‘It just goes on’: driving the world’s first production-ready solar car

Roel Grooten meandered along the ocher-colored plateaus of the Bardenas Reales Natural Park in northern Spain and nudged me to take my foot off the accelerator.

The car continued to roll over the open area, decreasing speed only slightly. “It just goes on and on,” said Grooten, the chief engineer of the Dutch car company Lightyear, as we zoomed through the moon-like landscape. “What you feel is nothing holding you back. You feel the aerodynamics, you feel the low rolling resistance of the tires, the bearings and the engine.”

It’s this streamlined design that the company credits for making its way into a space long overlooked by most automakers. As early as November, the company will start supplying what it describes as ‘the world’s first production-ready solar car’ – the Lightyear 0, a €250,000 (£215,000) sedan draped in 5 square meters of curved solar panels that charge the electric battery while the car is driving or parked outside.

“If we had the same amount of energy that we harvest on these panels from another car that uses three times as much energy to drive, it becomes useless. It becomes a very expensive gimmick,” said Grooten. build it from scratch, to make it as efficient as possible, to make it possible.”

In optimal conditions, the solar panels can add up to 44 miles per day to the 388 miles of range the car gets between charges, according to the company. to test performed by Lightyear suggest that people with a daily commute of less than 22 miles can drive for two months in the Netherlands without having to plug in, while those in sunnier regions such as Portugal or Spain can take as long as seven months.

Ashifa Kassam at the wheel of the Lightyear 0
In optimal conditions, the solar panels can add up to 44 miles per day to the 388-mile range the car gets between charges. Photo: Nacho Bueno Gil/The Guardian

But whether the company’s gamble on solar will pay off remains to be seen, said Jim Saker, a professor emeritus at Loughborough University and president of the Institute of the Motor Industry.

“You have to pay an awful lot of money and you have solar panels on the car for only 44 extra miles. The question mark right now is the fact that, in reality, is that actually worth it? The actual concept isn’t bad. It’s just about whether the technology is really viable to make it economically sustainable for anyone who wants to do it.”

Sales of the Lightyear 0 would likely be limited to a handful of early adopters, he added. “But in reality it’s not a commercial proposal at the moment.”

Others question the idea of ​​a car being touted as a salve for the deepening climate crisis. “The most sustainable way to approach car ownership is to avoid it altogether, if you can,” said Vera O’Riordan, a PhD student focusing on low-carbon routes and passenger transport policies at University College Cork in Ireland.

Although electric vehicles can play a limited role in rural areas without public transport, cited research suggests these vehicles are often sold to high-income households in urban areas. “So you have to ask yourself: Do you operate this individualized, highly inefficient, highly damaging and traffic-causing transport in urban areas where it could otherwise be perfectly served by public transport and walking and cycling?”

The need to move away from cars to address the climate emergency has been echoed — perhaps surprisingly — by Lex Hoefsloot, Lightyear’s 31-year-old CEO, who has raised approximately €150 million in investment to get it up and running. .

“It would be great, I totally agree,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to change our lives too much. Maybe, if in 20 years we really start to panic, maybe we will. But in the meantime, we have to work around that.”

Since 2016, the company has been advocating solar energy as an important part of this temporary solution, with a view to creating clean-energy solar cars and accelerating the transition from polluting fossil fuels. “People said it wasn’t possible, mainly because of the limited amount of solar energy you could get on a car,” Hoefsloot says.

Roel Grooten and Ashifa in the car
Roel Grooten, the chief engineer, explains the operation of the car. Photo: Nacho Bueno Gil/The Guardian

However, his own experience suggested otherwise. The Lightyear 0 – a streamlined four-wheel drive – has its origins in a squat box-on-wheels who took four helmet-clad college students across the Australian outback to win his class in the 2013 World Solar Challenge.

“If it works in Australia, it works everywhere. That was the idea’, says Hoefsloot, who founded Lightyear with four other members of the solar challenge team. “At the beginning I had to admit that there was some hesitation about going full car production because we all know it’s not the easiest thing to do. But there was no one else who really wanted or did something similar.”

In recent years there has been an increasing interest in integrating solar panels in cars: Mercedes-Benz recently revealed plans to equip an emerging electric car with solar panels on the roof, while Toyota has offered sometimes limited capacity solar panels to complement the Prius hybrid.

Next year, Sono Motors from Munich plans to roll out a $28,500 family solar-powered car, while California-based startup Aptera Motors said in 2020 that pre-orders for its futuristic three-wheel electric solar electric vehicle were sold out in less than 24 hours.

With months to go before the Lightyear 0 goes into production, there are still issues to be solved, from a stiff steering wheel to the buzz that sometimes fills the car when the air conditioning kicks in.

Once you’re in the car, there’s little about the driving experience that feels different from other electric cars – “That’s a huge compliment, that’s what we strive for,” one employee tells me – apart from a few reminders about the constant drip supply of solar energy. One screen shows exactly which cells are feeding the sun at what time, while the other quantifies how much solar energy is absorbed.

Close-up of the front of the car
The car’s body panels are made from reclaimed carbon fiber. Photo: Nacho Bueno Gil/The Guardian

In an effort to use as much of this solar energy as possible, the windswept design avoids side-view mirrors in front of cameras and runs off lightweight electric motors tucked into the wheels. The body panels are made of reclaimed carbon fiber and the interior is made of vegan, vegetable leather with fabrics made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles.

The 20 minute test drive is probably the only time I will be behind the wheel of the Lightyear 0. With its hefty price tag – ideally paid for by those who have an outside parking space to let the car take advantage of the sun – it’s not a car for the masses.

Instead, the company sees the production run, which will offer up to 946 vehicles for delivery in Europe and the UK, as a start of sorts. “This is a small scale to confirm to the world that we can produce a car,” said Telian Franken, the prototype team leader.

From there, the company will shift its focus to a second electric car with solar energy it aims to sell for around €30,000 by 2025. “We’re trying to make a difference, not to the millionaire who can afford a $250,000 car, but to get us to get the average person off the grid – get a reliable sustainable vehicle that’s better than any econo-box you can buy.” at that time,” said Franken, citing the Toyota Corolla or Honda Accord as examples. “That’s what we’re trying to beat — and replace — because it’s not sustainable.”

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