Solar Sensations: A 'Car' That Will Change the Way You Think About Getting Around

Photo: 7 Solar Sensations: From Your Pocket to the Sky: Phones, Planes, Cars and More Harness Energy from the SunCourtesy Mike and Maaike

Imagine a world without steering wheels. Well it's not here yet, but the ATNMBL is on its way.

This futuristic electric car sports rooftop solar panels that support the four motors underneath. But the ATNMBL isn't just "green;" it's intelligent. ATNMBL, which is still in development, will rely on GPS and sophisticated sensor systems to navigate infrastructure that is already in place.

The only problem is speed: normal drivers will dread getting stuck behind one of these. Because ATNMBL is being developed for simple travel, it won't travel very fast. As the vehicle's Web site says, "It's time to look at performance in a new way."

Aside from the advanced driving capabilities, the project will also sport a flat panel console, using mobile communication technology. The display will not only help navigate through traffic, but will also let passengers surf the Internet from the road.

The car's designers, Maaike Evers and Mike Simonian, have been involved in a number of futuristic design projects, including Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the T-Mobile G1 -- the first phone to sport Google's Android operating system.

Evers and Simonian have introduced their ahead-of-the-curve design as a future alternative to transportation, though there's no word yet on a release date.

"The ATNMBL project is meant to provoke a broader conversation about the future of cars and to promote a shift from styling cars to redefining the entire experience. Emerging technologies will create a new measure of performance: one of time-saving, quality of life, smart exploration, efficiency and accessibility for all," Simonian said in an email.

But the ATNMBL isn't the only imagination-stretching device out there trying to harness the power of the sun.

Now that President Barack Obama and other world leaders are committing to developing green technology, experts say we're getting closer to a solar-powered future.

Jeremy Kaplan, editor of, said that in the past eight to 12 months, there has been a boom in green technology, including solar.

"It's all a response to the Obama administration's investments in green technology," he said.

After decades of not receiving much investment, solar technology isn't where it could be, but with new federal support, he thinks that will change.

"We can do some really innovative stuff given the the extra funding," he said. "We'll see solar cells invade our lives over the next couple of years."

In the meantime, here are a few stand-outs offering a sneak preview.

Solar-Powered Aircraft Takes Flight

Solar Impulse's solar-powered aircraft may only have room for two, but make no mistake about it -- this plane is a big deal. The aircraft, dubbed the HB-SIA, brings aviation innovators one step closer to a solar-powered commercial airplane.

The plane's specs include a wingspan of about 200 feet, a weight of about 3,527 pounds and a maximum altitude of about 27,887 feet. At the project's helm are Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the men behind Solar Impulse.

Piccard and Borschberg are scheduled to unveil the plane's prototype Friday and, if the plane's test flights go well, they said they plan to build a second plane in 2011, with the eventual aim of completing a flight around the globe.

'Blue Earth' Phone Charges Via Solar Panel

In the spirit of 21st century technology, Samsung's solar-powered Blue Earth cell phone matches innovation with an environmental conscience.

The phone, made available this week in Asia, is made from recycled plastic, packaged in recycled paper and equipped with a built-in pedometer that allows users to measure their individual carbon footprints.

Blue Earth is charged via a solar panel on its back, a device so efficient, Samsung claims, users can make calls on the phone "anytime anywhere."

The Tent of the Future?

If the Jetson family went camping, this is the tent they would choose.

Unveiled by French telecom giant Orange earlier this week, this solar concept tent uses specially-coated solar threads to harness the sun's energy. With that power, the tent charges gadgets that are placed in a special pouch and provides a wireless Internet signal.

The tent celebrates Orange's 11th year at the U.K.'s Glastonbury music festival and was designed with the festival-goer in mind. The U.S. product design consulting company Kaleidoscope contributed to the project, which builds on similar tents from 2003 and 2004.

To help campers find their tents in crowded music festivals at night, the tent uses so-called "glo-cation" technology. A text message sent from a cell phone triggers the tent to glow in the dark.

And once the interior temperature drops below a certain point, a heater embedded in the tent's groundsheet automatically switches on.

It all sounds pretty dreamy. But if you're a strict, no-creature comforts camper, take heart: It's all just a vision for now. No plans are underway to bring it to market yet.

Solar-Powered Bus Stations

Later this year, residents of Florence, Italy, will get to touch a piece of the future.

A prototype of a solar-powered, interactive bus shelter will launch in the city in October, and researchers hope a whole system of a few thousand will follow in 2010.

Designed by architects and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's SENSEable City Lab, the EyeStop is covered with touch-sensitive e-INK and screens.

While waiting for the bus, riders can check e-mail, monitor air quality and check out the exact location of the bus they are waiting for.

In May, San Francisco cut the ribbon on the first of its own system of solar-powered bus stations. The sun powers energy-efficient lights and bus route information systems.

MUNI (San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency) is also testing Wi-Fi connections so that people can surf the Internet on smart phones and laptops while waiting for the bus.

Sweden's Supercar

It bears a striking resemblance to the Batmobile, but presumably this slick supercar does its most impressive work during the day.

Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg debuted the Quant electric car earlier this year at the Geneva Motor Show. The luxury car is covered in a thin-film photovoltaic coating that absorbs energy and is said to charge up in 20 minutes.

It was unveiled as a concept car but rumors are spreading online that the company could begin limited production within a couple of years.

Acres and Acres of Solar Panels

Covering more than a thousand acres and generating enough power for about 78,000 homes, the Solar Energy Generating Systems is the largest solar installation in the world.

Collectively, the nine plants in California's Mojave Desert produce about 354 megawatts of power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Because the Mojave Desert receives so much sunlight, it is especially suited for solar installations. One of the most recent, Nevada Solar One, covers about 400 acres.

Mobile Energy

They may not impress with their size or style, but solar-powered phone and gadget chargers deserve a nod for giving us portable power.

The Solio Classic Hybrid Charger, for examples, weighs 5.6 ounces and easily slips in a pocket or purse. But after spending an hour in the sun, the $99.95 gadget can charge your phone for 15 minutes of talk time or your MP3 player for 40 minutes. It may not be the best way to charge a phone but, in an emergency, it could certainly see you through.

The Juice Bag, from Washington, D.C.-based Reware, serves a similar function.

The beach tote features a solar panel on the front and if you're spending a day at the beach or lake, it can become the power source for your iPod, phone or camera.

At $249.99, it's not cheap. But the company says it can charge your devices in about the same amount of time as if they were plugged into a wall socket.