Solar cars have been part of the human imagination for decades. They have been brought to reality by the World Solar Challenge, in which I participated in 2015, and which pits student creativity against an immense challenge. How do you move 400kg of hightech material and 250kg of students over 3000km using the energy of the sun?
The goal of the competition was to showcase the feasibility of solar cars, which I believe it has achieved, albeit in an extreme use-case. The competition takes place in one of the sunniest places in the world, the cars don’t have any amenities such as air conditioning, and students sit in what amounts to plastic chairs strapped to a drive train.
Overview of stages of world solar challenge
What the competitions have revealed is that solar makes sense: if it’s possible to drive 1,500km straight with a 30 kWh battery on solar assisted range, then there are less ideal use cases that could also be of great benefit to consumers and to society as a whole. This is the philosophy behind the foundation of Lightyear and one that we believe will soon spread through the rest of the automotive world.
On-board solar to incentivise energy-efficient electric vehicles
The European Union has already caught onto this in a limited fashion: solar roofs on cars are featured as an eco-innovation for the automotive industry. This is regulation that allows auto manufacturers to receive grants for innovative features of ICE and Hybrid vehicles which brings down their CO2 emission. There have also been efforts to standardise the measurement of the energy that they deliver by large automotive OEMs. These companies see solar cells on cars as a way to mitigate CO2 emissions, while we see it as a way to revolutionise electric mobility and push for energy-efficiency.
If we use this same formula to calculate what this would mean for Lightyear One, a car 100% designed for efficiency, we end up visiting a charging station only once a month in the Netherlands**.**
For other cars, which don’t have this focus on efficiency, it means compensating vampire drain significantly and could contribute up to 1000km solar range per year, per square meter of solar surface.
These consumer benefits from solar, alongside the pursuit of more efficient technologies mean that solar vehicles are not just beneficial for consumers: they are inevitable.
Efficient solar electric cars to rush us towards carbon neutrality
The European Union wants to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and in order to do that, it needs to scale electric mobility as fast as possible, which is a goal we share.
And while currently, the bottleneck around the mass deployment of EVs is battery cost, which has a knock on effect on total car price, the upcoming road bump is one of charging infrastructure. We already regularly see long queues at charging stations with the existing EV fleet.
By designing efficient solar electric vehicles that need to charge 3 times less, we can use 3 times less electricity and support a much bigger car fleet with the same charging infrastructure.
Comparison of different levels of solar range per vehicle and needed charging infrastructure.
And yes I admit, that while Lightyear’s cars will not be the only ones on the road, solar technology has the possibility to decrease the need for electricity grid investments to support the wider adoption of EVs. These are costs that will ultimately be passed on to EV owners and will undermine one of the main drivers of EV competitiveness: a low Total Cost of Ownership. We cannot just supercharge our way to clean mobility, our approach to adopting EVs should be a holistic one.
The Same Rules for Everyone
In a previous blogspot, I discussed Lightyear’s idea of vehicle energy autonomy levels, which could help to measure how much of its energy a car gets from the sun and be grid independent.
A first step towards achieving this would be an EU accepted standard for solar vehicle energy output. Solar vehicle technology, which is still in its infancy, and which is beneficial to consumers and society runs the risk of confusing consumers as to the actual tangible benefits. It is crucial that concrete steps be taken by the European Union to legislate this technology before it hits the wider market, whether it be in determining tests that the solar cells have to undergo, general shading parameters and solar yield. By taking these steps now, we can make sure that consumer benefits are clear and communicable, and help to provide a solution that will ease Europe’s clean mobility transition.
Solar makes sense, so let’s make it happen.