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January 21, 2020

The Value of Solar Cars

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Martijn Lammers
CSO and co-founder

For the World Economic Forum, 2020 kicks off with its annual gathering in Davos. This year 7 themes will fuel the dialogue in the Swiss mountain town. One of the key themes is ‘Tech for Good’, an excellent opportunity for Lightyear to shine its light on mobility and the need to leave industry convention in the dust.

EV Adoption: the need for an alternative solution

Talk about mass electric vehicle adoption and the chicken and the egg problem throws itself into the discussion: should the charging grid be rolled out first? Or should consumers drive the need for infrastructure by purchasing their electric vehicles first? It is a discussion we at Lightyear like to place on the back seat. We advocate for efficiency in EV technology and in doing so, shape a future wherein the right investments provide our society with grid-independent mobility. But wherein lies the value of solar cars over regular EVs? We need only look at the different driving scenarios.

Commuting free of cost and worry

Commuting, the drive from your home to work and back, takes up the majority of weekly car trips. Driving a regular electric car is a step in the right direction in terms of clean mobility, but the darker side is that it creates a dependency on conveniently positioned charging stations. These usually involve the triad of home, public, and office charging points. There are usually two core questions that are leading in the buying process of an EV. It’s: “How conveniently placed are the charging points on my routes, and are they available or operational?” and “Is the range of my car going to be sufficient to cover my daily drive?” Valid questions of course.

A solar car, like Lightyear One, leapfrogs these dependencies by providing an efficient solution for weekly commuting needs. The solar roof and hood, comprising 5 square meters of integrated solar cells, allows the car to charge itself whenever it absorbs daylight. The cells function independently, meaning they produce a higher yield compared to conventional solar cells. In clear speak, Lightyear One is able to drive up to 55km per day on clean, free, self-generated, solar power. This translates to a daily commuting coverage of 90% in California and with the average in Europe being 28km per day (back and forth), Lightyear One’s solar panel will cover the energy needs for 60% of the daily commute.

Figure 1: A weekly overview of distance travelled and solar yield

A solar car, like Lightyear One, can thus give people a free-fuel, grid-independent solution for commuting, that is non-reliant on the distance and availability of public charging stations, and saves costs at the bottom line.

Long-distance road trips: Brains over brawn

The number one concern for people going on a long-distance road trip is to get to their destination as quickly as possible. When driving an EV the general assumption, therefore, is to have a big battery that increases the range. And yes, that is true for the most part. However, a bigger battery also means a larger dependency on the availability of fast chargers - you simply need a lot of power to quickly charge a big battery. Fast-charging stations are built in such a way that the power is divided among users who are charging at the same time. Thus, your charging power decreases and the time spent waiting goes up. It’s a factor of unpredictability that can be by-passed when designing for efficiency.

“If you want to make it to your destination quickly, you shouldn’t charge a massive battery only to waste all your energy driving it around. With a focus on efficiency instead, you can charge a smaller battery that will reach the same distances because your car requires less energy.” - Martijn Lammers

At Lightyear, we’ve put our attention on efficiency. To think leaner and lighter. And in doing so we’ve produced Lightyear One, a vehicle that has the best of both worlds. With the charging speed of a small battery short-range EV but with a range that goes far beyond the industry norm with 725km on a full battery. Another key component in its efficiency is the propulsion. Lightyear One is equipped with four in-wheel motors, making the car lighter, giving the driver more control, and reducing the energy loss from motor to wheel.

Figure 2: Visualising the trade-off between range and battery size for electric vehicles

The idea here is not to boast about the car, but to show that the technology behind it is already available. That car manufacturers can produce astonishing results if the focus is on the right challenge. Namely, fuel- and grid-independent mobility.

Addressing the issue of scalability

The EV is a great step forward from internal combustion engines but the grid-dependency forms a roadblock in its widespread adoption. The biggest bottleneck is scalability. Inefficient use of batteries and a heavy reliance on frequent charging, slow down the adoption rates. Not to mention the estimated cost of $50-100 billion dollars necessary to build the infrastructure by 2030 (in the US, China & Europe) for a, so far, relatively limited market share.

In order for us as humankind to leave industry convention behind with leaps and bounds, we need to think further. Further, in this case, means smarter and with increased efficiency. In doing so, scalability can go hand-in-hand with sustainability, that to us is ‘Tech for Good’.

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