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Toyota Is Testing a New Solar-Powered Prius

The panels could spell an end to what potential customers fear most: running out of juice.

© Toyota

By David Grossman, Popular Mechanics

Toyota will soon take to the streets to begin testing new Prius models with solar panels. Working with the Sharp Corporation and Japanese government agency NEDO, the automaker will study the cruising range and fuel efficiency of electrified vehicles equipped with high-efficiency solar batteries.

The new tests have been in the works for three years. NEDO, a national research and development organization, set up the Vehicle Strategy Committee, which focuses on developing solar. The new Prius models will have solar panels built by Sharp, thin films that are around 0.001 inches thick. With solar panels that thin, Toyota has the flexibility to add them to not only the car's roof, but also the hood and rear hatch door.

Beyond their placement on the car, the solar panels look to be remarkably efficient. In a press release, Toyota says Sharp's solar panels have reached "a conversion efficiency of 34 percent-plus" and are capable of delivering 860 watts of power.

© Toyota   The test Prius, with solar panels in the back.

While they wouldn't be providing all the car's energy, the solar panels could offer a balm for one of the biggest worries in the public's eye about electric vehicles: range anxiety. There's a persistent worry among potential EV buyers that their car could run out of energy in the middle of a drive.

It's not a concern that matches with daily reality. According to numbers from AAA, Americans spend around 31.5 miles driving a day, up from recent years but well within the limits of a car like the Prius L Eco, which has a combined city/highway MPG of 56 miles.

But it's not just daily driving that people are worried about-it's also getting trapped trying to escape from a natural disaster without a charge. Last year, Tesla remotely improved the range of its cheaper models in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

"Previously, the Prius PHV charged the driving battery only while the vehicle was parked," reads the Toyota press statement. "However, with improvements in power generation output, the demo car employs a system that charges while the vehicle is being driven."

Toyota expects the solar panels to improve cruising mode and fuel efficiency, perhaps quelling some range anxiety fears.

As for getting back data from the testing, there's no clear timeline for the general public. Toyota says it will be sharing "a selection of trial data results with NEDO and Sharp," and then the Vehicle Strategy Committee.

© Toyota   A close up of the back hatch’s solar panels.
 
If a future Prius is able to generate enough energy through solar panels to almost never need a charge, its owners could face a different type of problem: energy thieves.

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Autos Magazine: Toyota Is Testing a New Solar-Powered Prius
Toyota Is Testing a New Solar-Powered Prius
The panels could spell an end to what potential customers fear most: running out of juice.
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