I can’t be the only person to have been slightly underwhelmed after reading headlines in Japan today stating that the next generation Prius will use solar power, making Toyota the first major carmaker to use the technology in a mass production model.

Before anyone else gets too excited, it appears Toyota is planning to install solar panels in the roof of the new Prius to help power the air conditioning system, rather than propel the car. According to the reports, which aren’t attributed to anybody, Toyota will buy solar panels from Kyoto-based Kyocera capable of supplying part of the 2-5 kilowatts of power needed to run the air con unit. Whether the solar system will be optional or standard isn’t clear.

Still, it sounds like a good idea. While Japanese car drivers’ green credentials are pretty good (after all, one-on-three cars sold here is a 660cc minicar), it’s not unusual to see construction workers, taxi drivers or weary salarymen taking a break from the stifling summer heat by taking forty winks while reclining in a parked, fully air conditioned vehicle. If Toyota can come up with system that enables that without having to keep the engine running, it’s a step in the right direction.

UPDATE: As some readers with good memories have noted, even if the Prius does have solar panels it won’t be the first, despite the reports yesterday. The Japan-built 1993 Mazda 929 featured optional solar cells “embedded in the glass sunroof to power fans that remove hot air from the inside the car when it is parked.”

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