Solar panel cars
Are we there yet?
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
- More efficient due to smaller size and reduced weight
- Solar charging not possible at night
- Solar efficiency lower on cloudy, rainy days
- More 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.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page. Specific sources for this article include:
- 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.
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