For a few months, not to say a few years, we have seen the emergence of several manufacturers of “solar electric cars” (Lightyear, Sono Motors Sion, Aptera), a complicated term that in fact hides an electric car, powered, partly by solar energy. But can this technical solution be made sustainable in reality? In the end, wouldn’t it be better to charge a classic electric car through photovoltaic panels?
Anyone who closely follows the news about the electric car has undoubtedly already seen several articles that refer to the famous “solar cars”. We even had the chance to try one out a few months ago on Frandroid, the famous Lightyear 0, for a rather interesting experience that also raised a lot of questions.
In reality, the term “solar car” is a bit appropriated. Even completely technically speaking, since these cars absolutely do not run on the energy of the sun. Well, not directly. In general, even if technology advances faster than we think, the solar car itself, i.e. driving only on the energy of the sun, it’s not for tomorrow.
What is a solar car?
2023, a solar car is a model equipped with solar panels that can store the sun’s energy and then redistribute it in the battery. But in the battery of what? From an electric car, of course. Indeed, the term we should use would rather be that of “solar electric car” to make the thing a bit popular.
How does it work technically? It’s relatively easy. Thanks to the photovoltaic effect, the cells are installed on the car (usually on the roof and on the hood) will transform any radiation solar energy received by the car, which is then stored in a battery. This energy is then used by the car while driving.
The problem, or even “the problems” you could say, is that cars cannot rely solely on the photovoltaic effect. The first reason is that the stored energy, even in a very sunny period, is not enough to fill even 10% of a battery of about 60 kWh in a day. The other problem is that if the sunshine is bad or it is dark, you will stay on the dock.
Who are the main players in this segment?
Even if the pure solar car may turn out to be quite utopian today, some players in the automotive world have been working on it for several years.
For the record, the very first solar car to emerge is the “solar mobile,” a scale model presented by its designer, a General Motors employee named William G. Cobb, at the General Motors Car Show on August 31, 1955. As you might expect, this car remains in the scale model stage.
Later, in 1985, the first Tour de sol was organized, a 368 km rally over five stages in which teams from different universities competed against each other to build and drive a solar car along the entire route. The races were quite nice, and this sparked a bit of a craze around this solution, even to the point that solar cars were being produced in the late 1980s that were intended to run on the road network.
The problem is that they were not powerful enough and lacked a lot of fun. We could compare them today with the performance of unlicensed cars.
Solar cars have become fashionable again with the arrival of electric cars. To stand out, some manufacturers have chosen to offer solar cars, where part of the battery can be powered by the photovoltaic panels.
One of the best-known projects is Sono Motors’ Sion, an electric family car that will be launched on the market under 30,000 euros.
Covered in photovoltaic cells, the car promises its customers (and especially potential investors right now) that it can drive a few tens of kilometers a week for free thanks to the sun.
The “star” of today’s solar cars is the Lightyear 0. In short, it is a Dutch manufacturer that has launched a sedan equipped with solar panels. These panels can generate about 1 kW of electricity, which corresponds to 70 kilometers of autonomy per day in good sunshine.
The car has a battery 60 kWh and can travel 625 kilometers according to the WLTP cycle, while consumption is shown at an average of 10.5 kWh at a speed of 110 km/h, thanks in particular to excellent work on the aerodynamic part and on the weight (the car weighs almost the same as a Renault Zoe) . Lightyear explains that it is possible to recover up to 520 kilometers in an hour on a 50 kW fast terminal.
We can also mention, to a lesser extent, the American manufacturer Aptera. At the beginning of the year, the company announced the opening of reservations for its solar car, in the launch version Launch Edition. This is then displayed at $33,200, or about 30,492 euros.
At this price point, customers particularly benefit from a range of 400 miles or about 643 kilometers according to the brand’s website, thanks to a 42 kWh battery. At the moment the car is only available in the US and as you can see in the pictures below, it’s not really a car as you might hear it.
Thanks to the solar panels, installed on the roof, it can gain up to 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) of autonomy per day. The Aptera claims a power output of 128 kW, equivalent to 174 hpwhile accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in just 4 seconds. Unfortunately, we do not yet know whether the solar car will be available in France, when it should be the first in the world to come on the market as standard.
Why are they (already) in trouble?
Let’s start with the one that seems to have the most problems: Sono Motors. The manufacturer is struggling to find solid investors who can bring in enough money to start the production process.
To somehow keep on surviving, Sono Motors even launched a crowdfunding campaign in December 2022 called #SaveSION. The aim is to raise around 100 million euros from private individuals. The enthusiasm was quite surprising, because at the end of the campaign, even if Sono Motors had not even reached 50% of the set goals, it is clear that there was still a lot of interest in this model.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to start production. The founders had nevertheless decided to extend the crowdfunding campaign until February 28, hoping to raise the necessary funds. 100 million euros is the equivalent of 3,500 Zion paid in full. Unfortunately, the builder just arrived to announce the desire to resell the Sion program to a company that would be interested.
Things are going a little better on the Lightyear side, even if the recent news announced in early 2023 isn’t necessarily very good. Or at least they are hiding something. The Lightyear 0 is expensive, very expensive even since the Dutch company communicates a price of about 300,000 euros. 1,000 copies would be made. It is rather ambitious for a brand unknown to the general public to offer a car, however interesting it may be, at such a high price.
It wasn’t long before Lightyear put its sedan aside. The manufacturer announced on January 24 to discontinue this first model to focus on the development of its second project, Lightyear 2. The brand has already announced its new model through a series of photos as a teaser.
The Lightyear 2 will be a small 0 and above all much more affordable as we are talking about a price of 40,000 euros. The manufacturer has already announced that it has received almost 60,000 reservations. The car is jealous and promises to Range of 800 kmpart of which is made using solar panels.
In general, it will benefit from the democratization of 0 technologies, but solar panels are not expected to provide more than 10% of battery capacity, moreover in good conditions.
For its part, Aptera announces that you can already place an order for its new model for a $ 100 deposit. An amount identical to the amount charged by Tesla to reserve a copy of its Cybertruck.
However, production should only start in a year, as the production lines should be ready in nine months. And to make matters worse, the company would still need an additional $50 million to start production. Does it remind you of something?
Why is the solar car a utopia?
As you will have understood, the term “solar car” is nothing more or less just a marketing element. Technically indeed, in good sunshine, the sun can cover customers’ weekly needs, and this is pretty good news since solar power is free until proven otherwise. Especially since a Frenchman travels an average of less than 30 km per day with his car.
On the other hand, the technique is more like a hybrid engine, especially because when the battery is empty, with or without sunshine, the car will not move forward because in direct sunlight these models cannot produce enough power to drive the car forward.
In reality, the experiences with solar cars are more interesting from other manufacturers that we haven’t mentioned so far, as they don’t exactly talk about solar cars.
For example, Toyota has been offering this solution for several years on the rechargeable Prius to charge the small battery of its hybrid car for a few kWh. In the same vein, Fisker is also integrating it into its Ocean electric SUV. In reality, technically, right now, surfaces much larger than cars are needed to actually run on solar energyall in sunny conditions that can only be found in certain very specific geographic areas that are difficult for humans to tolerate.
In reality, to drive concretely thanks to the energy of the sun, it is not necessarily worth having a car equipped with photovoltaic panels. It is rather sufficient regularly charge their electric car in their house equipped with powerful solar panels.