Sustainability Infrastructure

Rooftop solar panels charge your car while you’re driving

Toyota Prius with solar panels

Story at a glance

  • Car companies are attaching solar panels to the roofs of cars to harness added electric power while parked or on the go.
  • Hyundai’s new Sonata Hybrid has solar panels, which can power a few extra miles of driving a day.
  • A luxury electric vehicle from a Dutch startup called Lightyear could potentially cover a modest commute in sunny conditions, but would still need to be plugged in occasionally.
  • Toyota is working toward a car that could “run forever” without any need to be plugged in.
  • Experts say the project is a ways off from achieving the lofty goal of an electric car that never needs to be charged, but its innovations could improve solar cells for other applications.

A handful of cars now boast some added trim: solar panels. But just how much of a boost are these roof-mounted solar panels providing? 

Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid is one such model, and the company claims its shiny photovoltaic top could give the car an additional 808 miles of travel each year. That sounds significant, but that’s just 2.2 extra miles a day. And to get that boost the car needs to spend six hours each day soaking up some relatively unadulterated rays. 

Those added miles represent roughly $22 of electricity a year, or 6 cents a day. Hyundai hasn’t posted the car’s asking price, but if the solar panels added $1,000 to the cost of the car, it would take them at least 45 years to pay for themselves.

An all-electric luxury model from a Dutch startup called Lightyear ups the ante with a claimed 7.5 miles of extra range for every hour of full sun. If those numbers prove accurate, a sunny day could allow the car to cover a commute of up to 60 miles after a standard 8-hour work day without being plugged in.

The Lightyear One and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid are each able to charge while driving, which is an improvement over prior offerings featuring solar technology.

But the holy grail in this game is an electric vehicle that can cut the power cord entirely. In an attempt to chase this dream, Toyota has partnered with Sharp and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization of Japan (NEDO) to develop a Prius that could “run forever,” Bloomberg reports.

The companies have developed ultrathin solar panels that can work on curved surfaces, allowing them to cover more of the car and potentially generate more power. If solar powered cars can become efficient enough to forego plug-in charging, it could alleviate the infrastructural headache of building a network of charging stations to keep traditional electric vehicles running. The collaboration also seems to have increased the solar cells’ efficiency, with a recent prototype claiming a 34 percent conversion rate of solar energy. Most solar panels operate at around 20 percent efficiency. 

Experts say we are a ways off from a cordless electric car, but the tech innovations achieved in the pursuit of this lofty goal still have the potential to make an impact.

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