Can Solar Panels Run Cars?

The idea that you could, in the future, depend on a car that is totally run by solar obviously sounds great. The migration by many auto manufacturers towards hybrid cars which run on a mix of petrol and electric has been a huge step towards a cleaner future. Equally, the growing number of fully electric vehicles shows that there is still much we can achieve.

But will we soon be able to completely harness the power of the sun and do away with gas guzzling cars altogether?

There’s no doubt that big changes are happening in travel. We’re closer than ever before to the prospect of autonomous, driverless cars and many cities are now looking to reduce at least the number of private cars allowed in their centres. Having cars that are powered by solar panels will also create the flexibility that electric powered vehicles might need to become ever more viable as we head into the future.

The Car Firms Going Solar

Most major car manufacturers have now embraced electric cars and a good few are experimenting with how solar can help.

Audi is working with a company called Alta Devices to produce solar roofs for their cars. While these aren’t intended to completely power a vehicle, they may well provide added juice and help extend the distance that can be travelled before you need to power up again. According to

“Audi sees EVs with roofs almost entirely covered in solar cells, using the electricity they generate to power features like air conditioning or seat heaters. One day, the solar roof may even be able to directly charge the battery.”

The key, of course, is going to be how much electricity these solar roofs produce, how consistently and how much direct sunlight they require. How is that efficiency, for instance, going to be effected and monitored on a cloudy day?

Toyota have also been dabbling with solar panels on cars. They’ve been offering an optional mdel for the Prius since 2010, an added extra which was used for local electrics but not for charging the car battery directly. That all changes this year with the Prius Prime and a larger solar array that can actually add to your driving power. These cars are currently available in Japan and Europe but not in the USA where there has been difficulty passing the safety regulations. In the meantime, the solar panels on the Prime will increase efficiency by about 10% without necessarily being the big game changer that many hope for.

The Challenge of Solar on Putting Solar on Cars

While we’re getting somewhere with solar for cars, there’s undoubtedly still a long way to go. Crowdfunded to the tune of nearly a quarter million pounds is the Sion which was introduced to the world last year. The prototype is thought to be able to travel 115km on a single charge and has panels fitted just about everywhere, including the roof, sides and bonnet. The model is expected to hit the market in 2018 and will be able to charge through the sun or via a traditional EV outlet.

Whether it becomes the gamechanger the builders expect is not a given, however.

Many in the industry remain sceptical that we can currently produce a viable commercial solar powered car, at least for the moment. Some experts believe that the size of the roof and area exposed to the sun is too small to generate enough electricity and that solar cells are too inefficient to make this happen anytime in the next ten years or so. Realistically, there needs to be major advances in solar efficiency to make it work. The more powerful the car, the more solar energy you are going to need.

What Does the Solar Future Look Like?

While the journey may be longer than we expect, of course, using solar power for our cars is not just a pipe dream. If we look at all the technology that has developed, particularly that relating to renewable energy, there have been some astounding changes that many would have found difficult to believe only a couple of decades ago. Having said that, it’s still a big leap from producing electricity to providing the high levels of current needed to power even a modest size vehicle.

The good news is there may be no need for solar powered cars at all. While it’s a great idea, it’s not necessarily the best option. Electric cars, we know, are viable and people are willing to buy and drive them. They can be powered by green technology –  by roof top solar powered arrays on homes, offices and in dedicated refuelling posts.

There’s even research and development going at the moment exploring how we make our roads into solar highways. 100 trials across the work are taking place with solar tech that we can safely drive on. That, more than solar panels on cars, may well be the game changer we’ve been looking for.