Every two years, engineering students from across the U.S. compete in the American Solar Challenge, where around 10 schools cobble together a car designed to go as far as possible, powered exclusively by the sun. In 2022, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took the top prize with a car that looks sort of like a ping-pong table sprouted wheels. On its best day, the Nimbus made it an impressive 869 miles (1,398 kilometers), roughly the distance from New York to Milwaukee. Of course, there are just a few impracticalities to contend with: The Nimbus can't carry a passenger, for one, let alone a haul of groceries.

The quest to develop a solar-powered car that is at once functional, useful and practical has stumped more than the young wizards at MIT. In February, Sono Group said it would abandon its Sion solar-electric car after failing to raise enough money for the project. A month earlier, Dutch startup Lightyear suspended production of its €250,000 ($264,450) solar car and filed for bankruptcy. (Both declined interviews for this piece.) California’s Aptera Motors, while happy with its three-wheeled solar-powered machine, has struggled to complete a crowdfunding campaign to get it into production.

For about 40 years, car companies, startups and DIY enthusiasts have been pursuing the plugless electric car, one that could wirelessly recharge via photons. But as logistical and economic hurdles continue to stymie those projects, the more immediate future of solar-powered vehicles is becoming clear: smaller, lighter, cheaper systems built to subtly augment electric driving, rather than power it in full. This practical approach is the dad jeans of solar driving, and in a couple of years it could be everywhere.