Roy Cobbenhagen co-founded Solar Team Eindhoven with Lightyear CEO Lex Hoefsloot and has a long history of working on solar cars. After completing his PhD at the Eindhoven University of Technology in October 2020, he left academia and joined Lightyear’s mission to deliver clean mobility for everyone, everywhere, with the goal of setting up Lightyear’s Research Department as VP Research.
In this written interview, he outlines his vision for the Research team he is setting up, and how he wants to contribute to keeping Lightyear ahead of the market.
**Q — When did you first get involved with Solar Cars?
Roy: I was actually involved before there even was a Lightyear. I remember studying with Lex in a dark basement at the Eindhoven University of Technology. We were talking about ways to broaden our horizons beyond our studies. We had been reading about the World Solar Challenge and thought that joining with a team of students from the TU/e would be a great challenge for us. When the ‘Cruiser Class’ came out, which was about building a 4 seater car, we jumped at the opportunity. But with Solar Team Eindhoven, we decided to take it one step further and build ‘Stella’ a fully fledged family car instead of a typical racer. The idea was to make a statement and develop something that was potentially of use for society as a whole, rather than building a ‘racer’ that had been the common feature of solar racing up until then. On top of being co-founder, I served as Technical Manager and had the challenging task of designing Stella’s vehicle architecture while we were simultaneously engineering and building the car. Considering Solar Team Eindhoven’s four winsperformance over the past 4 World Solar Challenges, I dare to say that we were successful. The key to our victory was the unique way in which the (off-the-shelf) components were integrated, and optimized for efficiency. I see the role I am filling at Lightyear in a similar way to what I did for Solar Team Eindhoven: it’s about finding technologies and looking at how to integrate them within our products.
Roy was part of the Solar Team Eindhoven, same as 4 other founders of Lightyear, as they competed in the World Solar Challenge of 2013 - © by Bart van Overbeeke.
Q — When did you first get involved with Lightyear?
Roy: _I mean, I was involved at the very beginning, before it was even called Lightyear, but I decided instead to pursue a PhD. Back then, I was convinced that Lightyear would be a success but I was more interested in technical aspects that would only be involved at a later stage. I also wanted to expand my analytical, mathematical and control theoretical skills. And since I had worked on energy and mobility in my masters and with Solar Team Eindhoven, I wanted to also pursue other domains, which is why my PhD thesis was on robotics and food. When I finished my PhD a couple of months ago and heard that Lightyear was looking for someone that matched my competences and interests, it was a no-brainer. Now, I have the opportunity to combine my interest in solar cars with the research skills that I learned from my PhD and contribute to the best!_
Q — Why did you decide to **rejoin Lightyear?
Roy: To be honest, I didn’t only join Lightyear because of the Lightyear One that we’re currently developing. Don't get me wrong, the car is amazing! I feel really motivated by the work of my colleagues on this car. I am in awe of what they are achieving and it makes it so much easier to think about future projects if the people around you are building the future today! In my eyes, the vehicles that come after that, that we’ll build off the success and developments of Lightyear One, the ones that will get us even closer to Lightyear’s mission, are even more exciting. We have this bold mission of reaching clean mobility for everyone, everywhere, so the question is now: which technologies will we need to focus on in the future to achieve this? Since we are taking a radical other approach than existing OEMS, we need to define the type of developments where we can achieve excellence on and what core-competencies we want to develop in-house, giving us a competitive advantage now and in the future. We aren’t a one trick-pony, we’re here to stay and need to develop the technologies that will ensure our success in the future.
Q — What is Lightyear’s Research Department’s mission?
Roy: I actually wrote this down (chuckles): "To identify novel and relevant technologies and guide their development such that they can be applied into Lightyear’s products and businesses."
**Q — That’s a mouthful, what does that concretely mean?
Roy: Nice and high level right? So I think there are two main things to take away from that: the Research Department will try and predict what the world will be like in the future, together with the strategy team. Our role in those projections will be to look into how technology will develop in the coming years and make decisions on what to incorporate into Lightyear’s future competencies. While Lightyear’s Board and Strategy Team decide where Lightyear will head as a company, the Research Department has an advisory role in this process. Our responsibility is to look around at what is happening now in the technology sector and what it will be in the future. Then based on Lightyear's vision, the company can make decisions on what technologies to pursue. For example, with input from our product roadmap, we can look into what the trade-off between using carbon fiber and aluminum as opposed to steel would be? Big questions like this one need answering and which I see as the primary task of the Research Department. We will effectively balance product management and strategy to see how we can optimally use technology to make the best products we can
Q — Doesn’t Lightyear already do research?
Roy: Yes, it’s true that Lightyear already does research, but so far that has fallen under the engineering department. While I believe that some research will stay there, most notably for practical applications, I think that having every research track fall under engineering is incompatible with the long term need of Lightyear. Engineering can focus more on making great products while the long-term questions and challenges can be answered by research. Some of our research projects take years to complete, which means that we need to start them with some foresight if we want to see practical applications be ready for the High Volume Series. In the future I see the Research Department asking more WHAT and WHY questions on its own, and looking into HOW questions with the engineering department.
Q — How will Lightyear’s Research Department be structured?
Roy: Despite the fact that Lightyear needs to have a Research Department to focus on long term projects, I still see collaboration with engineering as contributing the most to Lightyear’s success in the long run. That is why the different domains of the Research Department are mirrored on the different domains of the Engineering Department. If we establish this synergy, we can have continuous feedback loops with rapid iteration to make sure engineering can learn from research, and research stays relevant for engineering. This way, we can quickly bring the latest and best technology to the market.
**Q — Which areas of research will you focus on first?
Roy: We are setting up the Research Department to have 4 tracks, which will focus on areas which we are the best at and want to stay the best at as well as areas where we want to develop a certain level of competency. Our solar technology and extreme vehicle efficiency are areas where Lightyear One currently outperforms other electric vehicles, and are the first two tracks. The others are autonomous driving, which will play an increasingly large role in driving in the future, and our modelling and optimisation abilities, so that we can iterate faster on improving our technologies. By developing these key competencies now, we can stay ahead of the competition in the future.