Electric vehicles have been in the news quite a bit lately – and we’re not just talking about a certain CEO who may soon be a fugitive from justice, tweeting out manifestos from an undisclosed location, about driving cherry red roadsters on Mars. You may have noticed that Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer NIO (NIO) finally went public, with the expected volatility of the shiny and new. And speaking of Elon Musk: He must have been more than a little pissed off to learn that his deep-pocketed buddies in Saudi Arabia are about to fork over more than $1 billion to Lucid Motors, an EV startup and rival that has drawn the usual comparisons to Tesla.

While the electric vehicle market is still light years from being mature, it does seem to be turning a corner. This left us wondering what would be the next thing in the green energy automotive economy. One possibility: solar-powered cars. Or, if you want to be technical about it: electric cars with solar panels.

Solar energy panel close up

A Little History on Solar-powered Electric Vehicles

To be clear, solar-powered electric vehicles are nothing new. Way, way back in 1955, a GM employee named William G. Cobb exhibited the first sun-powered vehicle at a Chicago expo. Cobb was really just toying around: The car was barely a foot long, using 12 selenium photovoltaic cells and a small electric motor. You could call him the father of the solar-car racing industry. Now, there are at least two major challenges held each year in which contestants combine engineering skills with a Burning Man aesthetic to produce a contraption that can live off the sun alone. The first solar car to travel a healthy distance – the breadth of Australia – was The Quiet Achiever in 1982. Cruising at an average speed of 14 miles per hour, The Quiet Achiever achieved its goal of crossing more than 2,500 miles of Mad Max Outback in about 25 days.

Rather fly? In 2016, the first solar-powered airplane circumnavigated the globe. It only took 23 days. There’s even a train with solar panels that travels about two miles through the hippy surf town of Byron Bay in Australia. So, if history has taught us anything so far, it’s that while solar-powered transportation is possible, it’s still a sideshow. When will it be ready for primetime?

How Does an Electric Car with Solar Panels Work?

Before we answer that question, let’s navigate how a solar-powered electric vehicle works. One thing to keep in mind is that a solar vehicle is just an electric car with solar panels. It will sport one or more electric motors and batteries. There is obviously a fair amount of math involved, but to keep it simple: The amount of sunshine will determine the amount of power output from the solar panels that charge the battery. Excess energy, such as when the car is parked, is stored in the battery. When it’s time to hit the highway, the power required by the motor will draw upon the battery.

Read more: Nanalyze