The World Solar Challenge is a race across 1,878 miles of the Australian Outback. Held every two or three years since 1987, the race is typically run with vehicles entered by universities or corporations and must run entirely on solar power. Somehow Dutch teams have won their class 10 times and finished second three times in the 15 races held to date. And while most WSC “cars” don’t seem the tiniest bit suitable for consumer transportation, the Dutch university team Solar Team Eindhoven has won three times in the larger “cruiser” class for potentially road-legal multi-passenger vehicles. Some graduates of that program have formed the Lightyear company in Helmond, Netherlands to leverage the team’s vast WSC learnings and produce a solar-powered car. That car, the Lightyear One, is expected to reach production in late 2022, and it’s supposedly heading stateside.
What Is the Lightyear One?
Taking a page from Tesla, Lucid, Rivian, and most other successful EV startups, the first product—cleverly dubbed Lightyear One—will be a big, roomy, expensive sedan. Its exterior dimensions almost perfectly match those of a Mercedes CLS-Class. That 16-foot-long-plus fastback bodywork makes room for 54 square feet of solar cells (rear-view cameras compensate for the obscured rear visibility).
No interior dimensions have been shared, but because it employs four in-wheel motors, the packaging space should be huge, and the hatchback and fold-down seats provide the seats-up/down luggage space of a Nissan Rogue SUV.
How Much Solar, How Much Battery?
With solar cells covering the hood and everything that’s mostly horizontal from the top of the windshield to the trailing edge of the hatch, Lightyear claims this setup can add about 7 miles of electricity per hour while parked under ideal circumstances, and that validation prototypes typically add 25 miles’ worth of solar energy to the battery on cloudy days. The car is charging itself anytime the sun is shining, but when it’s driving, it’s probably consuming most of that charge.
Clearly nobody is crossing the outback without stopping in this rig but compared to solar roofs like the 200-watt roof produced by a2-solar for the Karma Revero sedan that claimed to add 1.5 miles per day in California, or the one proposed for the Fisker Ocean SUV claiming it will add 4-5 miles per day, that cloudy-day claim is darned impressive. Nevertheless, to ensure nobody gets stranded there’s also a 60-kWh battery onboard, which you can top up using a normal EV charger. This effectively renders the solar array a range-extender, much like the tiny gas engines used in some EVs to extend the range of the battery while on the go or far from chargers.
Clever New Solar Tech
That performance comes from new SunPower interdigitated back-contact photovoltaic cells mount to Endurans Solar conductive backplates. Boiling that intimidating word-salad down, it explains why the Lightyear’s hood and roof look completely black, without silver conductors framing discrete solar collector patches. This not only helps the car look better, it maximizes photovoltaic area, minimizes cell-to-module power losses and delivers a 3-percent increase in power output.
“Go Free,” But How Far?
Parked in the sun all day, some Americans may get their daily commuting mileage covered for free. As for battery range, there are no official EPA estimates yet, but Europe’s more optimistic WLTP test cycle pegs the Lightyear One’s range at 450 miles. And since government range tests are conducted on indoor dynamometers, none of those miles is solar. That’s a long range for a large car to achieve on a modest 60-kWh pack. Lightyear credits next-level efficiency for this.
How Efficient is the Lightyear One?
Efficiency-boosting efforts include building the body largely of aluminum and carbon fiber, for a feathery claimed curb weight of just under 2,900 pounds—unheard of in an all-electric high-range five-passenger sedan. Then there’s the body’s slippery teardrop shape, aero flat wheels covered by spats in the rear, and replacement of side-view mirrors with cameras, all of which is said to result in a drag coefficient of 0.20. (NHTSA is expected to allow side-view cameras soon.) And finally, ultra-low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone Turanza Eco tires are said to break new ground in reducing weight and energy consumption at no cost to wear mileage or grip.
There are no official government energy-consumption test results to quote yet either, but Lightyear claims the One averages 83 watt-hours per kilometer with no HVAC loads. That equates to 252 mpg-e. HVAC loads are said to increase energy consumption by 35 percent, but let’s assume they’re sandbagging and add 50 percent to that 83-Wh/km figure. That still pencils out to 168 mpg-e—unheard of for a full-size sedan.
What About Power?
What about it? Lightyear reckons the electric automotive railgun market is sufficiently saturated by now, and that as we inch toward an autonomous future, the last thing riders reading their phones are going to want is a 1-g neck-snapping launch. So the four in-wheel electric motors are pretty tame, producing a combined total of just 136 hp and 885 lb-ft of torque. And don’t let that torque figure conjure unrealistic expectations. Remember that if those motors were moved inboard, they’d spin a gear reduction with a torque-multiplying ratio of at least 8:1. So expect the Lightyear One to accelerate like it’s packing 111 combined lb-ft from conventional motors. The company estimates a 0-60 time of about 10 seconds.
Who Will Build and Sell the Lightyear One? How Much Will It Cost?
Lightyear has entered an agreement with Finnish contract manufacturer Valmet Automotive to begin production of the Lightyear One in mid-2022. An exclusive run of 946 first edition models will be released first, and sales will be handled on a direct-to-consumer basis, as with Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid.
The price is expected to eclipse even those of today’s top electric sedans at about $175,000 to start. That’s obviously needed to help recoup the enormous cost of getting any new vehicle into production, and it remains to be seen if the One’s Spartan-even-by-Tesla-standards interior design, small screens, and lack of a sunroof, not to mention the slow-poke performance, work for customers with that kind of cash.
Ride quality is another question mark, given the Lightyear One’s minimal overall weight and the considerable unsprung weight from the wheel motors. Will the One pass muster with the mainstream moneyed elite?
What’s Next for Lightyear?
Why, the Lightyear Two, of course! A few basic details about this smaller, more affordable model have just been released. Basically, the company is targeting a 30,000-Euro ($34,000) base price in its home market, along with improved efficiency, potentially extending range from a considerably smaller, cheaper battery. The goal is to drastically lower the total cost of ownership to improve accessibility of green mobility. Production is targeted for late 2024 with sales beginning in Europe in early 2025, with sales in the US starting after that. Lightyear announced that Dutch fleet management company LeasePlan has already committed to buy 5,000 Lightyear Two models.
We’re rooting for Lightyear’s ambitious plan to democratize green mobility, but this business plan sounds vaguely familiar. Remember the long-promised $35,000 Tesla Model 3 that finally arrived in 2019, only to disappear as soon as the advertising ink dried? But hey, Tesla didn’t even participate in a World Solar Challenge, let alone win it three times…
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