The concept of having 100% solar-powered cars may soon become a reality. For years, this concept has been speculated and experimented over the electric vehicles (EVs) industry as a future possibility.
Many people, including some experts, are still of the opinion that the concept of a fully solar car is not only impractical, but also impossible.
For years, numerous car makers have been trying to produce solar-powered vehicles, only to have fallen short of expectations.
For example, one of the most prominent solar cars so far, Toyota Prius had a solar roof to power the vehicle. However, it was found to be useful only when combined with a traditional battery charging system, and it could merely add an extra four miles to the range.
Engineers calculated the rate at which an engine works through horsepower (hp). A car equipped with a solar roof had a horsepower rate of 6.4. An average car in the US has 120-horsepower. It means solar automakers still have their work cut out.
In this post, we will talk about concept solar vehicles, solar electric vehicles (EVs), how these vehicles work, their advantages, and price.
How Do Solar Cars Work?
If solar-powered vehicles could become a reality, to be effective and efficient, their technology should work in the same way as residential solar panel installation.
Similar to residential solar panels, solar cells in a car are usually rooftop-mounted so that they receive direct sunlight.
The solar cells convert sunlight into electricity, which recharges an electric vehicle battery, the same way how residential solar panels provide power for home appliances like TV and refrigerator.
Solar cars incorporate photovoltaic (PV) cells to convert sunlight into energy. PV cells are the components in solar panels that primarily do this energy conversion.
PV cells are made of semiconductors, usually silicon, that absorb the sunlight. The sun’s energy releases electrons in semiconductors and creates a flow of electrons.
Subsequently, that flow produces electricity that powers the battery and the specialized motor in solar cars.
Advantages of Solar Car
Zero Carbon Emissions
Solar-powered cars have electric motors. It means these cars do not burn fuel and have no carbon emissions.
Using solar cars does not contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gases in the environment, including solar-powered prototypes and concept cars.
No Fuel Costs
Solar cars provide significant economic incentives to develop, produce, and operate.
Because solar cars do not depend on external fuel sources, there are no fuel costs associated with gas, diesel, and even hybrid automobiles.
Solar panels in these cars convert sunlight into electricity, and the sun’s energy is free to everyone during the day.
Preserves Natural Resources
In solar-powered cars, solar panels and other components initially consume energy and resources, but other than those, these cars do not require any additional energy input.
Also, as mentioned earlier, solar-powered cars do not consume fuel, and their dependence on petroleum-based products is limited to the lubrication of wheels/plastics used in replacement parts. It means solar cars help preserve natural resources like petroleum, which have limited reserves.
Electric motors that are used to power solar cars are usually smaller than gas engines and operate without the noise and vibrations associated with traditional vehicles.
Also, it is possible to design solar-powered cars to be much lighter, allowing for faster turning and stopping.
Are Solar Cars on the Market?
Vehicles that entirely run by solar power is still a concept but are likely to become a reality soon. First, let us talk about 100% solar-powered cars, which are still in the concept phase.
Solar Concept Cars
The Lightyear One is a prototype of an electric vehicle covered in solar panels, which will be launched for the public in 2021.
Lightyear, the Dutch start-up manufacturer of Lightyear One was established in 2016 by former members of Solar Team Eindhoven. It was a team comprising engineering students, who were winners of the solar-powered World Solar Challenge race in 2013, 2015, and 2017.
The company has claimed that Lightyear One will have 450 miles (725 km) of range from its built-in battery. The source of power is the car’s five square meters of solar panels, which are mounted on the car’s roof and hood.
The solar panels can charge the car’s battery with up to 12 km of range an hour.
Lightyear also states that the solar cells in the car are 20% more efficient than traditional vehicles, and they are encased in safety glass to protect them from damage.
The concept of Lightyear one has recently won the ‘Climate Change Innovator Award.’
The first 10 Lightyear One cars are supposed to hit the roads in 2019.
Until recently, 100% solar-powered cars were not considered a realistic prospect, and solar-assisted electric vehicles (SAEVs) were thought to be the best possible option for solar cars. However, Lightyear One has made it a reality.
The third-generation Toyota Prius was unveiled in 2010, and the car owners could opt for a sliding glass mounted on the roof that had solar panels.
The solar panels in the car provide power to an air ventilation system that uses an air circulation fan without any support from the engine.
Using this method allows the fan to run even when the car is off, and it keeps the vehicle cool when parked and reduces the use of air conditioning.
A car 100% powered by solar is still a long shot due to the limited space on a car’s exterior surface. If a moonroof covered in panels is needed to power a ventilation fan, imagine how much power is needed to power an engine.
The speed of the Prius is not affected by the solar panels and varies depending on the model purchased.
Also, the distance covered by the Prius is not impacted by the solar panels which run independently from the engine.
Toyota has a car available with solar cells installed, which is currently available only in Japan.
The solar manufacturer Panasonic provided the solar panel roof. According to Toyota, the integrated solar cells can add up to 3.7 miles of driving range per day.
Ford’s C-MAX Solar Energi Concept
Ford C-Max was introduced in 2014 as the plug-in electric hybrid car with 16 square feet of solar panels that charge the lithium-ion battery pack.
The car was covered with Fresnel lenses that concentrate the sun on the solar panels made by SunPower. It takes 6 to 7 hours to charge the battery fully.
The car may take more than a day to fully charge without using the Fresnel lens.
According to Ford’s estimate, the car could fuel nearly 75% of the daily trips. The company is still testing the concept to make sure that it works in full-scale production.
The C-Max Energi can reach a top speed of 85 mph on electricity only. The solar-powered battery has a 21-mile range.
The solar-powered car is five-seater and pretty much looks like the Ford’s C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid compact car that was released in 2013.
This version of Ford hybrid looks stylish and space-efficient and is already a popular family vehicle in Europe but rarely seen in the US.
Sion by Sono Motors
Sono Motors is a start-up based in Germany, which is working on manufacturing a solar-powered car.
The car that Sono Motors will introduce in 2019 is called “Sion.” The vehicle will come with 330 integrated solar cells all over it, from the roof to the side doors to the back.
According to the company, these integrated cells can provide an extra 30 km of range.
Overall, Sion is an innovative electric car that has a range of 250 km (155 miles) and costs €16,000 (excluding the battery).
Sono Motors is targeting the mass market by offering a solar-powered vehicle for such a competitive price.
Sion is the first of its kind solar car, which recharges its battery through the sun (up to 30 kilometres per day).
In 2019, Sono Motors will offer the battery for a monthly rate on rent or lease basis or a one time purchase. The one-time purchase of the battery may cost buyers less than €4000.
Related article: Top 12 Solar Manufacturers in Germany
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
In August of 2019, Hyundai made an announcement that they are going to launch a hybrid version of the Sonata that has integrated solar panels.
This car will be initially available only in South Korea. Later, the company has a plan to launch the vehicle in North America.
According to Hyundai, it is possible to charge 30 to 60% of the car’s battery using the solar panel technology. The company also plans to introduce solar cells to other vehicles in their lineup in the coming years.
Solar-Assisted Electric Vehicles (SAEVs)
As mentioned earlier, solar cars are far-off from being mainstream. Still next best alternatives are solar-assisted electric vehicles or SAEVs and EV plug-in hybrids that use both electricity and a gas-powered engine.
Users can charge SAEVs using solar panels from home and commute without any emissions.
Even though solar panel cars technology remains inefficient and impractical, users can still power their electric vehicles or EVs with the sun by installing a solar panel system at home.
Here are some of the best solar-assisted electric vehicles (SAEVs) in the market:
Consumers who are looking to buy a quality EV can find Nissan Leaf a perfect choice. Currently, it is the best-selling EV on the market.
The automaker Nissan brought Nissan Leaf into the market in late 2010, it and was one of the first fully electric cars priced for average consumers.
The Leaf is a four-door, five-seater hatchback car. This car is not a typical hybrid vehicle with gasoline engines to back-up the electric motor.
Nissan Leaf runs exclusively on electricity, and the 2016 model runs averaging an 80-100 mile range, which makes the car ideal for people with shorter commutes.
Consumers can charge the vehicle in their garage with a 240-volt charger.
Tesla Model S
Tesla, Inc. produces the Tesla Model S, and the company introduced this vehicle on June 22, 2012.
This is an all-electric five-door liftback car, and as of April 23, 2019, the Model S Long Range has a range and efficiency (EPA) of 370 miles (600 km).
Most solar car price range is already on the higher side. Particularly, the Tesla Model S price tag of $75,000-$100,000 is way higher than average consumers’ affordability.
Except for the steep price tag, this EV offers excellent quality, style, and performance.
The car can be charged pretty fast as Tesla has installed 1,063 Supercharger stations all over the world, out of which 443 stations are in the US, 31 in Canada, 353 in Europe, 230 in Asia/Pacific region, and 6 in Mexico.
Tesla Model S car is fast, and driving feels quiet. Moreover, the cabin provides the sound dynamics of a recording studio.
The standard all-wheel-drive dual-motor speeds up from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds.
Related article: Top 9 Solar Shingles Alternatives of Tesla Solar Roof Tiles
In 2015, Chevy Volt was the third top-selling EV, and in 2016, it received the “Green Car of the Year” award from the Green Car Journal.
The starting price of this compact car is $25,670, which is more affordable than most EVs.
Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid EV, and the gas-powered engine provides the comfort of a 420-mile range. The car is fast as well and goes from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Chevy Volt emits 1.3 tons of carbon dioxide at 15,000 miles per year. This emission is less than the average of 4.7 tons from the average passenger vehicle.
The EV is a five-seater and fun to drive. From a buyer’s perspective, it is a good deal as the car has long-range, average EPA fuel economy of 42 miles per hour and excellent acceleration.
In 2015, BMW i3 was the fourth best-selling EV, and still one of the few models that were designed to be an EV from the beginning.
The price of this EV is around $43,395, and the steep price tag is out of range for many buyers, though it is still affordable than a Tesla Model S.
The BMW i3 comes with an optional gas engine, which increases the electric-only range of 81 miles to a total range of 150 miles.
In 2017, the i3 came with an increased battery-range of up to 114 miles.
The four-seater BMW i3 is built using carbon fibre reinforced plastic.
The car speeds up from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds and has nice handling due to a low center of gravity.
Related article: Top 10 Technological Breakthroughs in the Solar Industry 2019
The Way Forward
The solar technology continues to improve, and due to this, there will be more efficient solar vehicles in the market in the coming years.
Already there are 43% efficient solar cells in the development phase and nearly ready for production.
The Toyota test cars, for example, installing solar cells with 90% efficiency will increase the daily charge range to around 81 miles.
For battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like Sion, such cells can add around 70 miles daily.
Right now, it may not be possible to predict exactly when we will see such efficient EVs at a more affordable price, but those days are not far off.
Solar vehicles that will come equipped with more consumer-friendly features and flexibility can achieve greater market penetration and will boost the EV market.