A ROOF-MOUNTED solar panel announced by Ford in the US this week could help to drive electric versions of its Focus small car up to 1600 kilometres a month for free.
The panel, developed in co-operation with solar panel provider SunPower, can generate up to 3000 kilowatt hours of power each year and would supplement - or completely replace - plug-in electricity as the vehicle's power source.
The US-based program is an intriguing premise considering Australia's high levels of sun exposure. It could become a key development in making electric vehicles more sustainable to drive in Australia.
Advertisement: Story continues below
The only mass-produced electric vehicle on sale in Australia, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and several more due to arrive here next year derive their energy chiefly from coal-fired electricity, which is considered among the dirtiest and least-sustainable forms of power generation.
Ford is not the first brand to use rooftop-mounted solar panels. The Toyota Prius brought solar panels into the mainstream in 2009 with a rooftop-mounted system. However, it only powers the car's ancillaries rather than the electric motor.
A pioneer in the field is considered to have been the Mazda 929 from the early 1990s, which used solar cells embedded in the sunroof to power the car's ventilation system.
Fast-forward to 2011 and the futuristic Fisker Karma sports car (see story on page 13) is one of the first production cars to integrate a rooftop solar panel into the production process.
Like the plug-in Focus, the Karma's solar panel will feed electric energy directly into the car's motor or its battery pack for storage.
Ford and SunPower will charge customers about $US10,000 ($9500) after US government tax credits are applied. It would cost the owner of a petrol-powered Focus about $148 to drive 1600 kilometres, based on a petrol price of $1.40.
As part of the package, US-based owners of the Focus Electric will be able to monitor the solar charging process in their car remotely, from either a website or a mobile phone application.
Ford will also offer the Drive Green For Life solar panel program on the C-Max Energi, a five-seater people-mover it will release early next year in the US.
Ford Australia launched the new-generation Focus this week with petrol and diesel engines but has no current plans to import the plug-in electric version, nor any variant of the C-Max people-mover.
The Detroit-based brand plans to spin a total of 10 new models off the Focus platform by the end of next year, including five plug-in electric vehicles.
Ford Australia spokeswoman Sinead Phipps says the local operation is unlikely to consider the roof-mounted solar panels for its locally made Falcon or Territory models.
''I would say probably not,'' she says. ''From what I have seen I'm not sure of its applicability. It definitely wouldn't be in our immediate planning scope.''
However, the Focus Electric remains a car of interest to Ford Australia. ''We're interested but it's not something we'd do by ourselves,'' Phipps says.
''It would have to be an Asia-Pacific roll-out of the Focus Electric.
''We also remain to be convinced that there's enough electric vehicle infrastructure in Australia for it to be viable.
''We think electric vehicles are a key element of the way to move forward but we also think there needs to be broader discussion about infrastructure.
Holden says it is ''considering a range of alternative technologies" but would not comment directly on whether parent company GM is investigating solar panels for its cars.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.