Solar cars aren’t a bad idea but have limited options today

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The debate for reducing automobile emissions brings up two electric vehicle (EV) solutions — vehicles powered by batteries [or battery EVs (BEVs)] and fuel cell EVs. BEVs are the most commonly found solution today, especially light-duty and, to a certain extent, medium-duty transport. However, one of the major concerns related to batteries is their limited size and range. This is where the concept of adding solar panels to a car’s roof or developing a solar EV or solar car came from. This solution can increase range without increasing battery capacity and reduce reliance on charging infrastructure, which is not vastly available in many regions worldwide. In other words, solar EVs can help overcome range anxiety.

However, it turns out that developing a solar EV isn’t straightforward, as evidenced by recent incidents with solar EV developer Lightyear, which has suspended operations, and Sono Motors, which is scrambling to save its solar EV business. This poses a few questions — first, what did these companies do wrong, and why did they fail? Secondly, what does this mean for the future of solar EVs, and who is best positioned to commercialize the technology?

Lightyear and Sono Motors were budding startups that needed massive funds to commercialize their technology. Both startups had retail orders due for 2025 from fleet owners, indicating customers believed in the promise of the technology. However, these companies failed to take off primarily because they adopted an overly aggressive strategy to scale up. It takes a lot of money to build an automaking facility, and raising the capital needed would not have been possible within this time frame, even with their optimistic sales targets. These startups would have been better off with realistic targets and starting small, for example, by focusing on revenue generation from licensing their technology instead of developing an entire solar EV.

Adding solar panels to a BEV can have realistic payback periods that turn unrealistic based on location and manufacturer. As mentioned in the introduction, the selling point of using solar panels on a BEV is to extend the range. Having said that, available solar irradiance varies with time and location, solar roof costs vary and so does the solar panel area. This means it will make sense to add solar panels to a BEV only in some locations. This hinders adoption.

Large-scale automakers are best positioned to commercialize solar EVs, and production costs will be essential for commercialization. Just because two prominent names fell away in the sector doesn’t mean all is lost. One positive outcome of these incidents is that the technology developed at these facilities is available for large automakers to swoop in and develop further for commercial integration. This could help the technology mature since large automakers already have the funds, resources, and scale to test how solar roofs can be brought to market cost effectively. In addition, consumers would be more open to purchasing such a vehicle if it came from an established automaker instead of a startup with no track record.

Solar EVs aren’t a bad idea, but proving universal applicability, as things stand, makes them a niche product. Present solar roof design parameters, performance, or cost metrics will restrict the number of consumers that find solar roofs valuable, which will depend on geographic location and access to sun during the day. Improvements in solar cell technologies and vehicle energy efficiency will accelerate adoption, but solar EVs will remain a niche application today.

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