Trucks With Onboard Solar Are Becoming A Thing

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Every time I write about solar vehicles, I get the same thing from people in the comments and on social media, like:

“That’s a stupid gimmick that’ll add like a mile a day.”

“What a joke. That can’t even run the air conditioning.”

While these statements have been true for decades, solar technology and EV efficiency have slowly been chipping away at the problem. Now, vehicles like the “never charge” Aptera and the Sono Sion are proving that solar can power at least a good chunk of people’s driving — but can it work for larger vehicles?

The answer isn’t a hard “No” like it once was. The amount of “Yes” is on the rise, even for people who don’t want to drive a “clown truck.”

Sono and ARI Light Delivery Truck

The Sono/ARI 458 Box Truck with solar. Image provided by Sono Motors.

Earlier this month, Sono Motors worked with ARI to add solar to a 458 “Box Body” truck. While not a full-sized truck, or even a normal-sized truck, it’s still an incredibly useful little beast. In cities, at airports, or just for the last mile of package delivery, the 458 Box Body can carry almost 1200 pounds (531 kg) and up to 2.8 cubic meters (about 100 cubic feet) of cargo. It can go a maximum of 80 km/h (about 50 MPH) and has a range of 75–300 miles on a charge.

At full throttle, the 458 Box Truck uses only 7.5 kW of electric power, but most driving would be with far less current. So, it’s really an ideal platform to experiment with solar drive power.

Sono took the stock 458 Box Truck and added solar modules made with ultra-thin, chemically-stressed front glass to provide up to 450 watts of energy at peak performance. Under normal conditions in Munich, they figure that it will add 20 km of range daily without plugging in, and up to 45 km of range under more ideal conditions like you’d find in the US Southwest.

Sono and ARI team works to add solar to the 458 Box Truck. Image provided by Sono Motors.

“Sono Solar — Sono Motors’ B2B unit — is a one-stop-shop for vehicle integrated photovoltaics (ViPV) and our aim is to make every vehicle a solar vehicle. The Intersolar exhibition is the perfect platform to show our proprietary technology and services and we are very pleased to be able to present existing partnerships and prototypes like the electric ARI transporter,” says Mathieu Baudrit, Sono Solar Group Lead at Sono Motors.

Fraunhofer Is Testing A Larger Solar Truck

When it comes to cargo trucks, Justin Hammer was right. Size does matter. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. In ‘Murica, we need a big 9,000 pound truck just to go to the store and buy kitty litter. Don’t believe me? Ask GM about the Hummer EV. Clown cars like the 458 Box Truck might be useful for the city parks and recreation department to drive around the baseball fields, or for the airport to stuff tiny meals into planes with, but don’t expect to see them on the road.

When it comes to doing a real man’s man work, we want to be like Rubber Duck in the 1978 movie Convoy. “My daddy always told me to be like a duck. Stay smooth on the surface and paddle like the devil underneath!” If we can’t push 80,000 lb down the road while strung out on caffeine and modafinil (among other things) while eating an echo-modded radio microphone and saying “Breaker one nine!” on 27.185 MHz AM with an illegal 600-watt linear amplifier that makes the lights go dim when you key it up, it’s just not good enough.

I’m kidding about most of the above, of course. While the Hummer EV does weigh in at 9,000 pounds, and we really do love our big vehicles, almost nobody even knows what most of the last paragraph even means. You’ll just have to watch the YouTube video and hang out at truck stops a little more to see if I’m making stuff up.

Many reasonable, sane people who wouldn’t ram the New Mexico State Police or the Illinois National Guard out of the way, and who want to carry cargo for an honest living, do really need a larger vehicle than the 458 Box Truck. Where’s the solar panel for us “Rubber Ducks?”

Image provided by Fraunhofer.

Fortunately, the industry is working on giving even the biggest trucks some juice from the giant thermonuclear fireball in the sky. Fraunhofer has an electric truck driving on German roads right now with 3500 watts of solar power on the trailer. Sure, it’s no 18-wheeler, but 18 tons GVWR is nothing to sneeze at either. The 3.5 kilowatts of power only takes care of 5–10 percent of the electric truck’s energy needs.

“By successfully putting our high-voltage photovoltaic system into operation, we have achieved our goal of demonstrating the feasibility of vehicle-integrated photovoltaics for heavy-duty electric utility vehicles. The technical components integrated into the truck function as we expected,” said Christoph Kutter, project manager at Fraunhofer ISE.

There is one small safety risk, though. To directly charge the truck’s traction battery, the panels are wired in series, and put out that 3500 watts of power at over 400 volts. In the event of an accident, that’s a lot of juice to be randomly flipping around in the face of emergency workers and good Samaritan types. Fraunhofer thought ahead and installed an automatic disconnect that cuts every solar panel off from the whole system, reducing the voltage down to safe levels.

Feeding 5–10% of the vehicle’s needs from solar might seem sort of silly, but Fraunhofer plans to run the truck hauling real loads for a year on German roads to collect data. By collecting the data on how much solar power ends up being generated, used, and replaced, they can get a much better idea of how to build better solar vehicles in the future as the technology improves.

After all, solar panels are getting better all the time, and it will eventually be possible to take care of a significant portion of the truck’s power. Plus, trucks operating in cities and trucks that spend a lot of time sitting during the day will benefit even more from this technology.

So, fear not, Rubber Ducks. The power of the sun will soon be yours!

Featured image provided by Fraunhofer.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba