The Dutch solar-powered car designed near Eindhoven

Edition 1 February, by Juan Alvarez

Less than 20 km away from Eindhoven, in Helmond, an all- Dutch start-up is designing an electric car that can recharge itself with solar energy. The company is Lightyear, a young initiative founded in 2016 by five Eindhoven UT alumni. Their model ONE will be on the streets in 2020, and is to be an electric commercial sedan with an 800 km battery range, sold for €119,000 a piece. In the last few months, Lightyear has opened its production facility on the Automotive Campus in Helmond; it recently made a partnership deal with LeasePlan, a Dutch leasing company.

Lightyear’s origins date back to a university project in 2012: Solar Team Eindhoven. As students, the team designed and built prototype cars to run in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, a solarpowered car race held every two years, in which competitors’ cars must traverse 3000 km of the Australian Outback on solar power alone. With their cars Stella and Stella Lux, they became world champions twice. Stella also won them a Crunchie Award for Technology Achievement, beating Apple, SpaceX and Blockchain in the process; Stella Lux was able to complete a 1500 km trip on a single charge. After that, the five founders decided to quit university and founded Lightyear. Since then, the company has raised more than €5 million in funding, and by November 2018 it had sold 50 of the first 100 cars to be produced in 2020.

According to CEO and co-founder Lex Hoefsloot, when they were competing in the Solar Challenge they realized that developing a solar-powered commercial family car “was not a science problem, but an engineering problem; and an engineering problem you can solve: you can find the right people, build a team, find funding and get going.” Lightyear is basing the design of ONE on the idea that the technology is in fact ready; it’s just a matter of configuring it in a way that brings energy efficiency to a state of energy independency. How? By decreasing the energy use of the car and increasing the energy input in its system. This is achieved by drastically reducing the car’s weight and by optimizing its aerodynamic performance. ONE completely eliminates the need for a transmission system; instead, each wheel has an independent motor. This allows for weight reduction, fewer moving parts and more space for a bigger battery. ONE’s construction materials will also be lighter and its design promises to make it the most aerodynamic commercial car in the market, with a Drag Coefficient Value more efficient than those of the competition, including aerodynamic-optimized cars like Tesla. This drive for performance has even pushed the design to remove the outside rearview mirrors and to replace them with cameras, which in turn will improve the car’s aerodynamic efficiency and thus its energy consumption.

All of this is oriented towards making the solar energy the car harvests a viable energy source. The added value of Lightyear is that its car is both a charging point and a vehicle, something that has not been done yet by the electric vehicle (EV) industry. Despite its solar panels, the sun will not be ONE’s only energy source, although the company promises that they will provide a considerable part of it, going as far as claiming that it won’t be necessary to recharge the car from an electric outlet during the sunniest months of the year. For example, if you live in Amsterdam, Lightyear predicts that solar energy will amount for 40% of the energy use of your car, with an estimated 48 days during the summer in which the car won’t need any additional energy source. In theory, you would need to charge it from an electrical outlet only 25 times per year, in comparison with the 54 charges per year that a Tesla P100D needs (considered the best EV in the class). Those numbers improve substantially if you live in or travel to sunnier areas.

So far the company seems to be on the right track regarding funding, partnerships, technology and infrastructure, with yet important announcements to make, like the car’s speed or its appearance. Customers will have to wait until 2020 to see if the car really delivers the projected performance. In the meantime, this Dutch company in Helmond has already opened a commercial path for cleaner, more efficient energy sources for electric vehicles.