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Elon Musk is wrong. Solar panels on cars DO make sense.

10/06/2019 1:46 pm ET Dara Brewton & Joseph Romm
Elon Musk is wrong. Solar panels on cars DO make sense.

THE SION ELECTRIC CAR, WITH SOLAR PANELS INTEGRATED INTO THE BODY. CREDIT: SONO MOTORS.

Tesla’s Elon Musk has asserted, “the least efficient place to put solar is on the car.” Carmakers like Toyota and Hyundai are out to prove him wrong.

Musk claimed in 2017 that the combination of time spent in garages and the limited surface area on a car makes attempting solar power a “fantasy.” However, Toyota is currently experimenting with the ultra-thin panels that were created for satellites, and Hyundai is releasing a solar hybrid in some markets, CNBC reports.

The solar-powered Prius has panels installed on the hood, roof, rear window, and spoiler. At best, the car can run about 35 miles on the solar charge, but things like cloudy skies and high temperatures affect the performance. The Toyota engineers admit that they are still “years away” from a fully solar-powered vehicle.

Hyundai has created a hybrid Sonata that has solar panels on the roof which will be released in the Korean and North American markets. They claim that the panels can provide up to 60% of the battery power which equals out to about 800 miles of driving per year.

Germany’s Sono Motors has created a vehicle called a Sion that has 248 panels covering the roof, hood, and doors of the car. It can get more than 3k solar-powered miles per year. They currently have more than 10,000 cars pre-ordered with production set to start in 2020.

The Sion has a 155-mile range and high-power rapid recharging, which allows an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. The panels can add up to 18 miles of range in the summer in Germany — and should add even more range in the many parts of the U.S. that get a lot more sun than central Europe.

One key point is that most people only drive 10 to 20 miles a day — so integrated solar panels can provide a large fraction of the daily charge for most usage during much of the year.

Some critics claim the Sion will have a difficult time “getting off the ground” and worry that the placement of the panels will make it too difficult and costly to repair after an accident.

But solar panels have been dropping in price so fast that, according to Sono CEO and co-founder Laurin Hahn, it is actually cheaper for the company to integrate solar panels directly into the car’s black polycarbonate body than to have a traditional automotive paint job.

As for whether it will be expensive to replace a scratched or dented panel, Hahn pointed out to Clean Technica last year that it’s already expensive to fix a scratched or dented car. So a Sono repair won’t cost more.

Toyota spokesman Nathan Kokes doesn’t completely disagree with Musk about the limitations of a solar-powered vehicle, but he doesn’t believe it is “all-or-nothing”:

“Toyota takes the approach that incremental change or incremental benefit is worth the effort. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Where I think Elon is coming from, potentially would be it won’t charge enough of the car. But if you’ve got opportunities to make some impact, then it’s worth the effort and continual study.”

Musk isn’t completely against solar for vehicles, however. he has an idea for a solar panel “wrap” that could be attached to a parked car.

-Dara Brewton & Joseph Romm