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Will Lightyear's planned solar-powered car ever give real consumers a buzz?

An image of Lightyear's solar powered car crossing a wooden bridge.
Image Credit: Lightyear

EV startup Lightyear is far from the first company to claim they have the first production-ready solar-powered car, but the Lightyear 0 might be the first to actually deliver.

Unveiled in the Netherlands at the beginning of this month, Lightyear 0 is the product of six years of research and development from its production team.

In 2019, the company revealed a sleek sedan prototype, and the 2022 production-ready model doesn’t look much different.

Five square meters (53.8 square feet) of double-curved solar panels drape the silver sedan, allowing the vehicle to charge itself while driving or just parked in the sun. In an effort to use as much solar energy as possible, side view mirrors are replaced by cameras powered by lightweight electric motors tucked behind the wheels.

The overall design places an emphasis on sustainability: the body panels are created from reclaimed carbon fibers, and the interior is outfitted in vegan plant-based leather, made with recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles.

According to Lightyear, in ideal conditions, the solar panels can add up to 44 miles daily to the 388-mile range the car gets between charges. Without the need for a charging station, drivers with a day-to-day commute of fewer than 22 miles could drive for two months in the Netherlands without ever needing to plug in and recharge, as suggested by tests carried out by the company.

These tests also suggest that those in sunnier climates such as Portugal or Spain could go as long as seven months. If need be, a household plug-in can top off the car’s range.

With a 60kWh battery pack with four electric motors that supply 174 horsepower and 1,269 lb-ft of torque, Lightyear says the vehicle can sprint from zero to 62mph in 10 seconds and reach a top speed of 100mph, besting the majority of EVs currently on the roads.

“It keeps on going,” Roel Grooten, the lead engineer for the Dutch automaker Lightyear, told The Guardian. “What you feel is nothing holding you back. You feel the aerodynamics, you feel the low rolling resistance of the tires, of the bearings and the motor.”

Founded in 2016, the company is the child of a team of engineers who competed together in the World Solar Challenge. Held in the Australian outback, the race is held every few years, with the goal of advancing the idea of solar-powered cars.

Aptera's solar powered three-wheeler on a coastal road in Southern California.
Image Credit: Aptera

While Lightyear claims it has created “the world’s first production-ready solar car,” it is not the first company to do so.

Aptera Motors, a California-based company, planned to have the vehicle available by the end of 2021, according to The Washington Post.

Seven months later, with $40 million raised in crowdfunding, Aptera may be able to get its vehicle on the road. But not as a car, as a three-wheeled autocycle.

While it doesn’t have all of the safety requirements as a four-wheeled car, Electreak reports that its markers have made it feel as much like a real car as possible. With the head-turning starting price of just $25,000, Aptera has created a lot of hype. In 2020, preorders for the three-wheeler sold out in less than 24 hours, the company said.

Lightyear 0’s price tag also turns heads, but at $263,000 -- the wide eyes are for a slightly different reason. “You’re having to pay an awful lot of money and have solar panels stuck on the car for just 44 additional miles,” Jim Saker, professor emeritus at Loughborough University and president of the Institute of the Motor Industry told The Guardian, “The question mark at the moment is the fact that, in reality, is that actually worth it? The actual concept isn’t bad. It’s just whether the technology is actually viable to make it economically sustainable for anybody wanting to do this.”

Rather than a commercial proposition, Lightyear sales will probably be limited to a handful of early adopters, Saker said.

Others have questioned the role of the alternative energy car in the worsening climate crisis, especially when many of those cars are limited to wealthy individuals. “The most sustainable way to approach car ownership is actually to avoid it entirely if you can at all,” Vera O’Riordan told The Guardian. O’Riordan is a Ph.D. student focusing on low-carbon pathways and policies for passenger transport at University College Cork in Ireland.

Research suggests that these vehicles are often sold in high-income, high-traffic urban areas. “So you have to ask yourself the question,” O’Riordan posits, “Are you serving this individualized, very inefficient, very harmful, and traffic-inducing transport in urban areas where it could otherwise be perfectly met by public transport and walking and cycling?”

Lex Hoefsloot, the chief executive of Lightyear agrees with ​​O’Riordan. “It would be great, I fully agree,” he said. “But I think we’re not going to change our lives too much. Perhaps, when we’re really panicking in 20 years, we might. But in the meantime, we have to work around that.” To him, solar power is an integral part of this workaround, and essential for the transition from reliance on fossil fuels to clean energy.

“People were saying it wasn’t possible, mostly because of the limited amount of solar power you could get on a car,” Hoefsloot told The Guardian.

The question remains of why powering vehicles via the sun is better than electric vehicles already on the market. “Electric cars are a step in the right direction, but they are dependent on the grid, which is still dependent on mostly fossil fuel energy,” Hoefsloot told Wion, “Adding a new source, the sun adds certainty that you will always have that charge and you will have to charge a lot less often.”

But like Lightyear and Aptura, other companies have tried in recent years. For the car giants, solar panels offer a beaming addition to their electric vehicles. Mercedes-Benz recently unveiled plans to put solar cells on the roof of their EV. Toyota has at times offered solar cells as an add-on to its Prius hybrid. Recently, Toyota promised an optional solar roof for its new electric SUV, the BZ4X, its first all-electric vehicle, according to The Verge.

Sono Motors, based in Munich, Germany has plans to launch its solar-assisted family car. Priced at €28,500 (30,217.12 USD), the Sion also serves as a “sustainable power plant,” and according to the company’s website can self-sufficiently supply a home with electricity for up to 5 days.

Unlike the solar-powered Lightyear 0, Sion is marketed as an affordable solar-assisted EV option. Because of the impracticality of the Lightyear 0 for many consumers, the company plans on a small-scale rollout, capped at 946 units “to validate to the world that we can produce a car,” Telian Franken, the prototype team lead, told The Guardian. From there, they aim to pivot their efforts to a second solar-assisted electric car, the Lightyear 2. Marketed at an affordable price point of €30,000 (31,803 USD), the Lightyear 2 is expected to launch in 2024/2025.

“We’re trying to make the difference, not for the millionaire who can afford a €250,000 car, but to get us to the point where the average person can get off-grid – get a reliable sustainable vehicle that beats toe-for-toe any econobox you can get at the time,” said Franken. He cited hybrids like the Toyota Corolla or Honda Accord as examples. “That’s what we’re trying to beat – and replace – because it’s not sustainable.”

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