Daily Management Review

Reasons For Solar Electric Vehicles Potentially Becoming Next Generation Of EVs


The first commercial solar electric vehicles will be available in the United States and Europe in the coming years. Sono Motors in Germany, Aptera Motors in Southern California, and Lightyear in the Netherlands are all producing electric vehicles with integrated solar panels that can harness the sun's power to provide an additional 15-45 miles on a clear day.
These vehicles also have regular, lithium-ion batteries that can be charged using grid electricity, so for longer drives, these cars function essentially like a standard EV. Commuters and other short-distance drivers, on the other hand, could get almost all of their fuel for free from the sun.
Dan Kammen, an energy professor at UC Berkeley, believes this technology will make good financial sense for many consumers.
“Solar panels are so inexpensive and integrating them into the skins is so easy that once you get over that initial learning curve, those initial couple thousand vehicles out there, it’s hard for me to envision that this won’t be cost-effective,” Kammen said.
The Sono Sion, which is set to go into production in Europe in mid-2023, is priced as low as $25,000. The car's battery has a 190-mile range, and despite having 465 integrated solar half-cells on its exterior, the boxy, five-seat hatchback appears unassuming and practical.
“So this car gives you per year 5,700 miles free of charge, you know, free of any costs, because it comes from the sun. This is roughly 15 miles a day, which is perfect for commuters,” said Sono Motors co-CEO and co-founder Laurin Hahn. He said that when the Sion hits the U.S. market, it will make for an ideal second vehicle.
Aptera's vehicle is the polar opposite of Sono's in terms of appearance. Aptera's zippy three-wheeler seats two, has motors in the wheels for increased efficiency, and is aerodynamically designed. It is scheduled to begin production in the United States next year.
“When you start with aerodynamics as the basis for your vehicle, you end up with something that looks very different than everything else on the road. I mean, our vehicle looks more like a bird or a fish than it does almost anything else on the road today,” said Aptera CEO Chris Anthony.
The Aptera costs between $26,000 and $48,000, depending on range and other optional features. Aptera's premium model has a lithium-ion battery with a 1,000-mile range because it is so light. Its base model has a range of 250 miles, in addition to the 30 or so miles from solar that Anthony claims one will get on a typical Southern California day.
Then there's the Lightyear 0, which is set to hit European roads by the end of the year. The Lightyear, like Aptera, has in-wheel motors and was designed for aerodynamic efficiency. While the vehicle's body is sleek, the Lightyear seats five people and looks more like a regular car. Its lithium-ion battery travels 390 miles per charge, with an additional 20 or so miles from solar, totaling nearly 45 miles.
“A lot of the reasons why people are not switching to EVs are charging and range, and they’re not at the same level as a combustion car today,” said Lightyear CEO Lex Hoefsloot. He said the company is targeting customers who would not normally have considered buying an electric vehicle. “So we’re going to a level where actually you have to recharge less than you would have to refuel when you had the combustion car.”
The Lightyear 0 will cost a whopping $250,000, but Hoefsloot explained that this is due to the initial model's limited availability. Hoefsloot estimates that when production ramps up and the Lightyear 2 hits the market in 2025, it will cost $30,000.
However, it may be some time before we see other automakers incorporate solar into their electric vehicles, as simply slapping solar panels on many larger, heavier vehicles may not provide enough power to justify the additional cost, however minor.
″Manufacturers nowadays have chosen the kind of lazy man’s approach to building electric cars, where if they want more range, they put in a bigger battery,” Hoefsloot said. “And more and more manufacturers are starting to realize that the bigger battery will still remain very expensive going into the future. So efficiency really is the way to increase that range without needing to pay for a large battery.”
These first-generation solar electric cars will not support long-distance drives because top-of-the-line solar panels are only about 22% efficient, and the small surface area of these cars limits how many panels they can have. However, as technologies such as solar glass, which converts windows into solar panels, advance, Kammen envisions a future in which driving 80 or 100 miles on solar power alone is a possibility.
“It really builds into this idea that as we electrify transportation, we’re not actually going to be stressing the grid,” he said. “More vehicles themselves can be more and more autonomous. And in the end, I think we’re going to be selling electricity out of our solar cars back into the grid.”