Many people have dreamt of combining solar power with electric cars. German startup company Sono is actually doing it with its Sion solar-powered car, but few other companies have gone down that road. Now Hyundai and Kia say they will make solar sunroofs available on some models after 2019.
The idea makes some sense — use sunlight to make electricity to power the electric motor that makes the car go. One problem is: cars are small, solar panels are large. Even the best solar panels available today only produce a few hundred watts of electricity — hardly enough to supply the kilowatt-hours of juice needed to make an electric car drivable over long distances. The real breakthrough will come when engineers figure out how to make front and rear windshields generate electricity without impairing outward vision.
All of that said, it’s also much easier to damage a car than a roof, and many would prefer that their solar panels last 30+ years. Additionally, it’s best to have a solar panel collecting sunlight as much as possible, whereas cars are often in garages, under trees, in the shadows of buildings, etc.
Toyota currently offers a solar sunroof for its Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, but only for the Japanese market. Ideally, that system can add 3.7 miles of range if the car is parked in direct sunlight, but at $2,500, those extra electrons come at a high cost. Hyundai has offered no pricing details, but says it will offer three different solar charging systems “after 2019.”
The first system will be available on hybrid models of the Sonata and Ioniq, both of which have a tiny 1.56 kWh battery. The company says the system will be able to charge as much as 60% of that battery in the course of a day under ideal conditions. The second system will be applicable to cars with conventional gasoline engines. It will help recharge the standard 12 volt battery. Eliminating that chore from the work the engine has to do will boost fuel economy and lower emissions slightly.
The third system, which is further away in time, is designed for battery electric cars and may include solar cells embedded in the hood as well as the roof, according to Green Car Reports. “In the future, various types of electricity generating technologies, including the solar charging system, will be connected to vehicles,” says Jeong-Gil Park, executive vice president of engineering design at Hyundai Motor Group. “This will enable them to develop from a passive device that consumes energy to a solution that actively generates energy. The paradigm of the vehicle owner will shift from that of a consumer to an energy prosumer.”
The idea may seem a little far fetched right now, especially if a cost/benefit analysis of the technology is used. But LEDs were once so dim they could barely light up the hind legs of a bumblebee. Now they substitute for old fashioned headlights. Hyundai deserves credit for exploring the possibilities and helping to move the electric transportation revolution forward. Who knows where this research will lead?