It ain’t easy being an electric car startup, and it’s even less easy if you’re doing something more exotic, like trying to sell a solar-powered car. Everyone knows that solar power is great and useful, but many people also know that the limited space on the outside of a car just doesn’t gather that much energy, at least with today’s commercially-available technology. That having been said, startups like Sono and Aptera have each taken innovative approaches to get the most from this limited power that they can, and perhaps even sell something that’s useful. But, selling it to the public and to investors has been a big challenge.
Let’s take a look at how it’s going for Sono Motors and Aptera.
Sono Throws In The Towel On The Sion Solar Car
There’s no easy to way to say it. The project is officially dead and the 300 people who were working on it lost their jobs. But, Sono is at least trying to help them find new jobs.
We have terminated the Sion program. 300 employees are made redundant. If you’re hiring or know someone who is, please take a moment to review the Sono Motors Talent Directory👉 https://t.co/WNsRnWFUoA pic.twitter.com/55DqESnDXM
— Sono Motors (@SonoMotors) February 27, 2023
If you’re wondering how they got here, it’s basically the same story as many cars that a small but enthusiastic part of the population loves: death by bean counter. I, and other writers here, have covered the rise and fall of the car, and you can see everything we wrote about it so far here. The prototypes of the car were pretty similar to the second-generation Nissan LEAF in many ways, with around 150 miles of promised range, a useful 5-seat hatchback configuration, and enough power to get around without getting too sporty. What made it unique was that it was covered almost all over with solar cells that could add 20-30 miles of range to the car in good sun, which could cover many people’s commutes.
But, that little bit of extra range was only enough for cleantech enthusiasts like us (minus a few wet blankets among us) to appreciate. The car had a loyal and enthusiastic following, but the following wasn’t enough to get investors excited about buying a part of the company. Plus, the owners just couldn’t agree with the few interested investors on terms. They tried to save the car with a program for buyers to pay in full ahead of time, bypassing investors, but that didn’t succeed.
There was a last glimmer of hope at the end of January that the campaign was bringing investors back to the table, but that apparently didn’t work out.
But, then again, there may be yet another even smaller glimmer of hope if you’re a big fan of the car:
We want to do everything possible to make the Sion a reality. We intend to offer any interested third parties to purchase the Sion program, the assets, and the industrialization rights to build the world’s first affordable Solar Electric Vehicles 👉https://t.co/2LADReMSFE pic.twitter.com/HhygTnC0sX
— Sono Motors (@SonoMotors) February 28, 2023
Sono is offering the designs, intellectual property, and everything else up for sale. They’re hoping that another company or a group of investors will be willing to buy the car. This would remove Sono from the process, but could eventually yield a car.
But, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Similar things happened with the Aptera’s first incarnation, with some Chinese company planning to build it, but then nothing happened for almost a decade. So, if you really want a solar hatchback, you’ll probably want to buy a regular EV and cover it in solar panels, or build a more efficient vehicle that can make better use of solar power.
Aptera Seems To Be Doing A Lot Better
While this isn’t really hard news for people who follow the company closely, Aptera announced that it received final approval for a $21 million grant from the State of California. I emailed the company to see where this puts it on the final amount needed for production, especially when there has been a $50 million figure floating around. They wouldn’t tell me exactly where they stand, but it’s important to note that this is a matching grant from the state that refunds them for money spent on certain things, effectively doubling whatever else they raise.
One big source of money for Aptera in recent weeks has been the Accelerator Program, which encourages people to invest at least $10,000 by offering the first 2,000 production slots to the top 2,000 investors to make a new $10,000 investment. As of this writing, they’ve raised almost $10 million and have given away only 665 investor slots.
This money has been spent on things that appear to qualify for the matching grant, so they’ve effectively raised somewhere between $7-20 million so far with the combined effects of both programs. So, the company’s strategy seems to have paid off and they’re a lot closer to funded production now than they were a few months ago.
When I asked exactly how close they were, I was told:
“The funds being raised through this program are being used to purchase tooling and equipment, and many of these expenses are reimbursable as part of the $21 million CEC grant. To reach our funding requirements, we have employed a three-pronged strategy: raising institutional capital, working on nondilutive funding through government loan and grant programs, and raising funds through Regulation A of the Securities Act.
“As part of our ethos of efficiency, Aptera has required far less capital to get to this stage of development than any other manufacturer of a vehicle of this kind. Our out-of-the-box thinking has allowed us to develop a revolutionary manufacturing and assembly process that will allow us to ramp into full-scale production and fulfill our 40,000+ pre-orders quickly while keeping the company well-capitalized.”
So, I think we can confidently say that the company is doing better than Sono did with the Sion, but whether they can get the rest of the money together in the coming months is still an open question.
We’re Still Very Early In The Solar Car Game
As I pointed out in 2019, it’s important to see that solar technology is still in its infancy. Yes, it’s being widely used and its current state is good enough to be highly useful, but that doesn’t mean that ~20% efficiency is all we’ll ever get out of it. There are test panels (some mounted to vehicles) that get better than 30% efficiency, effectively bringing in 50% more power than what Sono and Aptera have been testing with. 40-50% efficiency is definitely possible, and still under active development for production in the coming years, which would double the range a solar car could add. 90% is theoretically possible, but the jury is still out on that.
So, even if every solar car company in 2023 bombs out, it’s not a technology we should assume will never go anywhere. Or, if a company like Aptera manages to eke out a meager existence over the next few years, there’s still a lot of potential being an early mover in the market as it develops in the coming decades as the technology improves.
Featured image provided by Sono Motors.
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