Ford has just announced the Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept. The day after Christmas, I had the chance to talk with Mike Tinskey, Ford’s global director of vehicle electrification and vehicle infrastructure, about the concept car and other electric vehicle matters. Below are a number of details about the Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept that you won’t find anywhere else, as well as some other Ford electric vehicle matters. Enjoy!
To start with, yes, the hunch you’d get from the name (Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept) is correct — this is a concept plug-in electric car that includes solar cells. In particular, it includes SunPower’s X21 solar cells on 1.5 square meters, for a power capacity of 300-350 watts. But that’s not all. The car also includes a solar concentrator and sun-tracking technology that together allow for more electricity generation from the highly efficient X21 solar cells. “Similar in concept to a magnifying glass, the patent-pending system tracks the sun as it moves from east to west, drawing enough power from the sun through the concentrator each day to equal a four-hour battery charge (8 kWh),” Ford writes.
“The result is a concept vehicle that takes a day’s worth of sunlight to deliver the same performance as the conventional C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, which draws its power from the electrical grid. The C-MAX Energi gets a combined best MPGe in its class, with EPA-estimated 108 city/92 highway/100 combined MPGe. By using renewable power, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is estimated to reduce the annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from a typical owner by four metric tons.”
Here’s perhaps the most interesting statistic Ford released: “Internal Ford data suggests the sun could power up to 75 percent of all trips made by an average driver in a solar hybrid vehicle.” That’s quite impressive.
I asked Mike where the inspiration for this solar concept car came from. He first noted the long partnership Ford and SunPower have had (which we’ve covered for years), working together on programs like Drive Green For Life and MyEnergi Lifestyle. When news came out about SunPower’s record-efficient X-Series, Ford really started to think that solar technology was getting to a place where it could possibly “soon” be incorporated into cars. But the efficiency for such use was still way to low.
However, a long partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology gave another strong push. This long relationship ended up leading Ford to some researchers at Georgia Tech who were working on concentrating solar technology.
“But the real kicker,” as I think Mike put it, was the ability to autonomously move the vehicle underneath the battery, in order to track the sun. Pretty cool idea. The supporting infrastructure, being developed by Georgia Tech, is actually quite simple and cheap — largely acrylic & aluminum.
I asked about overall cost for such a vehicle, of course, since that is what really matters. The idea of solar panels in cars has been brought up many times. One of the key points skeptics/critics bring up is that cars are often shaded, and it seems to make much more sense to simply put solar panels on your roof or a carport in order to get solar power for your car. (Furthermore, there’s a much greater risk of the solar technology being damaged in a car than on a house.) Unfortunately, Mike said that the C-Max Solar Energi Concept was really too early in the concept phase for them to have any estimates on price.
I also asked if Ford perhaps had any far-off target date in mind for actually bringing such a car to market — 2017? 2018?…
Again, this concept is far too nascent for anything like that, Mike indicated. It’s just a concept at this point, and it may never make it to market. But Mike was still quite enthusiastic about the possibility. With the more efficient cells, the concentrator boost, and the ability of the car to autonomously move, this could be approaching a point where solar-EV driving actually comes to commercial life — that’s the message that was being promoted.
“With a full charge, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is estimated to have the same total range as a conventional C-MAX Energi of up to 620 miles, including up to 21 electric-only miles,” Ford notes. (It is pretty cool that we’ve even gotten to this point.)
Nonetheless, I can’t help but get the impression that this is simply a fun “science experiment” that won’t get far beyond the PR world. Call me a cynic. (I’m actually not the cynic type, but I have a hard time seeing solar-EVs becoming competitive with conventional rooftop solar + EVs.) However, there may well be some markets where this type of vehicle makes sense. “This could be especially important in places where the electric grid is underdeveloped, unreliable and expensive,” Ford wrote in the press release published moments ago. “After C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is shown at CES, Ford and Georgia Tech will begin testing the vehicle in numerous real-world scenarios. The outcome of those tests will be used at a later date to help determine if the concept is feasible as a production car.”
Other EV Matters
I also used the valuable time with Mike to ask about some other EV matters. For example, I asked whether or not Ford had any plans for long-range battery-electric vehicles (100% electric vehicles) — cars with 150 miles or 200 miles of range, for example. This is a target GM has been very vocal about, and Tesla’s obvious focus. Mike didn’t have anything specific to share regarding long-range EV plans. He noted Ford’s policy of not discussing next-generation vehicles, and he noted that they were keeping a close eye on the development of EVs’ core technology — the batteries — which are improving but are not yet at the level where a long-range battery-electric vehicle can be sold for a very affordable price. (The Model S — which isn’t just long-range but also has perhaps the best performance of any car on the mass market — sells for $71,070 before the $7,500 federal tax credit; the Model X can be preordered for $60,000; the BMW i3 is about to hit the market at $41,350.)
I also asked about the possibility that Ford might be looking into developing an electric light-duty truck. Again, Mike noted that it really comes down to a business equation (natch). We need battery prices to come down in order to make some of these heavier/larger vehicles electric in a cost-competitive way. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anything was around the corner on this, but was just looking to get a sense for how Ford is thinking about this. The sense I got here again was basically just that Ford is watching what is happening with battery prices/improvements, and waiting to work on any major new designs. (Of course, that last bit doesn’t really match well with Ford’s rather radical Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept….)
The electric truck idea isn’t new, and my question was driven by the reader interest I’ve seen in this. Ford’s take on this option seems to be the norm. However, Bob Lutz (the key figure behind the Chevy Volt) recently wrote in an op-ed that GM should have started its plug-in vehicle push with a plug-in electric truck. So, the conventional wisdom on this matter might be changing….
One last thing I’ll note is that Ford seems to have a strong focus on the development of EV infrastructure. As I’m sure you noticed in the title at the top, Mike is the global director of Ford’s vehicle electrification and vehicle infrastructure programs. I’m going to dig into what Ford is doing on the EV infrastructure side of things in a coming post. I also have a short post coming on Mike’s response to Big Auto criticism from Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning. Stay tuned.
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