Solar panel cars
Sun-driven car prototypes have been around for more than 50 years, but at-scale production of these designs wasn’t available until recently. Now, with major improvements in lithium battery capabilities and the continuing development of smaller and more efficient solar panels, the futuristic dream of accessible sun-powered cars is rapidly becoming reality. Solar energy saves money and is environment-friendly, so it’s no surprise solar has brought new light to the auto industry.
As a number of existing electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers add solar panels to cars, startups are redesigning vehicles with solar power in mind. Solar-powered vehicles are still in their infancy, though, and few manufacturers have figured out how to turn prototypes into commercial success. We’ve broken down the basics with regard to how these solar electric vehicles (sEVs) work, how they differ from traditional EVs and how you might be able to find one.
- No company makes entirely solar-powered cars for purchase by the general public; as of publishing, solar power isn’t efficient enough to fully power a vehicle.
- Multiple companies are adding solar panels to their EVs or designing new solar EVs from the ground up to reduce dependence on external power.
- Few companies have successfully achieved the launch of a new solar EV, with one major player declaring bankruptcy in January of 2023.
What is a solar-powered car?
Multiple solar electric vehicle startups claim they’re poised to begin distribution of solar-powered cars over the next several years. Solar electric vehicles function much like traditional EVs, but they feature solar panels on the hood, roof and trunk. Adding solar charging to the increasingly efficient fleet of electric vehicles on our roads might be a game changer for some car owners, but solar-only cars aren’t widely available as of publishing.
Like other EVs, you may still have to plug in your solar-powered car overnight. When parked in the sun, your vehicle could convert enough energy to drive between 10 and 40 miles, depending on the brand. If you have a short commute and live in a sunny area, you may find yourself charging from an outlet much less frequently.
While those with longer commutes may require more mileage than solar charging will provide in a single day, charging your car with the sun still significantly reduces its electricity consumption — and your utility costs — throughout the year.
How do solar-powered cars work?
You can charge a solar panel car with an external power source, or you can power the car through its built-in solar panels if it’s parked in the sun.
While companies have various approaches to the creation of solar electric vehicles, sEVs themselves all fundamentally work the same. Like other EVs, the car’s motor receives power from battery packs, which are charged using an external power source (either a dedicated charging port or a standard extension cord) — but sEVs can also charge via solar panels installed on the hood, roof and trunk.
Manufacturers have redesigned cars to be lighter and more efficient by streamlining cars’ bodies to reduce drag, making parts out of carbon fiber and plastic instead of metal, and, in the case of some sEVs, using three wheels rather than four. These design enhancements make EVs more efficient and promote solar power as a viable charging alternative.
Any sEV will likely have to be plugged into external power fairly often, but solar charging may help reduce a reliance on external chargers when you’re out and about. As with a normal EV, when you do plug in, your sEV will charge quickly from external power.
New developments in EV tech mean certain sEVs may be able to charge and be charged by other electric vehicles.
Solar panel cars pros and cons
As sEVs approach the road, a big challenge for manufacturers is bypassing the technological roadblocks that come with a car powered by the sun, as well as certain societal impediments.
- Save on electrical charging costs
- Reduce carbon footprint with green energy
- Can be charged (nearly) anywhere
- efficient due to smaller size and reduced weight
- Solar charging not possible at night
- Solar efficiency lower on cloudy, rainy days
- expensive than traditional EVs
- Size and weight can limit capacity, with potential safety implications
A clear advantage to solar-powered vehicles is the obvious use of the world’s most prevalent source of renewable energy — the sun. EV owners already see massive savings when it comes to energy (compared with gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles), but sEV owners will see a further reduction in operating costs. While traditional EVs are much more climate-conscious than gas-guzzling cars, electricity from the grid is still often generated from fossil fuels.
Solar panel cars also roll in with a number of major disadvantages. For one thing, not every part of the world sees constant sunlight. In the U.S., while cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can see more than 200 days of sunshine a year, some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, often have consistent Cloud cover. That can make solar charing more challenging.
Solar EVs often are smaller and more lightweight than traditional EVs or combustion-engine cars. The smaller size and reduced weight increase the vehicle’s overall efficiency, but it can also mean less storage space and passenger capacity. These lighter-weight materials are also still being tested for safety standards in accident tests.
Available solar panel cars
The sEV market is made up of a mixture of existing car manufacturers, existing EV manufacturers and startup solar EV hopefuls. Aptera and Fisker both plan to deliver solar electric vehicles in 2023, but a handful of companies already have solar options on the market. Below we’ve broken down several current and near-future offerings in the solar vehicle market.
The newest-model Hyundai Sonata Hybrid features an optional solar array. Hyundai estimates the 205-watt photovoltaic array on the roof of the car will add 2½ miles of range per day. While this number is fairly low (some competitors boast between 10 and 40 miles of solar power), 2½ miles adds up to nearly 1,000 miles of range each year and protects you from roadside breakdowns due to loss of nonsolar power.
Toyota has added its solar panel roof to Prius Prime models sold in North America and Europe. While Toyota hasn’t released the exact kilowatt-hour (kWh) specs of the new vehicle’s solar panels, the company mentions that the rooftop solar panels charge the Prius’ battery and can also provide supplemental power to accessories like air conditioning.
Unlike Hyundai and Toyota, Lightyear started building cars with solar electricity in mind from the company’s beginning. The first delivery of vehicles began in December 2022, when the Lightyear 0 hit the road as one of the first sEVs built specifically with solar-powered driving in mind. The Lightyear 0 claims up to 43 miles of range per day from the sun alone, but it can also use any standard EV plug or even a standard extension cord to charge.
Aptera, another new vehicle manufacturer on the solar EV scene, plans on re-creating the idea of a car from the ground up. The Aptera, its flagship vehicle, is a three-wheeled, two-seat car that looks more like an airplane than a standard car. Drivers in certain states may need a motorcycle license to operate it. The Aptera was designed to have an extremely low drag coefficient, a measurement of the resistance an object encounters as it moves through air.
The company also uses individual motors in each of the three wheels as a weight-reduction strategy. Aptera has suggested it may deliver its first sEV later in 2023, but the company is reportedly still looking for investment, crowdfunding and even government loans.
EV manufacturer Fisker’s next release, the Fisker Ocean One, is a solar-powered SUV. The Fisker Ocean One is scheduled to ship in fall of 2023 and features the “SolarSky,” a single solar panel that runs the full length of the vehicle’s roof. Fisker claims its solar roof could produce up to 1,500 miles per year of emission-free energy. The Fisker Ocean also offers a range of up to 350 miles and gets from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds.
Based in Munich, Germany, Sono Motors also hopes to shake up the traditional EV market with a solar-forward design. Sono’s Sion is intended to redesign not just sEVs, but car culture in general. The Sion offers 190 miles of charge, with up to 70 additional miles per week provided by solar power.
While these numbers are low compared with those for U.S. EVs, they may be sufficient for driving in Europe. On top of standard sEV offerings, the Sion is designed with a bidirectional charger that allows it to power your home and appliances in case of emergency, or even to help recharge other EVs.
- Sono Motors, “The Sion.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Aptera Motors Corp., “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Aptera Motors Corp., “Vehicle.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Toyota, “Poised for Performance: 2023 Toyota Prius Prime Revealed.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Fisker Inc, “Ocean.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Hyundai Motor Group, “Everything About the Sonata Hybrid’s Solar Roof.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- Electrek, “The future of solar EVs dims: Lightyear is bankrupt, Sion fights for its life, Aptera on the brink.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Energy, “Emissions from Electric Vehicles.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Energy, “How Do All-Electric Cars Work?” Accessed Jan. 26, 2023.
Solar panels at Toyota’s new Texas HQ to provide 25 percent of its electricity
Texas may be known as an oil state, but it’s also a sprawling and sunny state, making it a good place to set up solar panels.
Toyota hopes to take advantage of that when it completes the move of its North American headquarters from Torrance, California, to the Lone Star State next year.
The Japanese carmaker’s campus in Plano, Texas, will eventually feature a solar-power system capable of generating nearly 7.75 megawatts of power.
When completed, the system will provide approximately 25 percent of the campus’ power needs, Toyota claims.
The system will be installed in phases, beginning next year.
The first phase will include solar arrays covering two parking garages, with 2.45 MW of capacity per garage.
Toyota breaks ground on new HQ in Plano, TX (Jan. 20, 2015)
That phase will be done by August 2017, while a 2.83-MW installation on a third parking garage will be completed in December 2017.
The complete solar installation will reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 7,122 metric tons (7,850 tons), Toyota claims.
Toyota announced its move to Plano, a suburb of Dallas, in 2014, and broke ground on the new headquarters site last year.
The new campus will consolidate operations from the current California headquarters, as well as offices in Erlanger, Kentucky, and New York City.
Toyota is expected to maintain some presence in those locations after the Plano headquarters is completed.
The company’s current Torrance, California, headquarters already has a solar-power system covering 53,000 square feet of rooftop.
Toyota Plano, Texas, solar diagram
Over the past few years, Toyota also installed solar panels at a parts center in Ontario, California, and assembly plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, and an engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama.
It also provided used Camry Hybrid battery packs for use in an energy-storage system for a solar array at Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park.
Other carmakers have also made significant investments in solar energy to power their facilities.
Volkswagen uses a 33-acre solar field to provide up to 12.5 percent of the power for its factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which builds the Passat mid-size sedan.
Nissan uses a combination of solar panels and wind turbines at the Sunderland, U.K., plant that builds the Leaf electric car for the European market.
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Is the Solar-Powered Electric Vehicle Revolution Imminent?
Even though it seems sensible to fit electric vehicles with solar panels for extra range, this approach is rare.
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Among the dozens of new electric vehicles on the market, hardly any come equipped with photovoltaic panels that could replenish their batteries with solar energy. Some models come with solar arrays from the factory, but they are exceptions rather than the norm.
But why? The simple answer is that solar panels don’t produce enough electricity to justify their cost, especially for automakers building hundreds of thousands of vehicles every year. This doesn’t mean they are absent from all passenger cars, just that they are rare, even among fully electric vehicles.
Let’s explore which production cars have factory-fitted solar panels, examine in detail why they aren’t more popular, and look to the future.
Why Aren’t Solar Panels Common in Electric Vehicles?
Manufacturers have opted against giving their electric vehicles solar panels because, while they do provide some extra electricity, they don’t make enough of it to be worthwhile. Even in those vehicles that do have them, the arrays are small.
This means the electricity they produce is not used to top up the vehicle’s battery, but rather to help run some secondary systems, like climate control and lighting. You need a lot more surface area covered by solar cells to produce meaningful amounts of electricity—which is why Tesla offers solar panels for your home.
However, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the cost of photovoltaic cells per watt produced was 0.27 in 2022, compared to 2.15 in 2010. This means we should start to see more vehicles with solar cells soon, especially as electric cars become more commonplace (and their range is one of the key selling points.)
Which Production Cars Have Solar Panels?
Automakers began putting solar panels on their cars way before the arrival of mass-market electric vehicles. Audi, for instance, offered one on its A8 flagship sedan launched in 1999. It replaced the standard sunroof, and the electricity it produced was used to keep the car’s ventilation running even when the vehicle was parked.
The first Nissan Leaf EV (on sale between 2010 and 2016) was available with a small optional solar panel embedded in the vehicle’s rear spoiler. In this case, the array was only designed to keep the vehicle’s 12-volt battery topped up without needing to draw from the big traction battery that runs the hybrid system.
Toyota also offered a similar solution for the second-generation Prius hybrid built between 2003 and 2009, but it only provided a trickle into the 12-volt battery, just enough to run the climate system.
Then the automaker gave its fourth-gen Prius (sold from 2015 until 2022) a solar roof option, but this time it was a much bigger array, spanning almost the entire surface of its roof. At the time of its launch, Toyota said that with this optional solar roof, the Prius plug-in could get 10 percent better fuel efficiency, allowing the vehicle to run longer on electricity alone. This option was only offered in Japan and Europe; it didn’t make it to North America.
Excitingly, Toyota announced it will offer a solar roof option for the fifth-generation Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, unveiled in late 2022.
The Hyundai Ioniq 5 is another vehicle that comes with an available solar charging option, which the manufacturer says can add 3 miles (5 km) of free range each day. This may not sound significant, but it can add up to nearly 1,240 miles (2,000 km) over the course of one year.
The Troubled Development of Solar Electric Vehicles
One of the most promising solar-powered EVs was the Sono Motors Sion. The product of a German mobility startup, its party piece was the integration of solar cells in all its body panels.
Whereas most vehicles limit the solar array to their roof area, the Sion also had them on its hood, quarter panels, doors, and even the hatch in the back. Sono Motors said it could augment the Sion’s rated WLTP range of 189 miles (305 km) by over 124 miles (200 km) per week in the summer and by around 20 miles (32 km) in the winter.
Unfortunately, Sono Motors scraped its electric car business in February 2023, pivoting to selling solar vehicle technology to other businesses, so the Sion is unlikely to ever see the light of day.
Another startup, Lightyear Motors, came very close to launching the world’s first solar EV, the Lightyear 0, but the plug was eventually pulled on the project, even as manufacturing of the very first production vehicles had commenced.
Then the company announced it was shifting its FOCUS to a much more affordable model, the Lightyear 2, but it has faced financial difficulties. It’s not clear if either of these models will ever see the end of a production line.
Upcoming Solar Electric Vehicles
None of the production vehicles discussed earlier rely on their solar arrays to produce any kind of meaningful range. However, there are several vehicles hopefully launching in 2023 whose photovoltaic panels will noticeably extend their range, in some cases even negating the need to plug the vehicles in (for use cases when the user’s daily commute is short.)
Probably the most exciting and best-known upcoming solar EV is from US-based startup Aptera. Its three-wheeler adopts a radical design that prioritizes low weight and low drag above all else. With all the available solar panels fitted, the innovative Aptera solar EV will apparently crack 1,000 miles (1,609 km) on one charge.
There’s also the Fisker Ocean electric crossover, which will get an optional solar roof option called SolarSky. Its makers say this will be good for over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of free range annually, or more if you drive your vehicle in a place that’s sunny throughout the year, like California.
Solar Panels In Cars Will Become Commonplace
Expect to see an increasing number of vehicles with solar arrays in the near future. Between the ever lower cost of photovoltaic cells and the shift to electric vehicles, more automakers will surely go down this route.
This trend will really take off once a manufacturer brings a model with significant solar charging to market and that model proves to be a success. The company closest to achieving this right now is Sono Motors, but there’s also Mercedes-Benz, which revealed the EQXX concept with a similarly large solar array on the roof. While the manufacturer has refrained from sharing full details, they promise to be some of the most efficient electric vehicles on the market.
Why solar panels on cars make no sense (at this point)
28 January 2023
Several makers have already toyed with equipping their EVs with solar panels. And at first, it makes sense. As your car sits idling, you get extra range for free. Plus, it’s clean energy, which is good for the environment, too. Plus, there’s the added convenience of fewer trips to the charger. what’s not to like? A lot, actually, and it appears the moment you scratch the surface. Let’s take a look!
Important notes on the work of solar panels
We will not bother you with too many technicalities here, but we need to make a couple of important points about the practical side of having a solar panel on your roof. Panels have nominal power output often marked in the non-SI unit watt-peak (Wp). Which is the output the panel will generate if it’s fully exposed to the sun and at optimal temperature.
However, you will usually get a partial output even in bright sun as the temperature will affect that. Every solar panel has a temperature coefficient (in the 0.2%-0.5%) range, indicating the expected output loss for each degree over 25°C. Considering that a panel exposed to direct summer sun in southern Europe can reach beyond 65°C, it adds up to 8-20% degradation.
Another factor to consider is that solar panels really hate shade. cells in a solar panel are typically connected in a series. So even if just half of a cell of a 36-cell panel is shaded (so just under 1.5% of its working area), the output of the entire panel drops by half. The shaded cell will bring the other down to its level and you will not get the promised output.
And shading just one entire row of the panel would reduce its output to zero more often than not. You can add more series within the panel to alleviate this, but it will bring little results as shading typically occurs in entire rows or columns.
It gets worse too. if all panels are connected to the same inverter, as would be the case if carmakers want to keep wiring complexity and price in check, having one panel underperform drops the output of the entire array.
These are significant concerns and people that install roof solar systems spend a lot of time planning to avoid them. Panels are installed in locations and at angles to avoid shading as much as possible, but when you have the panel on your car, you have none of that luxury. Cars are parked on roads, next to buildings and other taller cars, which means that the vast majority of panels on them will produce next to zero electricity the vast majority of the time.
That said, let’s move to the main points.
It’s anything but free
A simple solar roof offered by Hyundai on certain models and Toyota on the Prius would cost upwards of €1,500, sometimes even over €2,500 as an option depending on the market. They would have a nominal power of 204Wp on the Hyundai and 60Wp on the latest Prius. That last one is so underpowered that it doesn’t even attempt to charge the battery, but merely runs some of the car’s systems when possible.
The guys over at Global Solar Atlas have put together a great map that gives you the expected annual yield of a solar panel, depending on its location. In Gibraltar you’d get about 1,550Wh for 1Wp of installed solar panels if you’ve angled them optimally at 30°. Laying them flat as they would be on a car’s panels drops that to 1,400Wh. In London that number stands at 820Wh. And those numbers don’t account for the loss to shading.
So under optimal conditions the Hyundai solar roof would yield 280kWh yearly. In London you’d get 164kWh. That’s without counting the extra power needed to cool the cabin since you’ve obviously parked it in the brightest sun, instead of a cooler shadier spot.
Even at commercial charging stations rates of €0.50/KWh you’d need 10 to 20 years just to break even before you count all the other factors that will reduce the output.
And that’s not factoring in the inefficiencies between the panel output and the battery charger, the degradation of the panel or cases when charging is impossible due to the battery already being full, although admittedly both of those contribute single percentage points. Still, it’s no wonder Hyundai has discontinued the option in most markets.
To take another example. the ill-fated Lightyear 0 has more panels and even if the company never disclosed the output of the panels the numbers it has shared allow us to calculate it. Lightyear estimates an extra yield of 11,000km in Southern Spain,based on the 625km WLTP range and the 60kW battery.
So the company expects you to get 1,056kW of power if you always opt for the middle of that giant car park away from any pesky shadows. Or about €528 worth of savings. Move to Glasgow and your savings are down to €265. Not bad, considering that you were supposed to be getting a €250,000 car with no rear window.
Obviously, Lightyear says the 2 will be far cheaper, while Sonos is even testing production of its €40,000 solar car, but as the company already proved promises are one thing and delivering an actual worthy vehicle to the road an entirely different. So while I’m open to being proven wrong I doubt it will happen in the next decade.
It’s not environmentally-friendly
Sure it’s costing you more than it’s putting back in the battery but having the solar roof generate cleanest energy possible is helping the environment right? Sadly, things are once more not that simple.
Solar energy adoption is accelerating at an unprecedented pace and the most limiting factor is actually the supply side. we just can’t make solar panels fast enough. And in a supply-limited market it makes more sense to leave production capacity for the solar farms where panels will be placed in a way to maximize their output instead of wasting them on cars where they’ll be idling most of the time.
Worse yet, the smaller the installation, the higher the overhead as you can’t use economy of scale to offset wiring and inverter costs and you end up increasing the carbon footprint per Wh.
Convenience is doubtful
Now convenience is obviously a strictly personal matter, but solar panels are certainly not a one-way street when it comes to that. For starters, the looks of the solar panels aren’t as great as the sleek roof most cars come with these days. But obviously you don’t look at your car’s roof very often so that’s no biggie.
How about parking then. you surely park your car frequently. So now you’ll have to carefully consider where you park your car if you want to even come close to maximizing the limited power output potential.
You’ll also need to be washing your car religiously as dust and dirt will severely impact the efficiency of the panel. If you are getting regular snowfall you’d need to be extra careful to fully clean any surface that you’d be hoping will generate any electricity.
And speaking of winter conditions, we have to repeat that even if you do your best the output in the winter when EVs are most range-limited, will be only a third from what you get in the summer. So even under ideal conditions a Ioniq 5 will get about 1.5 kilometers of extra range per day in the winter.
You like having sunroofs and feel of extra spaciousness that it provides? Sorry, that doesn’t mix with a solar panel. Roof rails are also a no-go and no rooftop boxes, obviously.
Then there’s the matter of repairability. having to repaint your car is usually a routine operation that a number of official and third party repair shops can do for you. Having to replace a solar panel, which is far more fragile to begin with, is a far more complicated procedure. And the rarity of those would make finding the parts a challenge.
Not to mention that on the Lightyear 2 you will have to live without a rear Windows, while the Sonos Sion has it drastically reduced. If either of those ever comes to the market, of course.
What to do instead
You can build a small installation for your house for the cost of a Hyundai solar roof that will generate much more green electricity, not to mention it will be easier to maintain and will last much longer. And if you are dead set on putting some homemade solar power in your car you can still do that.
Upgrading your home charging station may net you faster charging rates. Or you can look at improving your car efficiency by getting a new set of tires or different wheels.
Depending on where you live you can opt to buy more of your electricity from renewable sources. The money saved from the needless car option will last you until these no longer command a price premium.
And one day when panels have improved, we’ve completed all the major projects and supply has finally caught up with demand we can perhaps reconsider and start putting them on cars. But that’s decades away.