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It’s the biggest energy source we have, and the stuff it produces is free, so could there be a way of deploying it?

 

It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel, but could future company cars be powered by the sun? While the technology is still in its infancy, it seems there is a higher chance of future work vehicles utilising the rays than, say, someone flying to work to avoid traffic jams.

Solar-powered vehicles aren’t commercially available yet, but the first examples of the trailblazing Lightyear One are set to be on the roads by the end of the year. However, the Dutch model is all but out of reach for fleets, with prices starting from £156,000.

German start-up Sono Motors believes it will launch its Sion EV by 2023, with prices starting from 25,000 Euros (£21,628). On the face of it, the statistics aren’t that impressive: it has a 35kwh battery that offers a range of 139 miles, however, what sets it apart from other small EVs is that it has 248 solar panels all over the vehicle and “seamlessly integrated” into the car’s bodywork, which the firm claimed enables up to 150 miles to be added to the range each week.

Despite the vehicle not being in production yet, London-based green rental company Ufodrive has placed an order for a number of vehicles.

Jonathan Shine - May 2021Jonathan Shine, the company’s general manager (pictured left), said to Company Car Today: “Vehicles tend to sit around a lot not being driven and not doing anything, and we believe this is a great opportunity for us to harvest green energy while a car is stationary. It’s remarkable how much you can get out of the sun when the car is simply sitting around. These cars can get 35 miles per day, which is not everything but it isn’t a tiny number when you consider that it is just sitting there.

“The idea of cars harvesting solar is that they’re sitting outside and soaking up the sun most of the time – why not collect it? It’s there, it’s falling from the sky and it’s much more efficient and it’s free. It’s an opportunity to harvest what’s there, so why not take it?” he said.

Shine added that Ufodrive only operates EVs and that part of the firm’s ethos “is to enable people to drive while reducing their impact on the environment”, so the addition of solar-powered vehicles is simply an extension of the firm’s existing policy.

Shine was unable able to confirm how many cars his firm has ordered, but added as the cars are already being designed to be shared it will be easier to install its systems into the cars than existing EVs, such as Nissan Leafs or Teslas.

According to Peter Harrop (pictured below left), the chief executive of business consultancy firm IDTechEx, the advent of solar technology could remove the need for EV drivers to search for fast chargers. “A lot of the talk at the moment is about fast chargers of the future but much better than that is that I won’t have to bang in electricity any more,” he told Company Car Today.

Peter Harrop - May 2021He claimed someone who travels 7000 miles a year could conceivably drive using only power from the sun.

Clearly, a typical company car driver travels far more than 7000 miles a year but he added that solar panels could become “an emergency lifeboat” for EVs that run out of juice, making a comparison to a range-extender, adding this back-up could make EVs more attractive for fleets.

“For example, there is one charger in Aviemore [in the Scottish Highlands], and nothing else for miles. If you arrive and it is in use or broken, you’re in trouble, but at least if you have solar you can talk to a capercaillie bird or a mountain goat for three hours and then your car will work and you can go on to a charger that does work. It lubricates the adoption of electric vehicles because company car drivers do have to go to some pretty remote places. The fact is that it is your lifeboat and it makes it less urgent to find a fast charger.”

Shine, however, isn’t convinced: “If you’re driving along and your range is going down, you’re going to have to a) make sure the sun is the right place, and b) wait some time. Certainly, if you’re living the slow life and you’re happy to wait for the sun to hit the car to charge the battery that’s fine, but from a real-world point of view I don’t think it is comparable to a range-extender.”

Hyundai Ioniq 5Thus far, traditional car makers have only dipped their toes into adding solar panels to vehicles. In America in 2019 Hyundai developed a solar roof charging system which was fitted to its US-only Sonata Hybrid model. At the time, the firm claimed between 30 and 60% of the car’s battery could be recharged using the rays from the sun and said it could add 807 miles of range over a year, but when contacted by Company Car Today, a spokesman for the Korean brand could not supply data on whether or not American fleets had saved money as a result.

In the UK, the firm’s forthcoming Ioniq 5 EV can be specified with a solar roof that the company estimates can add up to 3.7 miles worth of range each day if driven when it is sunny. It is likely that future EV models will also contain this technology.

Toyota has also experimented with solar technology; between 2009 and 2019 its Prius model could be fitted with solar panels to power the air-conditioning system while the car was stationary, while the company has also experimented with a system in Japan that was said to add 35 miles of range per day. However, a spokesman said the specifications of that vehicle “were quite different to the road-going model sold here”.

For the time being at least, solar power is unlikely to revolutionise the way fleets power their vehicles but it appears that moves are being made to develop the technology.

Daniel Puddicombe