The world’s first commercial solar electric vehicles will hit the US and European markets in the next few years. German company Sono MotorsSouthern California-based Aptera Motors and Dutch company Lightyear are making electric vehicles with integrated solar panels that can use the sun’s energy to provide about 15-45 extra miles on a clear day.
These vehicles also have ordinary lithium-based batteries that can be charged using electricity from the grid, so on longer journeys these cars essentially function as a standard EV. But for commuters and other short-distance drivers, the majority of their miles can be charged almost entirely by the sun, for free.
Dan Kamen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley, said he expects this technology to make good financial sense for many consumers.
“Solar panels are so cheap and integrating them into the skins is so easy that once you get past that initial learning curve, those initial few thousand vehicles out there, it’s hard for me to imagine that it wouldn’t be cost effective,” Kamen said .
The Sono Sion, which is expected to go into production in Europe in mid-2023, is priced at just $25,000. Its battery has a range of 290 miles, and while the car also has 465 integrated solar half-cells on the outside, the boxy, five-seat hatchback looks unassuming and practical.
“So this car gives you 5,700 miles a year for free, you know, at no cost because it comes from the sun. That’s roughly 15 miles per day, which is perfect for commuters,” said Sono Motors Co-CEO and Co-Founder Lauryn Hahn. He said that when the Sion hits the American market, it will make an ideal second vehicle.
The Sono Sion is expected to go into production in Europe in mid-2023. The company says it already has 42,000 reservations for the car.
In terms of looks, Aptera’s vehicle is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sono’s. Aptera’s rugged tricycle seats two, has in-wheel motors for greater efficiency, and is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. Its production is expected to begin in the US next year.
“When you start with aerodynamics as the basis for your vehicle, you end up with something that looks very different from everything else on the road. I mean, our vehicle looks more like a bird or a fish than almost anything else on the road today,” said Aptera CEO Chris Anthony.
Production of Aptera Motors’ solar-electric two-seater is set to begin next year in Carlsbad, California. The company says it has 37,000 pre-orders for the car.
Depending on range and other optional features, the Aptera costs between $26,000 and $48,000. Because it’s so light, the top-of-the-line Aptera model has a lithium-ion battery with a 1,000-mile range. Its base model has a range of 250 miles, ahead of the roughly 30 miles of solar that Anthony said you’ll get on an average day in Southern California.
Then there’s the Lightyear 0, which is expected to hit the roads in Europe by the end of this year. Like the Aptera, the Lightyear has in-wheel motors and is designed with aerodynamic efficiency in mind. But while the car’s bodywork is sleek, the Lightyear seats five and looks a lot more like a typical car. Its lithium-ion battery goes 390 miles on a single charge, with an average of 20 or more extra miles from solar power, up to nearly 45 miles.
Lightyear 0 is expected to hit the roads of Europe by the end of this year. The mass market vehicle, Lightyear 2, is expected sometime in 2025.
A light year
“A lot of the reason people don’t switch to EVs is charging and mileage, and they’re not at the same level as combustion cars today,” said Lightyear CEO Lex Hoefsloot. He said the company is targeting customers who might not normally consider buying an electric vehicle. “So we’re getting to a level where you actually have to refuel less than you would have had to refuel when you had an internal combustion car.”
The Lightyear 0 will cost a whopping $250,000, but Hoefsloot said that’s because the initial model was a limited edition. When production scales up and Lightyear 2 hits the market in 2025, Hoefsloot said, it will cost $30,000.
It may be a while before we start seeing other automakers incorporate solar power into their electric vehicles, as simply putting solar panels on much larger, heavier vehicles may not provide enough power to to justify the added cost, however small it may be.
“Manufacturers these days have taken a 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 a bigger battery it will still remain very expensive in the future. So efficiency is really the way to increase that range without having to pay for a big battery.”
Since the best solar panels are only about 22% efficient, and the small surface area of these cars limits the number of panels they can have, these first-generation solar electric cars won’t support long-distance driving. But as technologies like solar glass, which can turn windows into solar panels, improve, Kammen sees a future where 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 really going to put a strain on the grid,” he said. “More vehicles themselves can be increasingly autonomous. And eventually I think we’ll be selling electricity from our solar cars back to the grid.”
Watch the video to learn more about the companies making solar cars a reality.