Shining a Light on Automotive Solar Power

Solar technology has been with us for decades – the promise of free and abundant energy from the sun is an irresistible lure to humankind.

It was only natural that sooner rather than later, some smart engineers would try to harness this energy to power a car. Several solar electric vehicles (SEVs) are not far from coming to market. Among these are the Lightyear One, developed by the near-eponymous Lightyear in the Netherlands, a craft which at press time was on the cusp of its “premiere” to the public. Elsewhere in Europe the Sion, a five-door hatchback born of Germany-based Sono Motors, is slated to roll out of the factory late in 2023. Meanwhile, the futuristic Aptera three-wheeler from US manufacturer of the same name can be, similar to the Lightyear and Sion, reserved in advance of manufacture.

So there probably won’t be any shortage of SEVs coming to market in the near future but that raises the question of whether they’re coming to a party that’s nearly over, as BEVs have become the alt-fuel automobiles of choice. It’s Tesla’s world these days; we merely live in it. Jeff Zhang, associate professor of automotive engineering at America’s Clemson University, conceded that: “Yes, the technology for battery electric vehicles is relatively more mature than solar EVs. However, it is never too late to develop solar EVs as a solar EV is essentially a normal battery EV plus the solar panels and the DC/DC converter.”

That surely makes solar attractive on the automaker side because many of the necessary components have already been developed and are in widespread use. Also the parts that put the initial letter in the SEV designation, the solar cells, recently became cost-effective for a variety of uses. Modern cells are also sufficiently powerful to provide the “juice,” needed for a car, and even a compact vehicle provides more than enough surface area for this key component.

So, an SEV can apparently be, if not affordable by all budget categories of buyer, at least competitive with the popular EVs now crowding the market. The Sion is priced at €28,500, or roughly $30,547. By comparison, Tesla’s most inexpensive car (the Model 3) currently retails for $48,190, and the Nissan LEAF – according to some, the cheapest BEV today – will set a driver back $28,375.

Like BEVs, the technology that gives solar autos their designation has real scope to become cheaper, thus bolstering their potential appeal for OEMs and customers alike. If an automaker wants to go solar, though, it either needs to devote resources to solar innovation, or secure a manufacturing partner (or partners) that is/are continually doing so.

“Innovations in technology can help drive the price down, but for most manufacturers the focus is on improving battery technology and power efficiency,” said Visrin Vichit-Vadakan, co-founder of next-generation vehicle financing company Spring Free EV, adding that: “Customer awareness and education will play a huge part in solar vehicle adoption.”

That raises another point of concern for carmakers that might want to harness the sun’s power for their craft. Customers not only need to gain awareness that SEVs exist in the first place but that they’re a better choice than their more battery-dependent cousins. Once its cars rolled out of the factory Tesla benefitted from good word-of-mouth among consumers ditching the traditional ICE model, it still took many millions of dollars in marketing efforts to build the wide customer base the company now holds.

SEV maker Sono Motors thinks it can make a strong case to the average consumer on several points. The company’s co-founder and CEO Laurin Hahn said that “It’s worth pointing out that the Sion’s solar tech will augment its battery and the vehicle can be charged just as with any EV.”

Additionally, she said, such a vehicle is a compelling sell to both consumers and governments on the basis of that technology. That’s because, in her view, it is “extending range and reducing dependence on charge point availability (and for some infrequent or short-distance drivers, may completely eliminate their need to use a charge point). For cities and urban planners, augmenting with solar reduces strain on the electric grid and reduces crowding at charging points.”

That might not be enough. Any automaker considering solar should also consider carving out as many potential revenue streams as possible from the technology. Sono Motors is attempting to do so, specifically by leveraging its intellectual property. As of late last year the company had three patents in its portfolio, and another four pending.

As with any ambitious young manufacturer, partnerships will also be crucial. At the beginning of June, Sono Motors announced it had struck a deal with refrigerated trailer maker The Reefer Group to co-develop such a trailer complete with the former’s solar tech.

However, it’s worth reiterating that SEV makers, and others potentially interested in adapting this source of power, are pushing into a market that is already hotly competitive and dominated by large, muscular automakers. Their road to broad acceptance and adaptation is sure to be bumpy.

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