Arguably, the Toyota Prius has become the most talked about car of the last decade, now recognised around the world as an icon. Many have questioned the validity of its purpose, arguing that whilst the idea is right, the implementation leads to nothing more than a feel good product.
If Toyota was hoping to move away from the feel-good-only image, rumours that it plans to install solar panels on some Prius hybrids in its next remodeling, does little to help.
According to insider sources, the Big T is installing the panels in response to a growing demand for "green" cars. "It's more of a symbolic gesture," said the source, who wished to remain anonymous.
What will Solar panels achieve? Built by Kyocera Corp., the plan is to power "part of" the air-conditioning. "It's very difficult to power much more than that with solar energy." the source said.
Some solar panel experts have long argued that the production and manufacturing process currently outweighs the benefits (with regards to CO2 emissions). Plus given the rising silicon prices, the practicalities seem somewhat irrelevant.
"Even if you laid solar panels out on the entire roof of a house, you only generate enough energy to run two hair dryers. It's an interesting idea, but it would be very difficult to power a whole car, even with technological advances." Kentaro Endo, a director at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry who specialises in renewable energy, said
However, Toyota is not the first to try its luck with solar panels. Japanese rival Mazda gave it shot in the early 1990s with the Eunos 800 and Sentia, which didn't prove popular in the showroom.
The Prius, despite being around for over a decade, is in stronger demand than ever before. So much so that Toyota has struggled to keep up with demand. Hybrid rival Honda is scheduled to launch a new, low-cost hybrid model early next year.
The rest of the auto industry has also teamed up with battery makers to develop and produce lithium-ion batteries to store more energy in smaller battery packs in order to increase electric-only cruising distance.
Toyota has sold more than 1 million Prius cars and aims to sell at least 1 million hybrid cars a year by early 2010s. The company will launch the third-generation Prius next year.