Among the dozens of new electric vehicles on the market, hardly any are equipped with photovoltaic panels that can fill their batteries with solar power. Some models come with solar arrays from the factory, but they are the exception rather than the norm.
But why? The simple answer is that solar panels don’t produce enough electricity to justify their cost, especially for automakers building hundreds of thousands of vehicles each year. That doesn’t mean they’re absent from all passenger cars, just that they’re rare, even among fully electric vehicles.
Let’s find out which production cars have factory-fitted solar panels, examine in detail why they’re not more popular, and look to the future.
Why aren’t solar panels more common in electric vehicles?
Manufacturers opt to give solar panels to their electric vehicles because, while they provide some extra power, they don’t make enough to make it worthwhile. Even in vehicles that have these, ranges are short.
This means that the electricity they generate is not used to top up the vehicle’s battery, but to help run some secondary systems such as climate control and lighting. You need a lot of surface area covered by solar cells to produce a meaningful amount of electricity – which is why Tesla provides solar panels for your home.
However, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the cost of a photovoltaic cell per watt is expected to be $0.27 in 2022, compared to $2.15 in 2010. become more common (and their range is one of the major selling points.)
Which production cars have solar panels?
Vehicle manufacturers started putting solar panels on their cars long before the advent of mass electric vehicles. For example, Audi offered one on the A8 flagship sedan launched in 1999. It replaced the standard sunroof, and the electricity it generated was used to keep the car’s ventilation on even when the vehicle was parked.
The first Nissan Leaf EV (on sale between 2010 and 2016) was available with a small optional solar panel embedded in the vehicle’s rear spoiler. In this case, the array was designed to top only the vehicle’s 12-volt battery, which did not need to draw from the larger traction battery that drives the hybrid system.
Toyota offered a similar solution for the second-generation Prius hybrid built between 2003 and 2009, but it only provides a trickle in the 12-volt battery, enough to run the climate system.
Then the automaker added a solar roof option to its fourth-generation Prius (sold from 2015 to 2022), but this time it was a much larger array, spanning nearly the entire roof surface. At the time of its launch, Toyota said that with this optional solar roof, the Prius Plug-in could get 10 percent better fuel efficiency, allowing the vehicle to last longer on electricity alone. This option was only offered in Japan and Europe; It didn’t make it to North America.
Excitingly, Toyota announced that it will introduce a solar roof option for the fifth-generation Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, unveiled in late 2022.
The Hyundai Ioniq 5 is another vehicle that comes with an available solar charging option, which the manufacturer says can add up to 3 miles (5 km) of free range every day. This may not sound significant, but it can add up to about 1,240 miles (2,000 km) over the course of a year.
Troubled Development Of Solar Electric Vehicles
One of the most promising solar-powered EVs was the Sono Motors Sion. The product of a German mobility startup, its party piece was the integration of solar cells across all its body panels.
While most vehicles restrict solar arrays to their roof area, the Scion placed them on their hood, quarter panels, doors and even the rear hatch. Sono Motors said it could increase the Scion’s rated WLTP range of 189 miles (305 km) in summer to 124 miles (200 km) per week in summer and about 20 miles (32 km) in winter.
Unfortunately, Sono Motors spun off its electric car business in February 2023 to sell solar vehicle technology to other businesses, so the Sion is unlikely to ever see the light of day again.