Japanese automaker Toyota, along with Sharp and New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization of Japan (NEDO) are testing a solar powered Prius that they say could revolutionize transportation.
Theoretically, a vehicle might run forever by putting together the best solar panels around, super-efficient batteries and decades of car-making expertise. According to Koji Makino, the Project Manager at Toyota:
“The solar car’s advantage is that — while it can’t drive for a long range — it’s really independent of charging facilities.”
Even if fully electric cars overtake conventional gasoline-powered cars in sales, they still need to be plugged in, which means building a network of charging stations across the globe. The sun, on the other hand, shines everywhere for free, and when that energy is paired with enough battery capacity to propel vehicles at night, solar-powered cars could leapfrog all the new-energy tech being developed, from plug-in hybrids to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, in one fell swoop.
However there is still work left to reach that level of efficiency. Takeshi Miyao, an auto analyst at Carnorama says that “its not like we are going to see widely used solar-powered cars in the next decades, it’s going to take a long time.”
Toyota and Hyundai have already introduced commercial models with solar panels on the roof, but they were too underpowered and could barely juice the sound system. The Prius plug-in hybrid offers solar panels as an option, but they only charge the battery when parked. The maximum amount of power for driving only lasts about 6 km, said Mitsuhiro Yamazaki, director at the solar energy systems division of NEDO.
Toyota has been testing a new solar-powered Prius since July, though it acknowledges that cars running nonstop without connecting to a plug are still far away. However Toyota believes the research will pay off in other ways. Indeed, there have been some breakthroughs, mainly due to advancements by Sharp. The prototype’s solar panel converts sunlight at an efficiency level of more than 34%, compared with about 20% for current panels.
Because the new solar cell being used is only about 0.03 mm thick, it can be placed on more surfaces, including the curvy parts of the roof, hood and hatchback. The electrical system can charge the vehicle even when it’s on the move. According to Mitsuhiro Yamazaki, if the car is driven four days a week for a maximum of 50 km a day, there is no need to plug into an outlet.
Toyota’s bet on solar power is one of many that Japan’s No.1 carmaker is placing on the future of transportation. With Volkswagen and other auto titans facing uncertain futures as new technologies and business models ripple through the $2.23 trillion global industry, they are investing billions of dollars in cars powered by electricity and hydrogen to keep apace.