At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, companies from around the world unveiled exciting new technologies, from a bendable ultra HD television to a self-balancing, one-wheeled, motorized skateboard. But perhaps the coolest technology—from an environmental perspective—was Ford’s new C-Max Solar Energi, the world’s first solar electric car.
The Solar Energi derives its power from 16 square feet of rooftop solar panels. To maximize the panels’ energy absorption, Ford developed a solar concentrating lens in collaboration with the Georgia Institution of Technology. The lens sits on a stationary canopy above the car when parked, magnifying sunlight 8 fold and “funneling it onto the photovoltaic cells”. Ford has also programmed the car to automatically move forward or backward to track the sun throughout the day.
With these state-of-the-art features, Ford estimates that the car takes 6-8 hours to charge in an average US city. This roughly equates to the length of time people leave their cars in workplace parking lots. Once fully charged (to 8kW), the car can travel for 21 miles before reverting to the gas engine. Research suggests that this distance can cover 75% of trips by the average US driver.
What does this mean for the environment? Ford calculates that the Solar Energi could reduce the annual greenhouse gas emissions of a typical owner by 4 metric tons. This exceeds the reduction for plug-in electric cars, as most US electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. According to Mike Tinskey, Ford’s Director of Vehicle Electrification and Infrastructure, “Not all grids are the same in terms of renewable content. You definitely get 100% renewables” from the Solar Energi.
But don’t expect the Solar Energi to be “cruising down your street anytime soon”. The car is still “a concept vehicle not ready for dealer showrooms”. It also faces numerous issues. For example, the solar panels are ineffective in underground parking or cloudy weather. The canopy requires additional space, as well as frequent installation. The highly concentrated sunbeams pose a potential safety hazard. And while Ford hasn’t revealed the price of the car, it is believed to be “significant”.
Despite these shortcomings, the Solar Energi proves just how much solar efficiency has improved and is “pushing the boundaries of what’s possible”. It “hints at an automotive future powered directly by renewable energy”. In the words of Tinskey, “We need to get the conversation started.”