The idea of the utilization of solar power to run electric cars has not been totally pursued in the automotive industry as a norm. It holds great promise in the transition to sustainable living, using the best form of energy source for transportation. But the hindrances of fully turning the concept into a constant reality remains. The physics evidence shows that solar energy is not able to power an automobile as a single source.
Tesla, being known to defy limits, is now working to challenge that premise beginning with their recent release, the Cybertruck. In 2017, CEO Elon Musk initially presented the idea of having solar panel roofs on vehicles but this did not pull through due to reasons mentioned above. But with the birth of the Cybertruck, Musk revisited the idea. In response to a Twitter query, the CEO hinted at a possible innovation.
Will be an option to add solar power that generates 15 miles per day, possibly more. Would love this to be self-powered. Adding fold out solar wings would generate 30 to 40 miles per day. Avg miles per day in US is 30.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 22, 2019
The Tesla team has been searching for viable ways to integrate solar panels of the roofs of the Tesla models for many years now. Musk talked about the idea of a “deployable solar shield like a retractable hard top” for future Tesla vehicles. Their engineers were tasked to find ways to put solar cells in model 3, but at the time it was not worth looking into according to them.
As a technology, the performance of solar cells has been improving. Tesla’s other venture, Tesla Energy, has been doing well in the integration of solar cells with the creation of the solar roof. During the unveiling of the Cybertruck and the revelation of the solar roof option to add 15 miles in the total range of the car in a single day, and the idea of solar flaps can add 30 to 40 miles a day. For a normal car ride within city bounds, this would suffice. But for long trips, there is still a necessity for charging breaks.
If all goes well, the Cybertruck will be Tesla’s first partially solar-powered vehicle.
Panasonic, one of Tesla’s partners for battery cells, developed the Photovoltaic Module HIT intended for automotive set-up. Toyota’s Prius PHV adopted this technology in 2017.
The ability of a solar panel-integrated cars relies on a lot of factors. Shades such as clouds, trees, or buildings could deprive the panel of sunlight. The positional orientation of the car from the rays of the sun is also another vital factor.
Taking for example the Model S with the length of 5 meters and width of 2 meters, full sunlight exposure for 4 to 5 hours in a day equates to 10 kilowatts of power. The longest rage that the model S can reach with a 100 kilowatt/hour battery pack is 402 miles. Adding in the solar feature, about 10% of the total mile range is added, which is already a huge thing in a practical sense.
There have been a few cars before with solar panels attached to their roofs, but it never lasted. Tesla right now is in a good position to lead the automotive industry in commercializing solar-powered cars. This new feature can be very helpful for adventure cars, and vehicles with big surface areas, like the Tesla Semi.
A start-up Dutch company called Lightyear is in talks of launching an EV powered by solar panels and batteries. The model is not ready for production yet, and the company is using modified Tesla Model 3’s for tests.
The solar panels on the Cybertruck will definitely change the game of the EV industry and pave the way for more sustainable transport strategies. The pick-up truck seems to be the optimal choice for solar panel integration because of its large surface area. The aesthetic appeal of such a car can also pose a challenge in the likelihood of consumers to buy the car.
As the car runs, the energy yield of the solar panels is calculated to determine the amount of energy that can be used by the car. Both Lightyear’s prototype and Tesla’s Cybertruck are scheduled to launch in 2021.