With the Big Three automakers scaling back and rethinking a strategy for the future, opportunities may now be available for small businesses who want to introduce new technology to a stagnant industry.
Solar Electrical Vehicles is one of those start-ups that is hoping to get in on the ground floor of this burgeoning market. The Westlake Village, Calif.-based company, started in 2005, installs convex solar roofs onto hybrid vehicles such as Toyota's Prius and Rav4 models as well as Ford's Escape.
The energy collected by the solar panels supplements the electric-powered motor, thereby reducing strain on the gas-powered engine and allowing the car to run for a longer period of time in electric mode, without using any gas. Customers can buy either the roof alone for about $3,500 and install it on an existing hybrid model, or Solar Electrical Vehicles sells salvaged Prius models with the roof already installed for around $25,000.
Founder and CEO Greg Johanson says the company purchases Prius models with fewer than 10,000 miles on the odometer; then they install the roof along with a plug-in motor feature not yet available from Toyota.
Although some industry analysts said consumers are not ready to pay the costs of "going green," the recent General Motors bankruptcy-protection filing has people wondering if this could be just the kind of innovative remedy the auto industry needs.
Anthony Pratt, an industry analyst at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, says what is unique about this particular technology isn't revolutionary functionality, but a neck-turning visibility.
"It's the same philosophy as the Toyota Prius," he says. "It's making a statement."
Toyota is introducing a solar roof option on the 2010 Prius, supplied by a foreign manufacturer. However, the Toyota solar roof will not increase fuel economy, and will only work to energize a fan that cools the vehicle while it isn't driving.
This is the best time for entrepreneurs to get in on this, says Pratt. "They should be looking at this now more than ever. [The big automakers] are stretching every research and development dollar, and are relying more and more on the suppliers for those good ideas."