It doesn’t take much to make the leap between electric and solar power—if you purchased an EV for environmental reasons, then you know that your car is only as green as its fuel source. If that electricity source comes from coal or other nonrenewable resources, it’s not exactly all that green.
Most cars spend a lot of their time in the sun, so it makes perfect sense to try to power a car with solar panels, right? Well, maybe. Cars require a lot of fuel to operate, whether that’s gasoline or electricity—the 2012 Nissan Leaf, for instance, consumes about 34 kilowatts of energy per every 100 miles. And currently, batteries can’t match the energy density of gasoline—that’s the amount of energy stored in a single unit of fuel. Put simply, it takes a lot more electricity to cover the same distance than it would if you were burning gas. While battery power is certainly improving, most experts say that they won’t catch up to oil for about 20 or 30 years. By that time you may have had to trade up for a couple of new cars!
Not to mention that you’d need a really efficient battery, otherwise you could up stranded in the middle of nowhere! However, thanks to the newest Prius model unveiled in February, solar-assisted vehicles may be coming to dealerships near you soon. They may not run on 100 percent solar power, but they’re a first step in getting there. Here’s the full scoop.
An Inside Look at the New Solar-Assisted Prius
The solar-assisted Prius gets its renewable boost from another product, HIT™ Photovoltaic Module for Automobile, produced by Panasonic. It’s an 180W solar module used to recharge the electric drivetrain and 12V battery in the car. According to Panasonic, the solar film used in the module features “high conversion efficiency and excellent temperature characteristics” that make it more powerful than previous attempts to outfit a car with solar charging.
Meanwhile, Panasonic boasts that this is the first time renewables have been used to power the lithium ion drive batteries—as opposed to being used for backup power for a car’s 12V battery. Prius, which only got into the lithium ion business about six months ago, says that adding the module to its new plug-in will increase the car’s efficiency by about 10 percent. Meanwhile, it adds about 2.2 miles, on average, to the car’s range, so essentially your car could make a trip to a nearby convenience store and back on solar power. Detractors say that’s not exactly all that revolutionary, but it does represent one small step toward the first fully solar-powered auto.
If you want to buy a new Prius with this technology, though, you’ll first have to move to Japan. The solar module has only been released there—US releases have been delayed since the glass used in the module failed American crash test standards. But rumors are circulating that Panasonic—which manufacturers the solar cells for Tesla products—may begin producing the units with Tesla Glass, a product developed for Tesla’s solar roofs for homes. Which leads us to our next point…
Competition Heats Up Between Prius and Tesla for the First Solar-Assisted Car in the US
Not to be outdone, Tesla jumped into the fray as well, with CEO Elon Musk reportedly stating that the next Tesla car will “probably” have a solar roof as well. However, Tesla wants their new module to be deployable—sort of like a retractable solar hardtop. In that way, owners could use the solar cells when conditions were most favorable, rather than driving around with a permanent solar module mounted to their cars. The technology would be available in Tesla’s Model 3. However, integrating this kind of system might hold back other innovations slated for the new release.
What’s Next for Solar-Assisted Vehicles?
The new Prius represents the first commercial release of a solar-assisted vehicle, but as usual, science is way ahead of the curve. For instance, in late 2015, a team of engineering students from Eindhoven University of Technology debuted a net-positive solar-assisted electric vehicle to compete in the 2015 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Using about six meters of monocrystalline solar cells, the car was able to generate an average 1500 watts of energy in direct sunlight—more than necessary to operate the vehicle.
Meanwhile, in a total upheaval of everything we know about solar panels, researchers have been working on developing a technology to convert water and sunlight into a liquid fuel alternative to gasoline. The solar fuel would be the result of a chemical reaction that breaks sunlight and water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The only issue is that scientists need to find one missing ingredient, a photoanode, which has the right chemical properties to kick off the process. And right now, researchers have only seen about 16 of these photoanodes, ever. But a team of scientists is currently analyzing different substances for their photoanode capabilities. If they’re successful, you could have a car that runs on sunlight and water alone. Now tell us that doesn’t feel like the future!