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Is Toyota developing a purely solar-powered car — or is this a story lost in translation?

By Joe Romm on January 3, 2009 at 9:12 am

"Is Toyota developing a purely solar-powered car — or is this a story lost in translation?"

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prius-solar-lapp-01.jpgAn AP report is generating headlines around the world:

Toyota Motor Corp. is secretly developing a vehicle that will be powered solely by solar energy….

According to The Nikkei, Toyota is working on an electric vehicle that will get some of its power from solar cells equipped on the vehicle, and that can be recharged with electricity generated from solar panels on the roofs of homes. The automaker later hopes to develop a model totally powered by solar cells on the vehicle, the newspaper said without citing sources.

Getting some electricity from rooftop PV panels isn’t news, though it is a good idea, if only a “symbolic gesture” until panel costs drop sharply. [See also Treehugger's "Solar-Powered Toyota Prius Project."]

But there isn’t enough rooftop area to run a car solely on rooftop solar cells. I don’t see how it would work even for an ultralightweight short-range city car with a really big roof area — an ungainly, unaerodynamic design. And don’t forget, cars are often parked inside.

This story does seem a tad unreliable given the full opening sentence:

Toyota Motor Corp. is secretly developing a vehicle that will be powered solely by solar energy in an effort to turn around its struggling business with a futuristic ecological car, a top business daily reported Thursday.

Toyota struggling? It had a loss this year, true — the “first since the Japanese automaker began reporting results in 1941“! Meanwhile, it’s biggest competitor is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Yeah, I’d like to struggle that much. In any case, long before any solar car could be ready to market, Toyota will be the biggest and most profitable car company in the world.

The Truth About Cars says there is no truth to this story, that it was just lost in translation — see Toyota Allegedly Developing Solar Car: A Case Of Too Much Sake.

Still, I ran Chrysler to electrify entire product line! which some commenters thought should have been filed under humor. Let’s file this under Don’t hold your breath ‘media’ — since they probably got the story wrong.

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23 Responses to Is Toyota developing a purely solar-powered car — or is this a story lost in translation?

  1. Bob Wallace says:

    When I first read this story it hit me as really bad reporting by someone who doesn’t understand the basics of solar and electric cars.

    Panels are not that efficient to propel a moving car even if it were driving a high noon in full sunlight.

    Were Toyota to make a “super-lite” that ran on 0.2 kWh per mile and made roof, hood, and trunk collector areas they might be able to capture a kWh or so in best weather, best conditions. As soon as this 5-10 mile range wonder started operating in the real world of clouds, tall building that cast shadows, trees, etc. then what you’ve got is a short commute the the corner market vehicle.

    And you’re right about Toyota “struggling”. GM and/or Chrysler go under and Toyota’s market share goes up with no effort on their part.

  2. Bob Wallace says:

    Just ran across this on the NASA site….

    “Hybrid Technologies deployed the first all-electric taxi in New York City and has begun demonstrating smart fortwo conversions like the ones used at Kennedy. The company also delivered an additional two PT Cruiser-based electric taxis and an electric Chrysler Town & Country minivan to the city of Sacramento for use by a private para-transit nonprofit organization.”

    That’s three Chrysler BEVs being road tested.

    http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2008/t_1.html

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    And a bit further on they mention an EV Crossfire. The Crossfire is Chrysler’s two seater sports car that shows a lot of Benz in its design.

    It appears that Chrysler already had working prototypes of several models (sports car, sedan, and minivan) when they made their announcement.

  4. TomG says:

    I agree…somebody really goofed up this story.
    I suspect Toyota is trying to develop panels to recharge the batteries after the car has reached its destination. The average car spends the majority of its time sitting in the driveway or in some parking lot. Good time to get a freebie recharge. Inside a garage would be an issue, but that’s where the house roof panels enter the picture.
    This a production car though, something that’s going to be subject to all kinds of daily abuse. Stuff like car washes, hail, tree branches, vandals….
    They’re going to have to make this reliable, cost-effective and if need be, easy to repair.
    I hope they succeed. It would yank the rug out from under the denier/delayer argument that electric cars, or a plug-in hybrid, simply transfers co2 emissions to coal fired power plants.

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    Just tell deniers that we get only half our electricity from coal. We plan on charging our cars only from the clean half. ;o)

    What makes more sense, to me, is to put the panels on a rooftop or rack connected to the grid. Then we won’t have to worry about shade from buildings, bridges, etc.

    Plug into the grid when you need power. Especially do your charging with much less expensive off peak power.

    Putting panels on cars will only make them more expensive and be an inefficient use of the panels. And it would be likely to hurt market acceptability. Moving to BEVs is going to be a big jump for most people. Easiest done by offering them something that “looks normal”.

    (I think the Aptera faces significant looks-related market problems.)

  6. Modesty says:

    Off topic.

    Please consider highlighting where Lawrence Summers and Peter Orszag fit, in effect, on the spectrum of denial or denial-eq.

    Related: John M. Broder, NYT: “In Obama’s Team, 2 Camps on Climate.”

  7. Great, story is corrected.

    Now why are we building those coal-fired electric plants?

  8. Admittedly, this is not a practical commercial vehicle, but don’t forget this demo from 2008:

    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/12/18/world-solar-car.html

  9. Konstantinos Skarlatos says:

    Although i too believe that this story is a classic ‘lost in translation’ media story, I think that a normally shaped car can be moved on average mostly by solar power.

    Lets take a chevy volt or a prius (with a bit more battery capacity) for example. I believe that 3-5 square meters of solar panels can be reasonably fit on the roof and hood of the car. At 20% efficiency lets say that they can produce about 1Kw of power. In a not very northern country one can expect 3-5 Kwh produced on average every day if the car is parked somewhere without shade. Unless i am totally mistaken, these 3-5 Kwh can translate to 15-35 kilometers of driving, and if the car has the battery capacity of a volt (15Kwh) then that could help average out bad days.

    That would mean that a car owner with a daily commute of under 20-30km would have to recharge his car very infrequently, mostly in the winter. Of course many caveats apply, making this car unpractical for many, but that does not change the fact that to some people this car would be quite attractive, because of the notion of being “independent” from the grid.

    My final note is that this is a not very good use for the solar panels, as they should be placed on a rooftop where they would produce more power. Maybe a solar roof can become an option for BEVs for topping of the battery, keeping the car cool on hot days etc.

  10. Ronald says:

    What you need is a car that is very efficient, whether powered by electricity or gasoline; or diesel.

    Volkswagon had a concept car out a few years ago. (2001, 2002, 2003?) It was in Popular Science (or the other one, Mechanix Illustrated)

    The specs.
    600 lbs
    Tandem seating for 2 (one behind the other)
    15 Horsepower engine
    diesel- they bragged about 20 000 psi injectors. don’t know much about injectors, but that sounds like alot.
    Claimed it got 235 mpg.

    They didn’t say whether it meet crash protection standards but they said it was able to ‘swim with traffic.’ They were asked about why not put in a hybrid in this, but that was not the reason for building it. You may have actually seen pictures of it as it was in a few magazines. Remember this was just a concept car.

  11. John Mashey says:

    1) Every bit helps, assuming one does the numbers.

    2) Obviously, this is only likely to be truly useful in a limited number of areas, of which the US Southwest seems the best, but Australia would be OK, probably Spain & Italy. Silicon Valley would buy some on general principle, and of course, some people here are experimenting.

    3) But, if I had to guess, I’d expect this is what I’d call Exploratory Development (D1), i.e., early prototypes to start learning well in advance of technology that would might it cost-effective. I.e., this is *exactly* what a big company does that does long-term R&D portfolio management.

    If this sort of thing actually turns into a product, there seem two conceivable options, driven by relative efficiencies and learning/volume price curves:
    a) High-efficiency cells, to give maximum electricity from the limited surface area.

    b) Lower-efficiency thin-film (like Nanosolar), but noticeably lower cost. Possibly, it will turn out to be feasible to just integrate thin-film covering into the roof at modest cost. In that case, if the extra juice gives you the extra mileage in a serial PHEV to avoid burning any gas more days, that’s good.

    c) People are talking about smart PHEVs/BEVs + utility infrastructure that negotiate which direction the current flows, depending on price. If we start seeing more charging stations, like Coulomb Technologies, there’s no reason they couldn’t end up giving you a credit.

    4) Of course, covering parking lots with solar panels is a huge win, whether the electricity is used for the cars or not. Not only is electricity generated, but cars are cooler, it’s probably better to have the sun shining on the solar panels than on asphalt, i.e., perhaps reducing Urbsan Heat Island effect.

  12. Mark Shapiro says:

    Here’s why solar panels on cars will make sense (as an option only): it gives the driver extra juice at some critical times:
    1 – cooling the car and trickle charging the battery while parked at disney world or at the mall,
    2 – extending the range on hot, sunny days when the a/c is blasting, and
    3 – possibly giving “limp-home” ability when out of gas, (or if the battery fails?).

    Cost is not too high since installation cost is minimal, and electric control hardware and software is already in the car, needing only slight modification.

    But Konstantinos, there is only 1-2 square meters of roof and hood space at most, not enough to power a car. However, every bit gain in aerodynamics and lightweighting makes a solar panel more effective at driving the car.

  13. David Lewis says:

    More off topic.

    “Modesty” up there brought up Broder’s NYT article ““In Obama’s Team, 2 Camps on Climate.”

    I laughed when I read Broder’s assessment: “As Mr. Obama seeks to find the right balance between his environmental goals and his plans to revive the economy, he may have to resolve conflicting views among some of his top advisers.”

    Maybe Broder thinks its one camp doesn’t see the urgency and one camp does. The science has moved on, and Hansen is pressing the issue. There’s a split in the camp that wants climate action.

    Hansen, in a letter that will be hand delivered by Obama’s Science Adviser once Obama is President, says he has the backing of the National Academy of Sciences as he says the new target is 325 – 350 ppm, which means throw out the policy aimed at achieving the old target right now.

    If the NAS actually is ready to back Hansen on this, it is a formal challenge from the scientists Obama has claimed repeatedly that he will be listening to.

    Hansen has lived with considering the implications of what accepting that this 325 – 350 ppm target is necessary means longer than anyone else: don’t therefore dismiss his policy recommendations out of hand.

    His latest policy proposals to Obama are that civilization whip out thousands of breeder reactors aimed at decarbonizing everything. He wants renewables but doesn’t see how they can do it all. He calls for implementing what Broder says Obama says he will not do, i.e. a steadily rising carbon tax. After seeing what happened in the EU with cap and trade, Hansen is calling it a “threat to the planet”. And its no more coal fired power plant construction unless they are built with CCS never mind Gore who says CCS doesn’t exist. How anyone is supposed to whip out a few thousand breeder reactors, never mind a piddly thing like a steadily increasing carbon tax, in a civilization that has yet to wake up to its peril is anyone’s guess. I think it can still be said a majority of US citizens do not see the necessity for urgent action on climate.

    This is sooo much better than hearing about the latest Bush travesty.

    Maybe it is as Broder says it is. But it looks to me like Obama faces a challenge right off the bat as to whether his environmental goal, and hence all his policy, make any sense at all.

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    There’s a big problem with the concept (and a perhaps). The panels would be mostly horizontal which would be a terrible angle except during the middle of the day in the summer when the sun takes an overhead path.

    The “perhaps” comes from an announcement that someone has developed a coating that allows panels to absorb light from all angles with very little reflective loss. But it has yet to prove itself in practical applications.

    Then there’s the “best use” consideration. Solar panels make power during the day when that power can be sold to the grid at peak prices. Car batteries can generally be charged at night with less expensive off-peak wind power.

    Additionally there is the problem of power loss once the batteries are full. Now any power that the panels might supply to the grid is wasted. To me it makes more sense to spend our panel dollars on peak feed-in and buy back cheap nighttime wind power.

    While there might be a small number of people who drive short mileage, live where the sun is high and bright, and can find parking in full sun, it leaves the question if that market segment would support such a vehicle. In order to recover R&D, etc. these might be very expensive vehicles.

  15. TomG says:

    Solar panels work best when they are directly facing the sun. But as long as there is light they will work. Park under a street light at night and the solar panel will work, just not at peak efficiency.
    Regenerative brakes only work when braking, which is only a very small fraction of the time. Should they be discarded because the vehicle isn’t getting full time usage?
    The home roof top panels to recharge the car….if the car isn’t there or it’s batteries are at full charge, I see no reason why they couldn’t tie into the grid. Bonus…
    If Toyota can make this cost effective and reliable, it sure sounds like a winner to me.

  16. Rick C says:

    I just found a small solar panel I bought 18 years ago. It could produce 12 volts at 40 mA. It may have cost me $10.00 or $15.00 back then and I tried to use it to charge a sealed lead-acid battery. What I found was that it could loose over 50% of its electrical generating capacity if even the small puffy cumulous clouds covered the sun momentarily. If the angle the panel faced the sun wasn’t correct it would loose around 20% to 30% of its capacity. So when I heard Toyota was building a car that would be charged off of solar power I had to approach it from a state of disbelief. It could only provide about 10% of the total charge the car’s on board batteries at best.

    The president of our Houston electric vehicle club just recently purchased a Zap truck with Solar panels and its charger went bad. So for the next 2 weeks it waited in the outdoors and by the time he received his new battery pack charger the car was fully charged from the solar panels. So while it can be possible to charge an EV’s battery pack from solar panels on the car it can’t possibly charge them up quickly enough to provide meaningful range to the vehicle.

  17. Bob Wallace at 10:56am,

    You make many insightful comments, but I would like to go further with your remark that the “Aptera faces significant looks-related market problems.”

    It will ultimately come down to choices where we ultimately rank our ugly options. For my part I rank ugly from least to most: (1) Aptera, (2) fast trains, (3) slow light rail, (4) city bus, (5) family life in an urban apartment, (6) no electricity, (7) starving, (8) freezing to death.

    Actually the Aptera is very attractive to my eye. But yes, it looks different and that does indeed count for a lot with many if not most people — at least for now.

  18. The real solar car shown with the lead article brings reality to the discussion. These actually work, but driving them is a feat of extreme athletic endurance. Only the very young could drive lying down and bend their neck to see out without serious orthopedic damage. Further, the very low profile but large road area occupied makes these the ultimate in impracticality and unappealing to any real motorist. No, Toyota is not about to copy this concept.

    Still, the Solar Challenge competition has served well as a design experimentation forum and shows possibilities that could be incorporated in real vehicles.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    Jim, try looking at the “looks” issue from the stance of a car salesman. Think about talking grey-haired old ladies into driving something that looks like it comes from a sci-fi movie.

    Then reflect on how much resistance there is to CFLs because the “look funny”.

    The greenest solutions are ones that people will actually adopt.

  20. David Lewis, you said, “I think it can still be said a majority of US citizens do not see the necessity for urgent action on climate.”

    This is the heart of the problem.

    I submit that every poorly thought out, costly, and ultimately ineffective course of action taken due to panic will only set back real progress. The setback will come because US citizens will be ever harder to convince for each subsequent solution that is proposed.

    Another problem occurs where promoters sell easy solutions that have very little quantitative effect, but deceive US citizens into thinking that serious adjustments do not have to be made.

    It is also reality that real solutions have to be attractive to the whole world if they are to make a sufficient difference.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    The majority of Americans say that we need to start taking significant action to combat GCC now. Check the Gallup poll data.

    But Gallup did not measure individual willingness to make difficult personal changes in lifestyle.

    IMO, we should be putting maximal effort into creating solutions that create little or no “discomfort” to the green-leaning adopter.

    Wind farms are a good example of a low-personal impact solution. If sited correctly they create very little to no “visual blight”. The land owner makes some nice money while giving up only a small portion of his/her land. The outlets in people’s houses work exactly the same.

    Very efficient refrigerators, CFLs that look like “real light bulbs” (and are “made cheap” by subsidies), white painted commercial roofs, …. Those things contribute to the overall solution and don’t get anyones bloomers in a bunch.

    The Volt-concept PHEV is another good example. Looks like a normal car. Runs on normal fuel if need be. Only change is, if you plug it in from time to time you save a lot on your gas bill.

    We need fixes now. Seamless transitions from inefficient to efficient are most likely to reduce atmospheric gas levels. It’s going to be harder to implement changes that we have to force. (That goes without saying, doesn’t it?)

  22. i like your idea of using solar based hybrid cars. it is indeed a good idea and can be used effectively by a number of common people like us.

  23. Stephen says:

    These solar powered cars only perform or run for a limited distance without the electric energy and for this reason these cars are not being referred to as a resourceful form of transport for daily travelers.