This summer, Engineering Professor Carr Everbach and Kara Bledsoe ’16 teamed up with the Swarthmore Borough Police to install Swarthmore’s first partially solar-powered police car.
The purpose of the solar panels is to power the car’s internal electronics. Police cars must power considerably more electrical equipment than regular cars, which they normally do by idling the car.
The project kicked off in the second week of this past June, when Bledsoe began ordering equipment and designing the system. The solar panels power a second battery in the car, which will run the electrical equipment. With a second battery, there is less likelihood that the car will fail to start after spending a long period idling, since officers won’t have to worry about the car’s primary battery running out.
“This project is the most impressive thing I think I have ever done. I’m proud to have worked on it,” Bledsoe said.
Mayor of Swarthmore Rick Lowe approached Everbach in 2010 with the idea to outfit a Swarthmore police car with solar panels. This would save gasoline, decrease wear and tear on the engine, and reduce pollution due to keeping police cars, according to Everbach.
Previously two former Swarthmore students, Matthew Bowers and Dan Hu, had been working on the project conceptually. When Lowe approached President Rebecca Chopp last April to propose the project, she agreed to devote $5,000 to fund the initiative.
The most difficult part of the project was installing the panels and the second battery, along with all the necessary wiring in the car. The police car Everbach and Bledsoe used was relatively new, and they had to drill holes in the car to hook the internal electronics up to their second battery – a difficult and unwieldy process since they could not remove seats or change the body of the car.
After the installation, the next challenge was keeping the panels mounted on the car. Solar panels are normally flat and rigid, but to mount these panels to a car, Everbach had to use rubber panels. These panels can endure heavy weather, car washes, and high-speed chases, and cannot peel off with regular wear. This is no trivial matter, considering that police officers don’t want to find that they have left a solar panel by the side of the road in the middle of an emergency.
Aside from these difficulties, the only mishap that has occurred since the first panels were installed this past summer has been a manufacturing malfunction in one panel that caused the system to short and begin smoking. The problem was resolved by returning the panel to the manufacturer for a replacement.
While still a work in progress, this solar car initiative is opening the door for future closer collaboration between the College and the Borough. It could strengthen town-gown relations and the College’s image as an environmental leader, as well as save the town from devoting tax money towards experimental initiatives.
According to Everbach, he might know by next summer whether this prototype has been successful, and whether they will want to try this on more cars.
“It’s still an experiment in progress. We still don’t know if it’s going to be a good idea or not. A prototype is never perfect,” he said.