Even here at CleanTechnica, there’s a lot of skepticism about solar-powered cars. The obvious problem, of course, is that solar power just doesn’t generate enough power per square foot of surface area to get a lot of power out of the top of a car. As one well-known automotive engineer on YouTube explains, there’s a lot working against it. So, it’s an even harder sell for mainstream publications to try to explain today’s emerging solar car market to the public. Before we get into what CNET did with solar cars, let’s talk about why they’re such a challenge, in my usual way, so you can see how much better they did.
Why Solar Cars Are A Hard Problem To Solve
Obviously, you can’t power the electric motor directly from the solar cells the way you’d do it if you were running an experimental car or running some college engineering team race unless you want a vehicle that’s entirely impractical and can only go 15 MPH in good sun. So, you’ve got to build a normal EV that gives you power from a battery and then uses the cells to charge the battery. But, that still can only give you a few kilowatt-hours of charge per day.
The bottom line? Solar isn’t very useful in conventional cars with regular forms and building techniques. It might extend the range by a few miles each day, or just power auxiliary systems. However, vehicles that are created to run on solar through greater efficiency and/or additional solar cells are a good approach.
To get more cells, one way to do that is to build a folding solar array, but that approach is uncommon because you can’t always deploy a folding solar array in parking lots without getting in the way of other cars, trees, or fences. So, that approach isn’t very commercially viable today. It also has the misfortune of basically doing the same thing a solar roof or shade does, so you’re better off to charge from stationary solar installs to get some real power instead of trying to shoehorn that onto the car.
The other approach is to focus on efficiency. Lightyear, Aptera, and Sono (the three challengers for vehicle-mounted solar) are all taking this approach.
How CNET’s Article Approaches This
They start off in the subhead with a very good summary of the above problem: “They still plug in, but depending on how you use them, they may do so very rarely.”
Honestly, I’m very impressed with that summary. Instead of going into some depth like I did above, they focused on how the car will work for the driver, which is a much better approach than starting with how the energy from the sun makes its journey to the wheels. Basically telling people, “Hey, it’s an EV, but you don’t have to plug it in as much,” tells people what they actually need to know.
They then cover three vehicles that are hitting the market: the Lightyear 0, the Sono Sion, and the two-seater Aptera. Once again, they focus on the practical information that potential buyers need to know about the cars.
Obviously, the Lightyear is expensive, and they get that out of the way first (probably so readers can scroll on). Then they go over the basic stats, telling readers that according to Lightyear, the car’s 54 square feet of solar panels can produce as much as 45 miles of driving range per day in addition to around 390 miles of total battery capacity (according to the European WLTP test cycle, which is more optimistic than US ratings). When connected to a DC fast charger, 320 miles may be obtained in around an hour.
For the Sion, they tell readers that the Sion has a maximum range of 190 miles and 70 to 150 miles per week of solar range, yet another example of the rather tortured dual-range estimates given by solar car businesses owing to the two distinct ways their cars obtain electric power.
For the Aptera, they open by explaining that the unusual shape is all about efficiency, but that it pays off in terms of solar range per day. They explain that, “The vehicle needs a smaller, lighter battery pack that, in turn, augments the vehicle’s lightness, allowing for a meaningful state of charge to be achieved via the sun. Aptera uses an interactive mapping tool to illustrate how much solar driving you might expect. On top of that, you can configure an Aptera with battery options ranging from 250 to an almost incredible 1,000 miles.”
They also had some very accessible commentary that helps readers understand things better (assuming they got really interested and read that far). They cover not only the positives, but the negatives that could lead to solar cars remaining a niche in the market.
One thing I was particularly impressed to see was discussion of the preparedness aspect of solar cars. They explain that solar cars are an intriguing option for the preppers among us who understand that, as virtually everything is going electric, almost nothing will function when the grid goes down (and it will). It’s nice for those of us worried about such things to know that, being partly independent from the grid, you still have a vehicle that can do some driving.
I’ve seen some downright abysmal coverage of the emerging solar EV market, and I’ve seen a lot of OK coverage, but I’d consider this article to be among the excellent that does a better job than I usually do.
Obviously, they’re fiddling in front of a different crowd, so they can’t be as technical as we tend to be here, but they show us that even modestly complex ideas can be presented in a way that it’s still accessible for people who just want to get in and drive with minimal fuss and technical understanding/learning curves. This is something we should probably do here, at least for the first few paragraphs before we dive deeper for the more technical crowd here.
Another important thing, beyond accessibility, is that they show how the complexity (charging from both the grid and from onboard solar) leaves a lot of roof for misunderstanding. Those of us who saw the massive misunderstandings the Chevy Volt initially faced know all too well that even a little bit of complexity can get people lost.
Featured image provided by Aptera.
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