Start-ups and major automakers are beginning to incorporate solar panels on their electric vehicles, an addition that extends their range even if perpetual motion remains a dream.
As it rolls under the blistering sun of northern Spain, the Lightyear 0 generates enough electricity every day to drive 70km thanks to the 5m2 of solar panels integrated into hood and roof.
The company was founded by young Dutch engineers who earned their spurs in running solar vehicles in races across the Australian desert.
Thanks to a drop in the price of solar panels, Lightyear is trying to incorporate them into road cars.
With its sleek, aerodynamic line and motors integrated into the wheels, the Lightyear 0 consumes less energy than electric sports utility vehicles.
Coupled with a battery that offers 625km per charge, some customers who drive only short distances each day might only need to charge during the winter, the company said.
“The clock is ticking, we need to have sustainable cars as soon as possible,” Lightyear cofounder Lex Hoefsloot said. “Charging points are still a big hurdle. If we don’t need them, we can scale electric cars much quicker.”
Lightyear targeted the top end of the market with the 0, with the 1,000 or so cars produced setting back buyers 250,000 euros (US$260,728), the equivalent of a Bentley.
The company hopes to launch a mass-market model with a price tag of 30,000 euros in 2024 or 2025.
As sales of electric vehicles are soaring, a number of models with solar panels are expected to arrive in dealerships in the coming months.
Toyota is now proposing solar panels as an option on Prius hybrids, as well as its first 100 percent electric vehicle, the BZ4X.
Tesla also plans to offer solar panels as an option on its pickup truck that is due to hit the road next year.
Mercedes equipped its luxurious EQXX with solar panels in the roof. The sedan, sleek like the Lightyear, has a range of 1,000km.
The cost of adding solar panels to cars has now fallen to several hundred US dollars, a small amount compared with the overall cost of most models.
“Solar is now so inexpensive that even imperfectly sunny locations are worth putting solar on,” said Gregory Nemet, a solar power expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The value of putting solar on cars is that it can extend the range of the car,” he said.
While it might not be able to fully charge the battery in a day, “it can provide enough energy to get home.”
Solar panels could also help provide enough electricity to run the air-conditioning in the vehicles, said Gautham Ram Chandra Mouli, a specialist on electric mobility at Delft University in the Netherlands.
Drivers would likely want to run the air-conditioning as they would have to park in the sun to get a good charge.
That could pose problems for some city drivers with parking spaces in garages.
The season is also an important factor. Drivers in northern Europe would get much less of a charge from integrated solar panels in the winter than during the summer.
The California start-up Aptera, which has 25,000 orders, designed its futuristic three-wheeler to be highly efficient to get the most from solar power.
The two-seater vehicles, which should begin to be delivered to buyers this year, could get more than 60km of travel from its solar panels.
Depending on the model, which cost US$26,000 to US$46,000, they can travel from 400km to 1,600km on a full battery charge.
German firm Sono Motors has taken a more classic approach with its compact-minivan Sion.
A boxy, black five-seater that screams family car, the Sion is completely covered in solar panels.
“We developed a technique that allows covering all the car” with solar panels, Sono Motors cofounder Jona Christians said.
The first Sions should be delivered next year and the preorder price is 28,500 euros.
The firm already has 18,000 such preorders and hopes to be able to manufacture more than 250,000 vehicles this decade.
The Sion is also being designed to offer different functionalities from its battery, including powering other devices and charging other vehicles. It can even give power back to the grid.
Dutch firm Squad Mobility is targeting a different market — what it calls sub(urban) mobility.
The Squad Solar City Car might resemble an enclosed golf cart, but the two or four-seat vehicles can zip around fast enough and have enough room to make completing many urban errands convenient. With the solar panels in the roof, the vehicles can generate enough power to travel 20km per day in Europe.
The company said that such microcars travel about 12km per day on average, meaning most users would not need to charge it daily.
“Solar panels will get more affordable, drivetrains will get better,” Squad Mobility chief executive officer Robert Hoevers said.
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