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The World's First Solar Car Will Be a Fashion Statement at Most, Here's Why

The Lightyear car company is a startup that began life as the result of an ambition. The team behind it wanted to create an electric vehicle that doesn’t need charging so often. They wanted to give drivers more independence, whilst keeping the zero-emission driving goal as the highest priority. Enter the Lightyear 0. They’ve done it! It’s a solar-powered four-door car! Unfortunately, it is not poised for success.
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Many have wondered about the use of solar panels on all-electric cars. If they work so well for individual homes, parking lots, and power plants, why wouldn’t the photovoltaic marvel be useful for vehicles that we utilize every single day? That’s what the team at Lightyear had in mind when they decided it’s time someone took this topic seriously. It took them six years to perfect the solution, but now we have seen it and it’s real. The Lightyear 0 is here to harvest the Sun’s rays and turn them into useful energy. It’s aerodynamic, efficient, and looks futuristic. But there are a couple of problems.

If we go back in time, we will find that people were trying all sorts of stuff with cars. Engineers and designers wanted to make the automobile better since its inception. It was (and still is) a reason for many young people to start studying various complicated subjects and for companies to compete in hiring the best there is. Ford was one of the first companies that chose to invest in bright young minds. And it’s understandable why an automaker would proceed like this. The car is a result of multiple intertwined fields of expertise. If you want to blow the competition out of the water, you need the best minds working on your product.

As a matter of fact, that’s mostly why today we have so many powertrain options. That, of course, and the fact that we need to lower emissions so our world doesn't dramatically change in next couple of decades. You want a car? Great! Here’s one with an internal combustion engine that can run on diesel or gas exclusively. Also look at the mild hybrid option that enables better range because it has a starter-generator that helps exactly when the engine is mostly needed.

But there’s more! Here’s a plug-in hybrid that can act as an electric vehicle on shorter distances with the push of a button and you can plug it in to recharge or use the engine to replenish the battery while on the go. In some markets, they even consider this a green vehicle, and you may receive subsidies and incentives. There are also range extender vehicles (like the famous London black cabs or the BMW i3 REx) that try to use the fossil-fuel-hungry power unit as efficiently as possible by turning it into a mere generator.

And now we have completely electric vehicles that can easily beat supercars in a 0 to 62 mph (0 to 100 kph) race. The world and the car industry have evolved tremendously just in the last decade. We don’t even need to touch on the fact that some markets are now testing flying cars as on option to skip traffic.It had to happen
All of this tells us the solar car was inevitable. If Lightyear didn’t have the guts to go on this route, somebody else would’ve had. Just look at the now very popular Hyundai Ioniq 5. The company is offering the option to have a solar roof fitted on the crossover that can provide energy for the 12V battery and the high-voltage unit. Granted, the solar panel’s contribution is small. It can add 1% to the big battery pack if the car’s parked for a day out in the sun.

Fisker’s Ocean is also trying a similar strategy with the all-new Ocean compact SUV, which will go into production later this year. We'll see how that turns out.

But solar panels being used on cars is not something contemporary. In fact, this idea is pretty old. General Motors tried it first in 1955 on a small 15-inch test unit. It was basically a toy called the Sunmobile. However, seven years later, a 1912 Model Baker was trialed with 10,640 solar cells on it. It could carry up to four people but didn’t see the light of day as a production unit. Some years go by, and in 1980, Israeli researchers built the Freeman solar car that was incredibly ugly and managed to drive only 50 miles (80 kilometers) on a full charge. This, like the others, failed.

Until Lightyear’s production-ready car came to fruition, people had toyed with the solar-powered vehicle. The idea to get the Sun’s energy and convert it into power was on the mind of almost everyone who wanted to prove it is possible to move away from fossil fuels and to pay absolutely nothing for energy. Researchers wanted to give people this freedom. They tried. Unfortunately, nothing proved to be feasible for the average consumer.

People want their cars to be reliable and ready to be driven at a moment’s notice. They also like not paying too much for the privilege of driving a car. That’s mostly why there’s still some stigma surrounding all-electric vehicles in some markets, even though EVs have proved themselves to be quite useful for the everyday user if there’s a little bit of planning being done. Just plug in the car when you arrive home, set a charging limit, and that’s all there’s to it.

Just a mirage?

But Lightyear’s 0 appeared, and I thought it was going to change everything. I watched the entire presentation and was feeling genuinely happy for the guys and gals behind this momentous occasion. Finally, something new comes out of Europe that can rival with what we’re doing in America and what the Chinese are doing in Asia. Reality, unfortunately, is often disappointing.

For starters, the vehicle is incredibly expensive. It costs €255,000 ($268,360) without the value added tax (VAT) and other charges like shipping or import fares. Looking at the available options for EVs at the moment, you could very comfortably buy a fully optioned 750-HP Porsche Taycan Turbo S or a 1,020-HP Tesla Model S Plaid or a 1,050-HP Lucid Air Grand Touring or a 649-HP Mercedes-AMG EQS Sedan and you’d still be left with some spare change. All these cars can be considered rivals for the Lightyear 0 since the price tag is extravagant.

But the world’s first production-ready solar car comes with approximately 172 HP (170 bhp) split between the four independently controlled motors, one for each wheel. Moreover, it can reach 62 mph (100 kph) in 10 seconds and can keep going until it hits the limit at 99 mph (160 kph).

The high-voltage battery’s size is also unexpectedly small at just 60 kWh. This might not be such a bad thing because the weight is kept at a minimum and the low drag coefficient means this car is going to cut through air with ease. But looking at what others are offering for less money… Well, it’s going to be hard to attract customers.

Just to put everything better into perspective, the 2023 Chevrolet Bolt EUV comes with a 65-kWh battery pack, has 200 HP, can reach 62 mph (100 kph) in under 7 seconds, and it has a starting price tag of just $28,195 (€26,810).

So, for now, we know it pales in comparison with its main rivals and with other EVs that are almost 10 times cheaper.

But Lightyear promises added solar range that’ll help future owners spend less time plugged in. Can this help with saving money? Well, the company says the car can charge on the go and gain “up to 70 km (43.5 mi) per day.” Furthermore, they say the battery alone can provide 625 km (388 mi) of WLTP range. In ideal weather and driving conditions, you could travel 695 km (431 mi) before needing to recharge. Lightyear goes even further and says their 0 can go over 1,000 km (621) between two charging moments.

For all we know right now, this could be true. The company says the calculations have been done while testing in the Netherlands and Southern Spain summer. Assuming you live in a place where the Sun doesn’t shine all through out the day, you could expect less free miles of range coming only from the solar panels. The 1.05-kW setup is capable of adding 10 km (6.2 mi) of range every hour, but this maximum value won’t always be achieved. There are just too many factors involved.

Thus, there's no way the price tag could justify potential savings by just using the Sun to power the Lightyear 0.

There’s also another issue that needs to be underlined. Solar panels technology has continuously developed in the past two decades, but their efficiency is still sitting at 25%. Lightyear’s proprietary technology doesn’t do any wonders here, but the car’s smart energy usage is what helps with making this vehicle an interesting proposition. On average, it consumes half of what a Tesla Model 3 needs to move around. This is what might set Lightyear apart from others trying to achieve success in the all-electric, solar-powered space.Fortune favors the brave
Just looking at what we know so far, anyone can safely assume Lightyear’s 0 is going to be, sadly, a flop. Or, better yet, we could call it an experiment. Maybe the startup is trying to get the word going so their cheaper vehicle won’t look like a testing product meant for early adopters that are willing to put up with all kinds of issues. Can another generation of Tesla enthusiasts sprout up in Europe? It's highly unlikely. Not in this economy and geopolitical context, anyway.

Therefore, it’s clear that the 0 won’t do anything for the aspiring European auto brand - not at this price point and with these specs.

And they must move quickly if they want a piece of the market. Sono Motors has the solar-powered Sion already scheduled for production and it costs only €28,500 ($30,050). Moreover, they’re testing the solar integration with semitrucks and buses. The competition is heating up because our world is too.

I still hope Lightyear will pull it off somehow, but I highly doubt people will spend so much money on a product that’s incredibly slow and has efficiency as it’s only upside. Add the poor state of the economy, and you get the recipe for just another startup that wanted to do something great but had the timing and the pricing wrong.

At the end of the day, maybe it would be better to have parking lots covered in solar panels and fast chargers that would offer EV drivers clean electricity.


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