Tech Talk: Light Years Ahead?

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The first solar-powered production car, the Lightyear One, could be a game-changer

Perhaps the two biggest barriers to the wider take-up of electric vehicles are range-anxiety and the inconvenience (whether perceived or real) of charging. However, Dutch tech company Lightyear believes it has solved both with its Lightyear One solar-powered EV.

By combining aerodynamic design and solar panels integrated within the body, the Lightyear cuts out the middleman to take its power directly from the sun.

It almost sounds too good to be true. The One’s range is 725km (450 miles) on the WLTP cycle. That’s more than a Jaguar I-Pace (292 miles) or Tesla Model X (up to 315 miles depending on spec).

Lightspeed has achieved this by prioritising range and efficiency over outright performance. Whereas the likes of Jaguar and Tesla achieve startling acceleration times, the Lightyear One takes a claimed 10 seconds to go from 0-62mph. That might be rather steady, but the Lightyear will appeal to drivers with different concerns from those excited by a Tesla’s performance figures.

RETHINKING THE EV

Lex Hoefsloot, CEO and co-founder of Lightyear, says: “The main goal of the car is to fill in where electric cars fall short. Research has shown that range and the lack of charging options are still the top concerns that people have when considering electric cars.

“We are solving these issues with what we call ultra-efficiency. On one hand, that will lead to an exceptional range on a relatively small battery. On the other hand, it can charge directly from the sun because its energy consumption is much lower, generating up to 20,000km (12,430 miles) worth of energy per year. Moreover, all of the charging options out there become easier to use because you get a lot more range for the same amount of energy charged. So effectively, you charge a lot faster from any power outlet. You can charge up to 400km (248 miles) per night from ordinary 230V sockets. That’s great for road trips because you don’t need charging infrastructure.”

The most obvious difference between the One and a conventional EV is the five-square metres of solar panels in the roof and bonnet. But that’s not the only area in which the Lightyear One is different from a regular electric car.

The One is made from aluminium and carbonfibre to reduce weight. Lightyear doesn’t quote a kerbweight but does say the One has “the lowest weight possible while maintaining passenger safety”.

Aerodynamics go hand-in-hand with lightness; Lightyear claims a lower drag coefficient than any car on the market, although again it doesn’t yet quote a figure.

The motors are also unusual, housed within the wheels. “Developed in-house, the motors employ only a single moving part and offer a high power-to-weight ratio,” explains Lightyear’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Martijn Lammers.

“Most importantly though, they minimise power loss since power is directly transferred to the road, without the need for any transmission or axle. There are other benefits too, because the platform offers ‘real’ four-wheel-drive capabilities and is uniquely serviceable.”

In-wheel motors also help designers to come up with a spacious interior by avoiding the need to find room for bulkier, conventional electric motors. There’s capacity for five adults, two in the front and three in the back and the boot is generous, too, offering 780 litres of luggage space. That’s far more than a Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate, for example.

CLOUDING THE ISSUE

The founders of Lightyear cut their teeth designing and racing solar cars across the Australian Outback, but clearly, the sun shines more often in the Northern Territory than North Yorkshire.

But Lightyear argues the One doesn’t rely on non-stop sunshine. For one thing, it can be plugged in like a regular EV. For another, it doesn’t need 14 hours of constant blue skies for the sun to provide a worthwhile boost to the batteries.

The solar range calculator on Lightyear’s website estimates the pure solar range drivers will enjoy, depending on the typical weather patterns where they live. A driver in Croydon will be able to travel around 35km (nearly 22 miles) per day on solar power in summer, and 7km (just over four miles) in winter. Not huge distances, perhaps, and impossible to independently verify. But a worthwhile boost of ‘free’ mileage, especially in the summer.

However, those solar-powered miles won’t put much of a dent in the Lightyear One’s prodigious cost. The full price is 149,000€ (£132,858). Spreading the cost through Leaseplan will cost from 1879€ per month (£1675), and if you put your name down now don’t expect delivery until the middle of 2021.

But radical new technology always comes with a premium, and Lightyear is committed to driving down costs. “Our future vehicles will indeed be mass produced together with partners, and since none of the technologies we use are inherently expensive, we expect to reduce cost quickly as volumes scale.”

Solar-powered cars will be a niche product for well-heeled, ecologically committed enthusiasts for a few years to come. But if the Lightyear One lives up to its promise, such solar technology could surely make the move into the mainstream of business driving.


David Motton