Electric Cars

What's Next: Solar-Powered Electric Cars

January 19, 2021

Solar-Powered Electric Cars

Here Comes the Sun

People have been pondering the possibilities of creating a solar-powered automobile since General Motors created the Sunmobile in 1955 for the Chicago Powerama Convention. Yes, Powerama. The vehicle was made up of 12 selenium photovoltaic cells and a small electric motor. Since then, solar powered vehicles have been delegated pretty much to places such as Universities hoping to inspire us with solar challenges of one form or another. But there has never been a solar car available for the masses. Well, perhaps until now.

In 2019, the solar/electric powered Lightyear One was announced. Designed by former engineers from Tesla and Ferrari, the car’s hood and roof are composed of solar panels that help to charge the electric vehicle’s batteries. The Dutch startup company has been showing off prototypes for the long range Lightyear One and hopes to go into limited production in 2021. The vehicle will likely cost around $170,000.

My first thought was that a solar powered car would be bloody useless in Seattle, or Portland or London as you can only use the solar panels on sunny days. It might do well in Miami. According to the folks at Lightyear One, the car has a charging port that plugs into a charger like most EVs. But the solar panels can charge Lightyear One’s batteries at a rate of about 7.5 miles of charge per hour. That’s slow compared to plugging it in. But if your car is parked outside on a sunny day, it would bathe in enough solar power to drive you 60 miles, which is more than the average commuter drives to and from work in a day. The idea is that the solar panels reduce the number of hours you have to keep the car on a charger.

The batteries hold enough energy for approximately 450 miles of driving. The sleek solar panels will work even when the car is moving, meaning that as you're going down the highway, the sun's energy will replenish at least some of the power you're using. On a long drive, help from the sun could add as much as 50 miles to a fully charged battery.

The major advances in the car have to do with its overall efficiency, says Lex Hoefsloot, CEO of Lightyear. The swoopy coupe is extremely aerodynamic and each wheel is powered by its own electric motor. Placing the motors as close as possible to the wheels increases efficiency and, since the motors act as generators to recapture energy during braking, four-wheel-drive electric cars are more efficient than two-wheel-drive ones.

According to Hoefsloot, one of the advantages of using the sun for supplemental power has to do with ease of parking. While other EV drivers are battling to get spaces near chargers, Lightyear One drivers will happily park in the sunny spaces.

But don’t give up your Tesla quite yet. Lightyear is taking reservations now at a cost of around $130,000. That's just a “reservation fee.” The company expects the cars to cost about €150,000 in the Netherlands, including taxes, when it goes into production. The company boasts that the Lightyear One will be two to three times more energy efficient than electric cars that are currently on the market.