Seriously? Cars Fueled by Solar Power?

The Solar Car Challenge is an annual event that pits teams of designers and engineers against each other in a contest to create the best solar-powered car. The closed-track competition showcases solar cars which can travel hundreds of miles on solar power alone. The winning vehicle at this year’s challenge traveled an astonishing 508.5 miles on a single solar “charge.” (We’d like to know how much car insurance would cost for this baby!)

So when will we start seeing cars on showroom floors that can run on solar power? Sooner than you think — maybe even months from now.

This month, Ford Motor Company announced that it will partner with SunPower as part of its release of the 2012 Ford Focus Electric. The San Jose-based solar panel vendor will supply its products as an optional way to provide power to Ford’s all-electric vehicle. The rooftop system will cost almost $10,000 to install, and it will be capable of generating up to 3,000 kilowatt hours of solar power each year – which can power the vehicle for up to 12,000 miles of driving annually.

Let’s clarify something right off the bat, though: the solar panels would be installed on the roof of the customer’s house, not the car itself. The eleven 4-foot-by-2-foot E18 solar panels made by SunPower are the sunlight “collectors” for the 2.5 kilowatt rooftop solar system. The power generated by the sun would be fed through the owner’s home electricity meter and is designed to offset the electric power needed to fuel the Focus.

In other words, the new Ford Focus is not a “solar car” per se; which is good, because vehicles that run on 100% solar energy would run out of fuel on cloudy days and/or when the solar-powered battery loses its charge. Instead, the vehicle will still receive its power from a standard plug-in outlet at the owner’s home, like all other electric cars do. Ford is touting this option as a complementary solar power generation system that is to be used in conjunction with traditional electric power.

The automaker is hoping to appeal to environmentally-conscious individuals who want a vehicle that is as minimally-dependent on fossil fuels as possible. A Focus Electric owner with a solar power option will be able to enjoy driving a vehicle which does not use gasoline, but is powered partially or fully by electricity generated by sunlight.

So while we won’t be driving completely solar-powered cars anytime soon, the new Ford solar partnership represents a small step on the road toward vehicles that aren’t powered by fossil fuels. But let’s not downplay the significance of this milestone; after all, did your parents ever dream that one day, cars could be powered by the sun?

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