The idea of powering electric cars with sunlight is not new. Sono Motors is planning to begin production of the Sion soon, a car that has solar panels embedded on its roof and hood. Fraunhofer ISE recently unveiled a new solar panel that can be colored to match the paint of any car. So Toyota’s decision to experiment with solar panels on its Prius Prime plug-in hybrid car is not groundbreaking news. But Toyota is certainly pushing the envelope when it comes to figuring out what is possible for solar powered vehicles.
The key to Toyota’s experiment is a partnership with electronics firm Sharp, which is supplying the high-tech solar panels for the project. According to CNET Road Show, the panels from Sharp are 34% efficient — meaning they convert about a third of all the sunlight they receive into electricity. A typical commercially available solar panel today has an efficiency of about 23%.
The solar panels are mounted on the hood, roof, rear window, and spoiler of a normal Toyota Prius. In testing since last July, they have been able to add an average of 35 miles | 56 kilometers of range while driving and 27 miles | 43 kilometers while parked. If that sounds like no big deal to you, consider this. The average American drives 27 miles or less every day, which means a car equipped with solar panels would never have to be plugged in during regular use.
Such high efficiency solar panels don’t come cheap. They are usually reserved for use on satellites where cost is not a consideration. In all likelihood, the cost of a solar equipped car today would be much greater than what most consumers would be willing to pay. But today’s solar panels are ten times cheaper than what solar panels cost a decade ago. Toyota is hoping its experiments will drive down the cost of automotive solar systems in the same way over time.
Add in extra fast charging solutions like those available from ChargePoint, Tesla, and Electrify America, and drivers of electric cars would never have to worry about range anxiety or long charging times again. And that would spur greater interest in electric cars from those who would not consider purchasing an electric car today.
Toyota has not been a leader in electric cars up to this point, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t make a valuable contribution to the electric car revolution in the future, particularly if its styling department stops designing cars that frighten dogs and young children.