Solar powered cars are a pipe dream. A car doesn’t have sufficient surface area to capture enough sunlight to do anything but power a cooling fan or two. Drive on solar power? Pish tosh. Never gonna happen, right? File that belief under “Things conventional wisdom was wrong about.”
Lightyear Factory Opens
In the Dutch city of Helmond, Lightyear began building the first prototypes of a solar powered car it expects to bring to market in 2020. Back in 2013, CEO Lex Hoefsloot was part of a team at Eindhoven University of Technology that won the World Solar Challenge. In 2015, they did it again by driving nearly 1,000 miles on a single charge. In 2016, some members of the team created Lightyear to bring solar powered car technology forward. They were able to attract investors and convinced a few people who previously worked at Tesla to join up.
“We saw that the technology we used — the solar cells and the battery cells and the motors — were getting much better from year to year,” Hoefsloot tells Fast Company. “In the first car that we built for the Solar Challenge we had solar cells that were 22% efficient and two years after that they were 24% efficient. That meant a 10% increase in energy yield. That keeps happening every two years. So that means at some point it is really kind of trivial to use solar power as a way of charging.”
The name of the company is interesting. Humans drive a total of 9.5 trillion kilometers every year — which just happens to be how far light travels in one year. Hoefsloot says the goal of the company is to get to the point where solar powered cars have driven the same amount of miles in total. The plan is to build 10 prototypes this year before beginning production next year. 9.5 trillion kilometers is a long, long way but the company has every intention of reaching getting there — eventually.
The Lightyear car has one thing going for it. In the teaser photos and video the company has released so far, it is drop dead gorgeous — the kind of car you would want to drive even if it was powered by 1,000 hamsters. Technology is important, but sex sells and the Lightyear concept is sexy as hell.
The team has applied the lessons they learned from the Solar Challenge to the concept. Light weight and superior aerodynamics are vital to reaching their goal. “If you improve the aerodynamics of the car so you use less energy, then what happens is that you can use a smaller battery and still get the same range,” says Hoefsloot. “Then when you have a small battery, you have less weight, so that means you have even less energy consumption. And then that’s a feedback loop that keeps going.”
The prototype uses in-wheel electric motors and an air suspension system that can lower the car to minimize drag. The body is much lighter than a conventional car (no details on that yet) and it has been made as aerodynamic as possible. Side view mirrors are replaced by cameras and the underbody of the car smoothed so as not to disturb the air. A range of up to 500 miles on a full battery charge is anticipated.
How much energy the car harvests from sunlight will depend on where it is located. The company estimates in sunny Australia, enough solar energy would be available to drive up to 20,000 kilometers a year. In the Netherlands, where sunshine is not quite as abundant, 10,000 kilometers a year is the expectation.
The first cars will sell for around $135,000 but the company has plans for future solar powered models that will sell for as little as $26,000. “The mission behind the company is to provide clean mobility for everyone,” says Hoefsloot. “So that means that this is really the best first step for us. And the next would be to go to the areas where the real problems are — where you have not so much charging infrastructure, where the roads are bad, and where smoke problems are bad.”
The hope is that Lightyear will help lead the auto industry to making more efficient cars with a lower carbon footprint regardless of how they are powered. “I just hope this will be an example of the second wave of electric cars,” Hoefsloot says. “You see the first wave which Tesla initiated in 2010 with the Model S platform, and then all the car manufacturers started copying that architecture. I really hope that this architecture will be the new standard for electric cars.”
Crossing Australia On Nothing But Sunshine
A team of students at the University of New South Wales has broken a world record by traveling from Perth to Sydney using the least amount of energy ever. According to the people at Guinness, the solar powered car — affectionately known as Violet — completed the 4,100 kilometer journey using an average of only 3.25 kW of electricity for every 100 kilometers traveled. At 60 km/h, Violet (will the next version be called UltraViolet?) consumed about the same amount of electricity as a toaster.
To put that achievement in perspective, a conventional car would have used about 17 times more energy to complete the same trip. The team arrived in Sydney in just 6 days — two less than expected.
“These students have pushed the boundaries of modern engineering and proven that solar powered cars are likely to be a big part of Australia’s motoring future,” said UNSW Dean of Engineering Mark Hoffman. “They worked extremely hard to prepare for this journey and, despite setbacks, they’ve shown resilience, bounced back like professionals, and got on with the job.
“This is what a university degree should entail – actual, hands-on experience and overcoming real-world challenges. I am incredibly proud of the caliber of young adults we have studying here at UNSW. A wholehearted congratulations to every one of you.”
Solar powered cars may seem like a novelty today — an idea that is appealing in the abstract but not especially practical. But the odds are, your grandkids will drive a solar powered car one day without a second thought. As Lex Hoefsloot says, “That means you get rid of the whole chicken-and-egg problem you have around electric cars. There’s not many electric cars because there’s no infrastructure, and there’s no infrastructure because there’s no electric cars. You can kind of [circumvent] that process by making an electric car that doesn’t rely on infrastructure.”
If you think about it, the entire world is powered by sunlight and always has been. Fossil fuels are little more than stored solar energy. To make the Earth capable of sustainable, humanity needs to figure out how to use the gift of sunlight in a way that supports life rather than extinguishes it. All we have to do is follow the path created by Lightyear and the UNSW team — before it is too late.
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