The dream of the solar car

SUnder the scorching sun of northern Spain, “0”, the first production model from startup Lightyear, gathers enough solar energy to travel more than 70 kilometers for free every day. Its front hood and long roof are covered by five square meters of solar panels. Its founders, young Dutch engineers, won several solar-powered races in the Australian desert. By taking advantage of falling prices on solar panels and batteries, they are trying to apply this technology to everyday cars.

An affordable Lightyear for 30,000 euros for 2024-2025

The highly aerodynamic body of the “0” and its engines integrated into the wheels allow it to consume less energy than the electric SUVs that dominate the market, and to show a range of 625 kilometers on a single charge. By driving a bit, we could thus only connect it in the winter, the brand promises. “The clock is ticking: we need to run sustainably as fast as possible,” one of its founders, Lex Hoefsloot, told AFP. “Charging stands remain a major obstacle. If we do not need it, we can scale much faster. Lightyear has set the bar very high with this first model built in less than 1,000 units and shows a Bentley price of 250,000 euros. An affordable version, about 30,000 euros, is announced for 2024-2025.

The price of solar panels is falling

As the electric car market explodes, more models with solar panels are expected in the coming months. Toyota already offered panels on its optional Prius hybrid and on its very first 100% electric car, the BZ4X. Ditto for Tesla’s prototype pick-up, scheduled for 2023. Mercedes has mounted the roof on its luxurious EQXX prototype with solar cells, which with the same tapered profile as Lightyear promises 1,000 kilometers of autonomy. According to the American researcher Gregory Nemet, “solar panels have become so cheap that it is worth installing them even in areas with little sunshine”.

“Even if a car roof cannot fully charge the battery in a day, it can still pack enough energy to get you home from work,” says an energy researcher from the University of Wisconsin. With a few hundred extra euros per car, solar energy could at least compensate for the use of air conditioning, analyzes Gautham Ram Chandra Mouli, specialist in electric mobility at the University of Delft (Netherlands). However, be careful where you park, warns the expert: Of course, the car only charges if it is outside, and much less in winter. In addition, it recharges much better near the Equator than in Northern Europe.

Aptera in the USA

Under the California sun, the Aptera start-up has 25,000 pre-orders for its first model, scheduled for the end of the year, a small car with three wheels and two seats. Depending on the version, billed between $ 26,000 and $ 46,000, it shows between 400 and 1,600 kilometers of autonomy.

Sono Sion in Germany

Another much more classic solar cell model, but also affordable and ambitious, is expected in Germany at the end of 2022: Sion. This compact five-seater is cubic and completely black because it is fully covered with solar panels. “We’ve developed a technology that covers the whole car,” explains Jona Christians, co-director of the big German start-up that envisioned it, Sono Motors. With 18,000 registered pre-orders, they plan to produce 260,000 cars by 2030. Sion is incorporating the “Vehicle-to-Grid” system, which allows its charged battery to return electricity to the grid when the sun is no longer shining. The small manufacturer also plans to sell its solar cell technology to others, such as the French group of refrigerated trailers Chéreau.

Another Dutch brand, Squad Mobility, plans to launch unlicensed solar cars in 2023. Its boss Robert Hoevers, a former Lightyear employee, sees the future of cars in the sun: “Panels will be even cheaper, electric motors, more efficient: sooner or later we are going to run on solar energy every day. ”

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