Is it better to buy a solar electric car… or solar panels?

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In the last few months, if not a few years, we have seen the emergence of several manufacturers of “solar electric cars” (Lightyear, Sono Motors Sion, Aptera), a convoluted term that actually hides an electric car powered, in part, by Solar energy. But can this technical solution actually be made to last? Wouldn’t it be better in the end to charge a classic electric car through photovoltaic panels?

If you follow the news about the electric car closely, surely you have already seen several articles that refer to the famous “solar cars”. We even had the opportunity to test one on Frandroid a few months ago, the famous Lightyear 0, quite an interesting experience that also raised a lot of questions.

Actually, the term “solar car” is a bit of a misuse. Even technically speaking, since these cars absolutely do not run on energy from the sun. Well, not directly. In general, although technology advances faster than we think, the solar car itself, that is, driving only with the energy of the sun, it’s not for tomorrow.

What is a solar car?

In 2023, A solar car is a model equipped with solar panels capable of storing the sun’s energy and then redistributing it to the battery.. But on the battery of what? From an electric car of course. In fact, the term we should use would rather be “solar electric car” to popularize the thing a bit.

Technically, how does it work? It is relatively simple. Thanks to the photovoltaic effect, the cells installed in the car (usually on the roof and on the hood) will transform every radiation solar energy received by the car, which will then be stored in a battery. This energy will then be used by the car as it travels.

light year 0
light year 0

The problem, or even “the problems” should be said, is that cars cannot depend solely on the photovoltaic effect. The first reason is that the stored energy, even in a very sunny period, is not enough to fill even 10% of a battery of approximately 60 kWh during one day. The other problem is that if the sun conditions are bad or it is dark, you will stay at the pier.

Who are the main players in this segment?

While the purely solar car may sound pretty utopian today, some players in the automotive world have been working on it for several years.

For the record, the first solar car to emerge is the “solar mobile,” a scale model unveiled by its designer, a General Motors employee named William G. Cobb, at the General Motors Auto Show on August 31, 1955. Unsurprisingly, this car will remain in the scale model stage.


Subsequently, in 1985, the first Tour de sol was organized, a 368 km rally divided into five stages and pitting teams from different universities against each other to build and drive a solar car throughout the entire route. The racing was quite enjoyable, and this created a bit of a craze around this solution, to the point of making solar cars intended to be driven on the road network in the late 1980s.

The problem is that they weren’t powerful enough and they lacked pleasure. Today we could compare them with the performance of cars without license plates.

Solar cars have come back into fashion with the advent of electric cars. Notably, some manufacturers have chosen to offer solar cars, where part of the battery can be powered by photovoltaic panels.

they are motors

Among the best-known projects is the Sion by Sono Motors, a family electric car that will be marketed below 30,000 euros.

The car is covered in photovoltaic cells, and he promises his customers (and especially potential investors for now) that they will be able to drive it. several tens of kilometers a week for free thanks to the sun.


The “star” of solar cars today is the Lightyear 0. In short, it is a Dutch manufacturer that has launched a saloon equipped with solar panels. These panels are capable of generating approximately 1 kW of electricity, which is equivalent to 70 kilometers of autonomy per day when insolation conditions are good.

The car has a battery 60 kWh and can travel 625 kilometers according to the WLTP cycle, while consumption shows an average of 10.5 kWh at a speed of 110 km/h thanks, in particular, to excellent work on the aerodynamic part and weight (the car weighs almost the same than a Renault Zoe). Lightyear explains that it is possible to recover up to 520 kilometers in one hour on a fast 50 kW terminal.


We can also mention, to a lesser extent, the American manufacturer Aptera. At the beginning of the year, the company announced the opening of reservations for its solar car, in its launch version Launch Edition. This is then shown at $33,200, that is, approximately 30,492 euros.

At this price, customers will benefit in particular from a range of 400 miles, or approximately 643 kilometers according to the brand’s website, thanks to a 42 kWh battery. At the moment the car is only available in the US and as you can see in the pictures below, not really a car as you could hear it.

Its solar panels, installed on the roof, allow it to gain up to 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) of autonomy per day. The Aptera claims a power output of 128 kW, equivalent to 174 horsepower, while achieving 0 to 100 km/h in just 4 seconds. For now, unfortunately we still do not know if the solar car will be available in France, when it should be the first in the world to be commercialized as standard.

Why are they (already) in trouble?

Let’s start with the one that seems to have the most problems: Sono Motors. The manufacturer is struggling to find solid investors capable of injecting enough money to start the production process.

To continue somehow to survive, Sono Motors even launched a crowdfunding campaign called #SaveSION in December 2022.. The goal is to raise around 100 million euros from individuals. The enthusiasm was quite surprising, since at the end of the campaign, although Sono Motors did not even reach 50% of the target set, it is clear that there was still a lot of interest in this model.

Unfortunately, this is not enough to start production. However, the founders had decided to extend the crowdfunding campaign until February 28, hoping to raise the necessary funds. 100 million euros is the equivalent of 3,500 Sion fully disbursed. Unfortunately, the manufacturer has just announced the desire to resell the Sion program to a company that would be interested.

On the Lightyear side, things are going a little better, even if the recent news announced in early 2023 isn’t necessarily great. Or at least they hide something. The Lightyear 0 is expensive, very expensive even since the Dutch firm communicates in a price of around 300,000 euros. 1,000 copies were to be made. It is quite ambitious that a brand unknown to the general public offers a car as interesting as it is at such a high price.

It didn’t take long for Lightyear to put his sedan aside. The manufacturer announced on January 24 that it was abandoning this first model to focus on the development of its second project, Lightyear 2. The brand has already announced its new model through a series of teaser photos.

The Lightyear 2 will be a small 0 and above all it will be much more affordable since we are talking about a price of 40,000 euros. The manufacturer has already announced that it has received nearly 60,000 reservations. The car is envy and promises even 800 kilometer rangepart of which is made with solar panels.

In general, it will benefit from the democratization of 0 technologies, but solar panels are not expected to provide more than 10% of battery capacity, also in good conditions.

For its part, Aptera announces that its new model can now be ordered for a deposit of $100. An amount identical to that requested by Tesla to reserve a copy of its Cybertruck.

However, production should not start for at least a year as the production lines should be ready in nine months. And to make matters worse, the company would still need an additional $50 million to start production. That you remember something?

Why is the solar car a utopia?

As you will have understood, the term “solar car” is neither more nor less just a marketing element. Technically, in fact, in good sunny conditions, the sun can cover the weekly needs of customers, and this is good news since, until proven otherwise, solar energy is free. Especially since, on average, a Frenchman travels less than 30 km a day with his car.

On the other hand, the technology is even more similar to a hybrid motor, especially since if the battery is empty, with or without sun, the car will not go forward because these models cannot produce enough current in direct sunlight to propel the car forward.

Tesla sunroof
Tesla sunroof

In reality, the experiences of solar cars from other manufacturers that we have not mentioned so far are more interesting, since they do not exactly talk about solar cars.

Toyota, for example, has offered this solution for several years in the rechargeable Prius to recharge the small battery of its hybrid car with a few kWh. In the same spirit, Fisker is also integrating it into its Ocean electric SUV. Actually, technically, at the moment, surfaces much larger than cars would be needed to be able to drive with solar energyall in sunny conditions that can only be found in certain very specific geographic areas that are difficult for humans to endure.

Actually, to drive specifically thanks to the energy of the sun, it is not necessarily worth having a car equipped with photovoltaic panels. rather, enough recharge your electric car regularly at home equipped with high performance solar panels.

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