Driving into the future with the PrISUm solar car


Covered in solar panels and constructed largely of carbon fiber, the “Penumbra” solar car doesn’t look like an everyday vehicle.

Not on this planet, anyway.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Dustin Snyder, Burlington. “It looks more like a boat than a car, but looking at the aerodynamics, that makes sense.”

Aside from the solar panels covering the top of the vehicle and the unique, aerodynamic design, it’s exactly what it is — a normal car, ready for everyday use. Developed and constructed by the PrISUm solar car team at Iowa State University (ISU), the car was on display in the Burlington Public Library parking lot on Saturday afternoon the other week.

By the end of the month, the students and recent graduates who made it will have taken the technological marvel to all 99 of Iowa’s counties.

“This is the first car in the world with a rear windshield and as much solar space as we have. This is literally the first solar utility vehicle that has existed on planet Earth. Which is pretty cool,” said project director Matt Goode. “It’s just a regular car. And that’s the coolest thing about it. It’s just solar powered.”

According to Burlington native and recent ISU graduate Garret Coleman, the name Penumbra is defined as the gray area between shadow and light. Coleman served as the lead conceptual designer and lead aerodynamicist, and said the team chose the name to bridge the gap between gasoline powered cars and vehicles powered through renewable energy.

Goode said that gap has almost been crossed.

“If this car would sell at retail right now, it would be $85,000. Realistically, that’s a Mercedes-Benz or BMW class vehicle,” Goode said. “I would like to see these hit the market in 5 to 10 years, and if not, I’m going to make it my goal to start a company that can manufacture these right here in Iowa.”

The project began as nothing more than a blank sheet of paper, and Goode has been working on the car 60 hours a week while attending ISU. He’s going to be building rockets for Space Exploration Technology in California soon, which will take him a long way from his native home of Coggon.

“Then I hope to get back to Iowa and start an electric car company here,” he said.

A healthy crowd surrounded the vehicle in the library parking lot, and the designers were more than happy to drop a few stats on them. The vehicle weighs about 2,000 pounds less than a normal car, has an aluminum roll cage supporting the carbon fiber frame and windows made of a special plastic.

With a top speed of 72 mph (115 kph) (it can go up to 35 mph [56 kph] without using the battery), the car can do about anything an everyday four-door can. It can even hold four people and hundreds of pounds of cargo. Previous solar cars could barely hold one person.

“You can pull up YouTube videos, Pandora, Spotify, anything you want. When you put your phone down in that black little section, it starts wirelessly charging it,” Goode said.

Final components needed
PrISUm has a goal to raise $300,000 for finishing final components of the solar car and shipping it to Australia to compete in the “cruiser class” of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in October — the first international competition PrISUm has competed in.

The race traverses the Outback from the north coast of Australia to the south coast. Participants drive throughout the day and camp in tents at night during the week-long competition. Experts in the field, including Tesla engineers, score the race based upon energy efficiency and practicality.

“We’ve been driving it on the road and hauling it in a trailer,” Goode said. “We’ve been driving it some on the highways, and we’ve been driving it in the city. We get a lot of weird looks, to say the least.”

Eventually the trailer won’t be needed. Right now, though, the car is still being tested.

“We will continue to put miles on it and make sure the systems are good to go,” Goode said.



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