SOLAR VEHICLES The startup vision of solar electric vehicles is facing significant challenges
Over the last few years, sustainability has been front of mind for many car makers, driven by the need to comply with government carbon-reducing mandates, pressure from investors, and the need to compete with Tesla. But beyond the preoccupation with electric vehicles, another energy source has captured the interest of aspiring startups – solar energy.
Specifically, these vehicles utilise solar cells that seamlessly integrate into their design. Solar Electric Vehicles (sEVs) lead the charge, where the car's electric batteries charges from energy generated from the sun. This enables the vehicle to operate seamlessly, even during nighttime or low sunlight.
But despite the clear benefits of solar cars and their potential to revolutionise the transportation sector, the path to widespread adoption has been filled with obstacles.
Yet, the desire for a greener, more efficient, and sustainable mode of transportation continues to fuel the imagination of innovators, investors, and potential buyers. While the streets may not yet be filled with customer-owned solar cars, a small number of visionary companies are leading the charge towards a brighter, sun-powered future.
Sono Motors (Germany)
German company Sonos Motors was founded in 2016. It is creating the solar EV Sion, retailing at EUR 29,900.
But to say the Sion is a solar car is an understatement. The exterior paint is replaced with 248 solar cells on the vehicle's hood, fenders, sides, roof, and rear. This adds 112 km (69 miles) of driving range per week to the car's battery.
An added bonus is the Sion battery wallbox, which stores excess energy from the PV system in the vehicle to power home energy or charge other vehicles.
Slated to start manufacturing in mid 2023. While the company has raised over EUR 126.6 million in funding and has over 22,131 reservations for the Sion, the cost of manufacturing has proved challenging. Earlier this year, Sono motors started crowdfunding in an effort "to continue to find new investors as well as to pay the remaining machinery, tooling and production set-up to achieve the planned pre-series production in 2023 and make it to a high-volume start of production in 2024. When a company starts a funding campaign with the hashtag #savesion you know things aren't great.
Sono Motors also has a B2B solar business, with solar retrofit kits for diesel buses, refrigerated vehicles and other commercial transporters. Presumably, if the Sion campaign is unsuccessful, it will pivot to make this its main focus.
The company is extending its crowdfunding campaign until 28 February 2023.
Lightyear was founded in 2016 and hails from the Netherlands. It raised EUR 100 million in funding and spent the last few years working on a premium solar electric vehicle called Lightyear 0, priced at EUR 250,000. It promises the ability to drive for months without charging, gaining up to 70 kilometres of range per day from the sun alone.
Besides its solar capabilities, it was classified as the world's most aerodynamic commercial car, with a drag coefficient of 0.175 Cd, meaning huge advantages for range.
However, last month, Lightyear announced it had suspended the production of the Lightyear 0 to focus on the EUR 40k Lightyear 2. Then three days later, the parent company Atlas Technologies BV was declared bankrupt. It's a sad state of affairs, not unfamiliar in the mobility space, particularly for vehicle makers trying to disrupt the big OEMs.
The company hasn't detailed the cause of their financial status but its likely it was in part due to increased costs of production following the supply chain challenges of the last few years, expanding headcount too fast, and pressure from too rapid headcount expansion and
It's unclear whether Lightyear will be able to secure new investment or acquisition to keep the dream alive.
SQUAD Solar City Car (The Netherlands)
The SQUAD is a city-hopping vehicle with a difference. It resembles a two-seater upper-class golf cart (with removable doors). The rooftop solar panel can charge up to 20 km (12 miles) per day in Europe. It even works in any light and even in the shade.
The removable battery offers a 100-kilometre (62-mile)range with a plan for battery swapping for fleet operators. Owner-operators can charge the car using a standard 220V outlet.
The car is compact with a two-metre length which means it can be
parked transverse on an average parking spot, with the tires against the curb. Three SQUADS can easily park in a single-car spot.
Regarding vehicle classification, the vehicle sits at L6e, which represents quadricycles weighing under 350 kg with reduced engine cylinder capacity, power output, and level of continuous power. Many European countries won't require a licence to drive, with age minimums varying from 14 and 18 years in different European countries. But you'll unlikely be allowed to drive it on highways or freeways.
As with autocycles, US expansion may prove to be more complicated where the regulations for light EVs are still evolving and vary state by state.
The SQUAD SolarCity Car is marketed to be available in 2023, priced from EUR 6250. That said, the company hasn't released any press information since May 2022 so it's hard to gauge their progress with any certainty as to if and when cars will roll out.
Founded in 2008, US company Aptera might be the saviour of commercial solar vehicles. In January, the company kicked off pre-orders for its latest vehicle, Aperta Launch Edition.
It offers 700 watts of continuous charging power and a 1600-kilometre (1000-mile) range thanks to assistance from its diamond-shaped solar panels. It seats two people and provides rear cargo space. It's all-wheel drive with vectorised torque control making the autocycle suitable for snow, ice, sand, and gravel terrains.
Aptera's vehicle is technically an autocycle, which means it is essentially part motorcycle and part car.
In Europe, autocycles fall under Category L, which includes vehicles like powered cycles, two- and three-wheel mopeds, two- and three-wheel motorcycles, and motorcycles with side-cars.
In the US, things get more complicated, with requirements and regulations varying state by state. This alone could make it challenging for the company to scale.
The company has raised USD 100.9 million in funding over 9 rounds. But the price of the vehicle has increased from USD 25,900 in 2021 to the current asking price of USD 33,200, suggesting that the final product will likely cost even more.
The company recently started a community funding program called Accelerate Aptera, hoping to raise between USD 20 and USD 50 million. Whoever invests the most gets the earliest vehicle.
It will, however, be a year before vehicles roll out from the factory floor, with the companies needing USD 50 million in funding to start manufacturing. Can the company hit the necessary goals?
Solar automakers face significant obstacles this year in securing the necessary funding to achieve their commercial objectives and fulfil long-anticipated customer orders. Let's hope this promising industry is not cut short before it has the chance to fully take flight.
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