ford c max solar energi jan 2014Image: Ford

This solar-powered Ford C-MAX concept car can move itself to follow the sun

Anyone who’s seen a cat or dog follow the sun for the warmest snoozing spot will get one of the big ideas behind Ford’s C-MAX Solar Energi Concept vehicle. Announced Wednesday night and debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show (starting January 7 in Las Vegas), this first-ever solar-powered hybrid will be able to “creep” back and forth a short distance to get the best exposure for its rooftop collection panels. And those panels will get a powerful assist from a special energy concentrator device.

The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept will feature a rooftop solar panel array developed in partnership with SunPower Corp. of San Jose, Calif. Alone, this array can't do much for the car's battery: “We can get 300W-350W if we put solar on the roof,” explained Mike Tinskey, Ford’s director of global vehicle electrification and infrastructure, in a briefing with TechHive. “But we really wanted to find a way to fully recharge the batteries using solar.”

Ford worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to develop a concentrator device—basically, a special roof over the parked C-MAX—that intensifies the effect of sunlight on the cells by a factor of eight. The concentrator is a Fresnel lens, a prism-like optics design that was originally developed to increase the intensity of beams emanating from lighthouses. More recently, it’s been used for increasing the efficiency of solar energy technology.

ford c max solar energi concept concentrator diagram Image: Ford

The Ford C-MAX Solar Energi Concept will move back and forth autonomously under the concentrator to track the sun and maximize energy collection.

The concentrator is stationary, but the C-MAX Solar Energi will be able to move back and forth a short distance to track the sun for optimal solar gain. This is yet another example of how autonomous driving capabilities are creeping into future cars.

Ford says that the concentrator can provide a daily dose of solar energy equal to four hours, or 8 kilowatts, of battery charge. The car will also have a plug-in port for charging from an electrical source, should the sun not oblige.

The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is just an experiment. If anything like it were ever to come to market, it would obviously work best in sunny places like Las Vegas. And while the concentrator is essential to the concept's success, many safety issues need to be worked out to make sure only the car feels its heat, not people getting in and out of the car, let alone random passersby. However, we all know how hot our cars get when they sit in the sun. If all that energy could power the car rather than bake it, that would be pretty cool.

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