Ford has unveiled its new solar-powered concept car, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, which it says has the potential to do what today’s plug-in hybrids do. Instead of plugging into an electrical outlet to recharge its battery, the C-MAX makes use of rooftop solar panels and a concentrator that magnifies the sun’s rays for maximum power. Alone, the solar panels could provide up to 300 watts of power, insufficient to fully charge the battery. With the solar concentrator, enough solar power could be harnessed to charge the car’s battery fully. With a full charge, the Ford C-MAX could have a total range of almost 1,000 kilometres (620 miles).
The rooftop solar panels are from SunPower. The Georgia Institute of Technology worked with Ford to develop the solar concentrator, which is described as a low-cost infrastructure canopy with a Fresnel lens that amplifies the sunlight and boosts the power by a factor of eight. The Fresnel magnifying lens is similar to the lenses used in lighthouse lamps.
Critics have been quick to point out that the C-MAX Solar is a long way from being a gamechanger. For one thing, it’s not particularly user friendly. Few consumers would be willing to put up with the inconvenience of waiting all day for the car battery to charge. Nor would they be willing to purchase the concentrator, a canopy that’s the size of a small garage. Where would people put them? And what is the benefit? It is already possible, at least theoretically, to operate an electric or hybrid car entirely on solar power; that power can be drawn from a conventional electrical outlet that people already have in their homes, so why go to all the bother that the Ford concept entails?
One answer is that the C-MAX could be useful in areas where the electrical grid is underdeveloped, or non-existent. It is, Ford says, a “free-standing” concept, not reliant on the grid. As designed, it does have a charge port, so users could plug it in to recharge it.
Being a concept, there’s no guarantee that it will ever be produced. Interestingly, Ford chose to show the C-MAX to the public not at one of the big auto shows but at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, opening tomorrow, January 7. But Ford says it is serious about the car, calling it an “everyday car” that we can expect to see in cities and on highways. They and Georgia Tech will begin real-world testing in coming months to determine whether there is a future for it as a production car.