The latest Pixar flick isn’t the only place where there’s been buzz about a Lightyear. That’s the name of a new EV startup that’s taken a novel approach to keeping its vehicles charged up and ready to roll.
The futuristic-looking Lightyear 0 lays claims to being the “first production-ready” vehicle that can be charged using solar power — though it might not have that niche all to itself for very long. Another startup, Aptera, recently raised $40 million to move ahead with the development of its own solar-powered vehicle. Even Tesla is getting into the act, recently showing off a trailer that could be attached to one of its EVs to generate as much as 50 miles of additional range each day.
The latest generation of solar cells can capture significantly more energy from the sun than the technology available just a few years ago. But don’t expect to get all of your motive power from that big yellow orb in the sky. The Lightyear 0 and Aptera Solar Electric Vehicle will still need to be plugged in to achieve maximum range. But if your daily commute is short, you just might be able to handle it with free energy.
Buzz, this is the new Lightyear
The Lightyear 0 is a sleekly aerodynamic sedan that claims to have the lowest drag coefficient of any vehicle out there — at 0.19, it would be slightly better than the Mercedes-Benz EQS at slipping through the air.
Among the ways Lightyear minimized wind drag was to replace conventional sideview mirrors with lipstick-sized cameras that display on LCD screens inside the cabin. The sedan can be ordered with side skirts that cover the rear wheel wells, in fact, adding another 7 miles to its projected range — and, at a promised 600 miles per charge, it would become the new benchmark if confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, the longest-range model on the market is the Lucid Air Dream Range edition, rated at 520 miles. According to Lightyear, you’d be able to “drive for months without charging.”
Virtually the entire upper surface of the Lightyear 0 (as in “Zero”) is covered with a total of 54 square feet of solar cells. With clear access to the sun, the system can yield as much as 70 kilometers, or about 44 miles, of free power daily. Of course, that varies depending upon where you live, what time of year it is and whether the car’s cells have a clear shot at old Sol.
The solar sedan uses a novel drivetrain layout, with its motors mounted in its wheels, rather than on the axles. There is a trade-off in terms of performance. When it comes to acceleration, the Lightyear 0 is more like some of the EVs we saw in the middle of the last decade, taking a full 10 seconds to get to 60.
Based on the earlier Lightyear One concept, the midsize sedan could be in showrooms in limited numbers late this year, the automaker suggests. While you might save a few bucks a day on energy, you’ll have to lay out about $265,000 to get the 0 when it does come to market.
Aptera: Back from the dead
If the name is familiar, that’s because Aptera was founded in 2005 as one of the EV newbies hoping to win the Automotive X-Prize. That was a high-stakes competition aimed at coming up with a new generation of super-efficient, ultra-efficient vehicles. The promising concept never got off the drawing board, however, the original company liquidating in 2011.
But it rose from the dead in 2019, original founders Chris Anthony and Steve Fambro shifting from a pint-sized gas engine to an all-electric drivetrain that also aims to draw some of its power from the sun. A crowd-sourcing campaign has reportedly generated more than $40 million in cash. And the nascent EV maker claims it has more than 22,000 advance orders.
The new model hews closely to the distinctive, three-wheel design of the original, two of those wheels up front, the third at the back of the teardrop-shaped cabin. The layout makes the Lightyear 0 seem almost brick-like by comparison, achieving a phenomenal 0.13 drag coefficient. And with the use of ultra-light materials, Aptera claims buyers will be able to get anywhere from 200 up to 1,000 miles per charge, depending upon the size of the battery pack.
Its solar cells, meanwhile, should generate enough current for about 40 miles per day.
The Solar Electric Vehicle, or SEV, is officially classified as an “autocycle,” meaning it doesn’t have to meet all the safety standards of a conventional passenger vehicle. But that helps keep its cost down to less than a tenth of what you’d pay for the Lightyear 0, a starting price of about $25,000, according to Aptera.
Tesla tows a solar trailer
Automakers have looked at a variety of ways to extend the range their EVs can get from batteries alone. The BMW i3 city car, for example, offered an optional, 3-cylinder “range-extender” gas engine. Tesla has proposed another way to stretch range while not having to resort to burning fossil fuel.
At the IdeenExpo in Germany this week, the EV maker unveiled a prototype trailer covered with enough solar panels to generate an estimated 3 kilowatts of current a day. Conceivably, it could produce a smaller amount while being towed, hitting peak solar capacity when parked with its solar array unfurled.
The trailer also is equipped with a transceiver allowing it to hook up into the StarLink Internet satellite network founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla isn’t saying whether it might put the solar trailer into production, for now referring to it only as a “show of concept.”
Sono sounds off about solar
Germany’s Sono Motors wants to put the sun to work in a variety of applications. In May, it announced a deal with Chereau, a European manufacturer of refrigerated trailers. The idea is to use Sono’s solar technology to power those rigs, rather than an internal combustion engine.
Founded in 2016 by a pair of 18-year-olds from Munich, Sono is better known for its Sion battery-electric vehicle. The company claims it can add anywhere from 70 to 150 miles of range each week using the 248 solar cells mounted on its body.
The compact hatchback could be in production as early as next year, the company has said. The 5-door is expected to cost around $28,700 in Europe. It will have a range of about 190 miles using a 54 kilowatt-hour lithium iron phosphate battery pack.
But Sono seems ready to apply its technology to any number of different projects and, with the addition of Chereau, now has signed up 17 partners who hope to add solar power to a variety of passenger vehicles, trucks, shuttles and buses.
Fisker puts solar over the top
In recent years, a number of manufacturers, including Toyota, Hyundai and Mazda, have put solar cells onto the roof of their vehicles. Some use the technology to keep their 12-volt batteries charged. Others let the sun power a ventilation system keeping the vehicle cool on a hot day.
Danish entrepreneur Henrik Fisker is planning to offer what he claims to be the “world’s largest solar roof on an electric vehicle” when the new Fisker Ocean comes to market later this year.
Dubbed the SolarSky, the startup claims the system will provide as much as 2,000 miles a year worth of free energy — though that’s under “ideal” circumstances. More realistically, it could deliver about 1,500 miles of power annually in sunny California.
The Ocean will be offered with several different powertrain configurations and battery packs capable of delivering up to 350 miles per charge, Fisker said ahead of the SUV’s launch late this year.