With any luck (for Audi), it’ll be tech like this that puts Tesla out of business.
And just like Darwin’s tadpole that sprouted legs and walked itself out of the pond of fertile evolutionary muck, cars are responding to pressures to evolve by budding new technologies in all places, sometimes even on the roof. While for Formula 1 circuit was once the arena from which automotive innovations would emerge, government regulations—most recently those targeting emissions—are the new barrier to cross and Audi has just teamed with Chinese solar equipment manufacturer Hanergy to make that happen.
Now what, do you ask, is Audi planning to do with solar panels? In short, it wants to create panoramic glass roofs made of Alta Devices’ (Hanergy’s subsidiary) thin-film solar cells in order to combine the best of both worlds: a luxurious open air cabin feel that simultaneously collects sunlight and turns it into electricity that can be used to supply power to energy-hungry systems that would typically sap an an electric vehicle of its limited mileage. Audi’s dream for the future is to have these thin solar cells coating the majority of the roof surface of its electric cars where it’ll generate energy that can be used for HVAC systems, infotainment use, music playback, and even seat heaters.
As anyone who has driven an electric car knows well, turning on the heater or air conditioner usually means estimated range drops drastically, which is a huge problem for vehicles with low ranges to start with. If the technology becomes sophisticated and efficient enough, it could one day be used to directly charge the drive battery, which would be a breakthrough for all EVs. At current, Alta Devices cells have an efficiency of more than 25% and engineers at the firm have managed to find a way to allow the thin cells to perform well under low light and high temperatures, two environmental factors that drastically cut down on a cell's ability to produce electricity.
Expect to see the first prototypes come around by the end of 2017. With the two companies putting their heads together for solutions, expect small changes to come. And as we all know well, it’s the collection of small changes that add up to big ones.