATTRIBUTE PRAIRIE SCHOONER SOLAR CAR
Dimensions (W × L) 1.2 × 3 m (4 × 10 ft) for wagon bed Up to 2 × 5 m (7 × 16 ft) for entire car
Horsepower 4 to 12 hp 1 hp solar power for Challengers (SOV), up to 4 hp mixed solar/grid power for Cruisers (MOV)
Sustained speed 3 km/h (2 mph) 50 to 75 km/h (30 to 45 mph)
Empty weight 600 kg (1300 lb) 150 to 450 kg (350 to 1000 lb)
Load 900 kg (2000 lb) 80 to 320 kg (200 to 700 lb)
Motive power Horses or oxen Solar cells, battery, and electric motor(s)
Body materials Wood, cotton canvas Steel, aluminium, carbon fibre, fibreglass
Tires Iron Rubber, low rolling resistance

Prairie schooner and solar car – picture credits Albert Bierstadt (left) and Anthony Dekker (right)


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