Remember what electric cars were like 15 years ago?
Don’t worry if you don’t as that’s largely down to the fact that there weren’t any.
Fast forward to now and every manufacturer has some kind of electric car - or has plans to start production very soon. The Nissan Leaf is everywhere; you no longer have to travel very far to see a Tesla; and even the likes of Porsche and Ferrari are adding electric motors. The rate of change is rapidly increasing as more engineers build more electric cars and discover new ways to improve them.
One of the issues with electric cars is that, while they do away with exhaust emissions, the electricity still has to be generated somewhere. And that’s not always as green as the car. The UK is pretty good at getting renewable electricity into the grid - although the phrase, must try harder, springs to mind - yet despite the efforts there isn’t anywhere near enough capacity to replace every petrol or diesel with electric vehicles.
Toyota has a possible solution to this problem. It’s called the sunshine. And solar panels.
Alongside Sharp Corporation and NEDO, a Japanese national research and development organisation, Toyota will begin road trials of a new ‘solar battery’ car this month.
Before you get too excited you should probably be made aware that this is only a trial of the solar panel system, not a new car. What Toyota’s engineers have done is take a regular Prius plug-in hybrid and slap solar panels all over it. It looks ridiculous. But at this stage that isn’t the point.
Putting solar panels on cars isn’t a new idea but the hope is that this technology will push the limits a little bit further. If you’re currently driving an electric car or hybrid you may already have a solar panel on your car. It’s there to provide power to the backup systems while the car is switched off and to prevent you wasting battery power. It basically means you can leave the air-con on or listen to the radio while you wait in the hot car park without killing your battery. What they don’t do very well is charge the car, and they don’t even do that unless the car is parked.
This new system uses the larger surface area and more efficient panels to charge the car up either as you drive or while it’s parked.
According to the figures these new panels are much more effective at converting sunlight to electricity and consequently can produce more power. Don’t ask us how, it’s science. But the upshot is this: where your current solar panel can generate around 180W the new ones will go up to 860W. In real world terms that means that you can add around 25 miles of range to the battery just from the solar cells. At the moment you’d be lucky to get an extra three miles of range.
Now, 25 miles doesn’t sound like much when it comes to the range of an electric car, and to be honest it isn’t. When Tesla are producing electric cars that can do 300 miles between charges and battery technology is constantly improving, an extra 25 miles isn’t that big a deal. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this is the first time a mainstream manufacturer has taken solar panels to road test.
At the moment it’s a relatively new technology so the gains will be small, and 25 miles is a lot better than three no matter how you dress it up, yet if history teaches us anything it’s that once the big players get involved the rate of development increases rapidly.
Toyota’s solar powered car may only be a trial at the moment but if successful it could help to solve the whole range anxiety/charging network conundrum sooner than you think.
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