Every once in a while, there’s a big idea that forever changes the way we live and the tools we use. Think electric light bulbs, washing machines and, maybe, Amazon’s dream of drone deliveries. Ford’s new concept car with rooftop solar panels looks like it could be next on the list. Don’t bet on it.
Ford is showing off its new C-Max Solar Energi at next week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The wagon’s solar cells are, on their own, insufficient to power electric driving, so the car comes with a special parking canopy that concentrates the sunlight like a magnifying glass. Throughout the day, the semi-autonomous car moves itself back and forth a few feet to get the most sunshine. It’s a plugin that doesn’t need to plug in.
To be fair, most concept cars never make it into production in any recognizable form (see the BMW i8 for an exception). The purpose of the C-Max concept is to show that solar efficiency has improved so much that a few square feet of panels on a car can push the boundaries of what’s possible with the hybrid-electric vehicle, says Mike Tinskey, Ford’s director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure. “We need to get the conversation started.”
Here are three reasons why the C-Max Solar is still more gimmick than gamechanger:
1. It ain’t easy. The reason electric cars have started to gain traction in the past few years isn’t because they are futuristic. It’s because they’re increasingly familiar. The Chevy Volt drives just as well as a pure-combustion vehicle, and you can plug it into existing infrastructure. The C-Max Solar, on the other hand, requires a special shelter with room for the car to move, and it takes a day of sunshine for a full charge. That’s convenient if you leave for work everyday at 9 p.m.
2. It’s not necessary. Most people already have the infrastructure for a plug-in electric vehicle (ie, an outlet). If you’re living on the grid, you can just plug your Nissan Leaf into the wall. If you’re living off the grid, you probably already have solar in place and the space to add another panel or two if needed.
3. It’s not scalable. Where are all these canopies going to go? New garages for everyone? If the goal is to increase solar power, there’s a lot of idle horizontal space in the world that’s easier to capture with industrial solar fields than with car canopies.
Ford hasn’t said how much the solar systems will add to the cost of the C-Max Energi, but let’s assume they are cheap -- say $1,000. With a full day’s charge the vehicle can travel about 21 miles before the combustion engine kicks in, a savings of roughly $2 in gas. That's a lot of daily canopy fiddling to break even.
The big counter-argument to all of this that gets everyone so excited: But it’s off-grid! It’s distributed energy! In America! Okay, but is the grid about to become irrelevant to electric vehicles? Is the C-Max Solar the innovation that will help make the electric car the heart of distributed microgrids?
Doubtful. But I would love Ford to prove me wrong. Because for all its practical shortcomings, this concept car is super cool.
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