An Off-Grid EV Camper Van

A large, teardrop-shaped van with a wide, friendly face sits in a grassy field. A grey canvas pop top is opened on its top and solar panels extend from either side of its roof, making it look somewhat like a large insect with wings extended.

Despite our predilection for creature comforts like electricity, it can be nice to get away from it all from time-to-time. Students from Eindhoven University of Technology developed Stella Vita to let you glamp from the power of the sun alone.

Solar-powered vehicles have been plying the highways for decades, but we’re only now getting vehicles with multiple seats that could potentially be used for transport outside of protected race conditions. While production vehicles that can charge off the sun are yet to appear in any appreciable numbers, universities are continuing to push the envelope of what’s possible in a solar car.

Stella Vita is a whale shark-esque camper van designed to be as aerodynamic as possible while still housing all the accoutrements one would want when car camping including a large bed, inductive cooktop, fridge, shower, sink, toilet, and standing room via a pop top. The 2 kW solar array expands to 4 kW when parked via two wings extending from the pop top that also function as awnings for your base camp. By keeping the car lightweight (1,700 kg or 3,700 lb) and aerodynamic, it can go about 600 km (370 mi) on a single charge with its 60 kWh battery.

While it’s still experimental, the team took Stella Vita on a road trip of 3,000 km (1,900 mi) to the south of Spain and were able to get there with only a couple charging stops to account for technical difficulties. A full charge on solar alone takes 2-3 days, which we can see being a convenient amount of time to stop in one spot for your outdoor adventures before heading home or to your next destination.

If you want to build a slightly smaller off-grid camper that’s fueled by coffee instead, you might want to check out this bike camper or this other example.

34 thoughts on “An Off-Grid EV Camper Van

  1. Very Cool, though while off grid, with that ground clearance it would never survive off pavement except, maybe, on my lawn… Still waiting for one of the mythical Rivian “Camper” vans…
    However, maybe an off-road enthusiast, or group of them, could add some lifts to get a little more than the microscopic ground clearance shown. :)

    1. That ground clearance was my first thought as well. I doubt I could get that thing into my local Walmart parking lot, let alone a typical campground. Another thought, most campgrounds where I go have considerable shade trees at the campsites. Not gonna get much of a charge there.

      1. According to one study about the time solar cells were being developed for sats, there’s enough sun in the shade to trigger a trickle. And before you remind me about that, I cannot remember the name of the study, or when I saw it. I only know that it dates back to the beginning of the technology.

        1. Well, my single 100 W solar panel flat on top of my camping wagon gives me about 32 Watts on a sunny autumn day (due mainly to my latitude in Oregon), and about 6.5 W on a reasonably bright overcast day, so that’s a lot of derating. But “in the shade” is kind of slippery: what percentage of clear sky constitutes being in the shade? When my panel is shaded by the house in the afternoon, it only sees about half of the sky. I haven’t taken any measurements of that, though.

          When I bought my first panel, I already knew that autumn and winter days are short, and when you combine that with the lower angle of the sun, the winter output of vehicle-top solar is pretty small unless you have a means of tilting the panels when parked, which wouldn’t be an option for the vehicle described in this article, nor for mine.

          TBH, I was surprised to get even 20% of the clear sky output on overcast days. I suppose much of that is because the panels are being illuminated by pretty much a whole hemisphere of clouds, so while maximum performance in full sunlight would require tilting the panels, that doesn’t actually make much difference on overcast days. I have a second 100W panel I will be mounting soon, and also a 130W flexible panel I can tape down to the hood when parked, which would then give me 23 Watts on overcast days, or roughly 140 W*hr per day. Yeah, never going to be powering the vehicle with that.

          1. Do you have mono crystaline solar panels or poly crystaline? Remember reading the poly cells had lower overall efficiency but better output in overcast. Was wondering if this was a factor

          2. Yeah I’ve been very impressed with how well the flexible ones I’ve fitted to my sisters caravan work – entirely hidden from direct sunlight by the houses and even on a rainy overcast day its pulling a few watts out of the gloom. Obviously nothing to the 300 odd watt rating they should get in actual direct sunlight. But its meaningful enough as say you are getting 5-10 watt all day, that is 6? 8? 12? hours pulling in total way more power the the internal light and charging your phone etc will need – high draw for short time vs that long day of trickle charging, so even with the conversion losses its likely enough. Just don’t expect to cook on electric sourced from today’s solar output when its been that gloomy and you are so far from the equator. Unless you have serious excess of solar – which in fairness the camper in the article probably does.

      2. Hi Ack210, I suspect going forward in time that EV charging stations will be more common than they are presently, and nice shady spots in delightful camping areas will also have charging facilities. The only features that I think should be incorporated in the design are airbags and perhaps anti collision radar..

    2. I would bet that the main reason for the low clearance was for aerodynamic reasons, but as frenchbruce suggests, pneumatics can be used to raise the ground clearance when off road.

    3. That just ‘American think’ and this is in Europe. Europeans would drive their regular low ground clearance 2WD cars to places that Americans would only consider going in a lifted 4×4 (or a rental car). :)

        1. I doubt they can be worse than the UK, certainly never looks like it from this distance – though as all the media that crosses the pond is unlikely to highlight the really bad roads in either direction perhaps both are equally bad and good in patches – just the good stuff is in the places the rest of the world is more likely to see.

      1. I don’t know if you are just memeing or what but, while you may be fine on the roads themselves, I’ve been quite a few places where there are crazy sharp grade changes at the entrance that you can scrape the bottom of a normal car on at anything but a crawl.

        A car that low could actually get stuck in some places.

    4. If you’re going for solar, you have a limited amount of power coming in and you need to make the most of it so you’re going to go for efficiency and aerodynamics. In this article they do have the advantage of a larger footprint with the stationary wing panels. Normally modern cars have lowered the ground clearance because the bottom of a typical car has all sorts of things partially or fully exposed – suspension, exhaust, sometimes driveshafts and spare tires, parts of the structure, etc. It’s easiest to just stop air from flowing down there rather than redesign things so that it doesn’t do any harm. And it lets you keep the wheels enclosed, keep the center of mass low, get plenty of space, etc.

      But keeping a big flat bottom area, while it is convenient, constrains you away from a more aerodynamic shape. The alternative is to consider aerodynamics for the bottom just like you do for the top and sides. The wheels can be covered in ways other than cutting a circular hole out of your profile. You can then be shaped more like a teardrop, and have a (at least on average) higher ground clearance since you taper everything both on top and on bottom.

      Though as a company or a product it’s still too early to say until there’s delivered products, as a demonstration of that alternative, Aptera’s solar EV shows how to get enough efficiency to make solar give you more than a tiny amount of range. This is an old render of their higher ground clearance variant, but the first version they’re actually planning to deliver is to be slightly shorter and the wheel covers won’t expose as much of the tire. Still better than a lot of things, in general, but I’ll wait and see.

        1. Uhh… I was listing things that have often been relevant underneath cars, and asserting that designers have gotten used to the idea that being low to the ground with a flattened bottom is best for everything including efficiency. It means the center of mass is low, it’s easy to have space for everything, and you can make the top of the car pretty low as well especially if you have fairly low seats.

          When you had many things from my list under the car anyway, it was hard to really argue with that philosophy. Some of that has gone away both in the newer gas cars and in the electric ones. It’s less common to have a spare anymore, especially underneath, and other things have been streamlined. But being electric doesn’t preclude shafts, since you need to either have wheel motors or half-shafts, and if you want to use one motor for both wheels you even need a differential too. They don’t have to be a significant problem, but they don’t actually instantly cease to exist.

          Even when you look at ev’s with a conventional 4dr sedan shape and a huge mass of batteries that are well-kept flat to the ground, it’s not the worst way to do things. But when you want efficiency so your solar makes a difference, and you can deal with the other things, it turns out that you can get a pretty impressive result with a different shape like the Aptera.

  2. “A full charge on solar alone takes 2-3 days, which we can see being a convenient amount of time to stop in one spot for your outdoor adventures before heading home or to your next destination.”
    Yeah, you can call that a feature if you like, and as long as you plan carefully, if you get bored, you can still head out to the nearest charging station. Or, from a single day’s charge you can drive another 200 km to another campsite. Of course, any use of the electric cooking appliances lengthens that charging time, so “your mileage may vary”. And I suppose you can use those panels to augment your home solar system when you’re not out camping.
    Okay, let’s call it a qualified maybe.

  3. >By keeping the car lightweight (1,700 kg or 3,700 lb) and aerodynamic, it can go about 600 km

    Narrow profile tires, and low average speed, plays a role in it as well. 10 kWh/100 km is about half of what a similarly weighted normal EV would go on the highway.

    1. My gasoline compact sedan is heavier than that. And disgustingly inefficient, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for performance and comfort.

      Very impressive for a BEV. Wonder how it does in a crash, being so voluminous and light – not much material for structural elements. I’m sure handling isn’t a priority for this rig…

  4. Most campgrounds not in the boonies (an many even there) offer electric hookups providing at least 3 kW. You can park in the shade and not worry about not getting enough charge to get home!

    Heck, with plug-in charging available you can get rid of the expense and dead weight of the solar panels then, and carry more cargo, or batteries.

    1. I don’t think they are going to be much in the way of dead weight – you need a roof, and probably want an awning. So while a more expensive way to make such things I don’t think from looking at it they have really made it much heavier than it would be without. Perhaps if you only compare to the much less convenient assemble your own tent like awning you can get some meaningful weight saving, but its not like those are weight free either.

      I’d also say just because the camp ground may offer a hookup doesn’t mean it can really handle when 3 of these turned up wanting to charge the battery and cook etc all at once, so handy to not be so reliant on that external electric supply that may or may not be there at all and may or may not be able to supply the demand.

      Also one of the only vehicles in existence that is very very unlikely to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is something a petrol vehicle still can’t really say – only takes the one petrol station you expected to use being closed/out of whichever grade your vehicle needs. Sure on the solar alone its going to be a slower journey, but at least you won’t actually be stuck waiting on the good Samaritan.

    1. My bet: nothing than this prototype and two PR-stunts, one in 2021 and one in 2023. 2023 is about students testing in Morocco.

      Looks like a student driven research project to me. Collect your credit points by doing research around it. Nothing wrong with that, quite the contrary, a good way to combine practice with theory.

      But far away from creating a sellable product. We had a surge of “small electric cars” in Europe with the same fate. All looking great on paper but nothing materialized. Because actually making stuff is hard.

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