Report: Third-generation Toyota Prius to sport solar panels

When Toyota's popular hybrid gets a makeover in 2010, the car will now harness the power of the sun to operate its own air conditioning.

The first Priuses shipped in 1997 in Japan, and worldwide in 2000. Toyota last redesigned the car in 2003 to make it quicker and more efficient, and automotive analysts have widely expected another revision to come soon with additional enhancements.

Reports from Reuters and Japanese business news service Nikkei indicate that one of these new features would be solar panels from Kyocera. As solar panels small enough to fit on a car's roof cannot produce a great deal of energy, only the air conditioning would be partially powered by the technology.

Toyota is not commenting on these reports, although a company source told the Associated Press that details of the third-generation Prius would be revealed next May.

Solar panels would appear on higher-end models. If true, the Prius would be the first vehicle to include the technology commercially. While scientists have been building solar cars for awhile, the designs are nowhere near practical or fast enough to operate on highways.

Powering the air conditioning with solar energy does have an environmental benefit. No doubt you've already noticed, whenever you run your AC in your vehicle, there's a significant drop in fuel efficiency. In this day of $4-per gallon-gas in the US, any way to save fuel can be seen as a good thing.

Those same gas prices are also contributing to a surge in hybrid sales. Toyota expects to sell a million hybrids per year by 2010, and have a hybrid version of every model in its lineup by 2020. Other companies such as Nissan, Honda, and Ford are also all working towards expanding their hybrid lines.

Toyota is not the first to experiment with solar powering a Prius: Solar technology entrepreneur Greg Johanson is already offering an upgrade to model years from 2004 to 2006 that is said to increase fuel efficiency by up to 29%.

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