A practical solar car has been the stuff of sci-fi, mostly relegated to proofs of concept, but lately that changed as three credible makers are putting them on the market. Long-range EV buyers who think these cars will let them completely cut the cord are going to be disappointed, but those who have a realistic view of their driving needs might be enthused.
All of these early leaders still embrace plugged-in charging but layer on solar charging as a first line method to cover most ordinary driving. Whether that's true will depend on each driver's mileage needs and access to sunlight; clean car nuts who love to keep their car garaged or covered need not apply.
The Lightyear 0 comes off as the most sophisticated of the early solar cars, and for a quarter of a million dollars, it had better. Don't worry, the next two cars I show you cost about the same as the sales tax on this one.
Lightyear says the 54 square feet of solar panels across the top of their car can harvest as much as 45 miles of driving range per day on top of about 390 miles of total battery range (per the European WLTP test cycle, which tends to be optimistic compared to the US ratings). Of that range 320 miles can be garnered in about an hour when plugged into a DC fast charger.
The Lightyear 0 weighs just under 3,500 pounds, which, by today's standards, is svelte, especially for a car carrying a heavy battery pack that typically weighs from 500 to 800 pounds. Part of that lightweighting comes from using simple, compact in-wheel motors, which is something of a given in the solar car business.
Only 950 of these cars are slated for initial production, with sale limited to the UK and parts of the EU.
At the other end of the price spectrum lies the Sono Motors Sion at around $30,000, an extrapolation since this car is also not slated for the US market. The Sion offers 190 miles of total range and 70 to 150 miles per week of solar range, another example of the rather tortured dual-range estimates solar car companies provide, owing to the two disparate ways their cars get electric energy.
The Sion is plastered in solar panels, not just on the top-facing surfaces and, as a result, thumbs its nose at styling awards. When you do need to plug in a Sion, a DC fast charge will pack on around 80% of its 190 miles range in 30 minutes or so.
Like several non-solar EVs, the Sion boasts of being able to power other things, like EVs that Sono's imagery cheekily suggests got stranded without solar.
Sono recently announced it will commission Finnish contract manufacturer Valmet as its manufacturing partner, placing the Sion in the same hands that built many years of Boxsters and Caymans, as well as several current Mercedes models. No garage band there.
If the Aptera vehicle looks familiar, it's because it's been knocking around as the next big thing for at least 15 years. Now in solar electric form, it warrants (yet) another look. You'll either love or laugh at its airplane-without-wings styling and notice that it's a three-wheeler. But Aptera says all that helps it barge through the air using as little as 30% of the energy of an EV or Hybrid.
Its unconventional, light and slippery design creates a virtuous circle: The vehicle needs a smaller, lighter battery pack that, in turn, augments the vehicle's lightness, allowing for a meaningful state of charge to be achieved via the sun. Aptera uses an interactive mapping tool to illustrate how much solar driving you might expect. On top of that, you can configure an Aptera with battery options ranging from 250 to an almost incredible 1,000 miles.
The vehicle holds two people, and it helps if they're good friends: The pontoon fender bracketed cabin is snug (at least it's not a tandem) though it has a substantial rear storage deck reminiscent of a Jaguar E-Type.
Notice I have been referring to the Aptera as a vehicle, not a car, because that's a key distinction. In the humorless eyes of your local DMV clerk, the Aptera is a motorcycle, or perhaps an "auto-cycle." You'd need to check the motor vehicle rules in your state, but you should at least not need a helmet as the thing is fully enclosed. You might, however, need a motorcycle or three-wheel vehicle endorsement. And note that, as a non-car, the Aptera does not have to conform to the same safety standards as cars, like having airbags.
Of the three cars I've shown you, this is the only one made and sold in the USA, ranging from about $26,000 for 250 miles of range to around $50,000 for one with an astounding projected 1,000 miles. In a way, the Aptera makes the most sense because it's so utterly distinct from any other EV that it argues for being owned along with one.
Normalizing or niche?
While you make up your mind about solar cars, here's what I think: Real-world performance feedback is going to be very important, as this is a new kind of charging that almost no driver has any experience with.
That said, untethered charging does something potent: It allows an EV to potentially leapfrog the convenience of a gas-engined car rather than just trying to approximate it. That's right in line with my belief that the best charge isn't the fastest but the most persistent and transparent.
I suspect that EV intenders are going to be pretty skeptical of solar cars, or they might break the opposite way and accept the concept, thanks to millions of residential solar installations in the US that have set the table for the technology.
Solar cars are an interesting proposition for the prepper who realizes that, as almost everything is going electric, almost nothing will work when the grid is down. It would be nice to know that, even when that happens, you still have a working car.
Finally, I have my concerns about the limited solar range these cars deliver at a time when we are about to see massive growth in conventional charging infrastructure; That would seem to create a risk that the solar proposition gets lost in a sea of conventional charging that could relegate solar vehicles to just the most serious environmentalists or technology dilettantes.
All that said, there is an undeniable elegance to a solar electric car, so I'll be watching them for you.