Ford Sees Potential Market for Solar Car
- Ford's solar-roofed C-Max Energi concept is more than just a concept now.
- A lot of R&D still needs to be done, but improvements in solar panel efficiency and the high price of gasoline may help the economics pencil out, says Ford's electric car chief.
- Ford is working with power utilities to determine the best ways to use solar-produced electricity from a car to help manage the national power grid.
IRVIVE, California — You'd never want to put this car where the sun doesn't shine. Ford Motor Co. says it can make a case for future production of plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars that get at least part of their charge from Old Sol.
The automaker, which has about 11 percent of the market for plug-in cars, says that advances in solar panel efficiency and continuing high prices for gasoline, along with federal requirements for ever-improving fuel efficiency help make a case for cars that can charge for free during the day.
Ford showed a concept version at the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year: a Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid with two lightweight solar panels on its roof and a sunlight-intensifying parking structure to magnify the solar rays getting to those panels.
But in a briefing session Thursday at the company's Southern California advanced design studio, Ford's director of vehicle electrification said things have gone beyond the concept stage.
"Solar panels were 1.5 percent to 2 percent efficient in the mid-1970s, and now they are 21 percent efficient" at converting sunshine to electricity, said EV chief Michael Tinskey. "And their price has fallen from $77 per watt of power output to about 74 cents per watt."
He wouldn't provide cost figures for the C-Max rooftop system, but said that the savings from producing up to 2 kilowatt-hours of power every day from the sun, good for about 5 miles of travel in a C-Max, could make such a system economically feasible. Electricity these days is averaging about 20 cents a kilowatt during peak periods and gasoline is in the $3.75-$4.00 per gallon range.
Testing, which has been going on since before the concept version was unveiled in January, "shows us that the concept works," said Tinskey. "But a lot more development still has to be done" before a production car could be launched.
Among other things, he said, the rooftop panels would need to be better integrated into the car for improved aerodynamics. "We have to work on everything from heat management to how to handle car washes," he said.
Additionally, Ford is working with power utilities to determine the best ways to use solar-produced electricity from a car to help manage the national power grid.
The automaker also needs to seek the cooperation of businesses and public agencies for installation of the solar "concentrator" parking structure that would help each solar car maximize its time in the sun. Such structures wouldn't be practical in most private homes but could easily be installed in outdoor parking lots at workplaces, shopping centers, schools and other public facilities.
Edmunds says: Solar cars could work well in sunny states, but might not be quite so popular in the northern climes. And where would all those California and Hawaiian surfers put their boards? There are no roof racks on a solar car.