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Is the Lightyear One a Tesla Killer?

Avatar for Dan Hahn
Published on 02/25/2020 in
Updated 02/25/2020

One of the biggest problems with electric vehicles is their range. After all, what are you supposed to do if you run out of energy, miles away from the nearest quick charge station?

For most regular commuters, it’s really not an issue and there are plenty of apps available to help you plan a road trip and map charging locations which are becoming more prevalent by the day.

However, there would certainly be a lot of peace of mind if you knew you can drive a few hundred miles without having to worry about the infrastructure needed to charge your car.

Instead of worrying about travel planning, what if your car could bail you out if you run out of energy? What if it could create the energy for you?

Granted, lack of conscientiousness is probably not all that well correlated the disposable income required to buy a car like this in 2020, even though the reckless conduct of a prominent democratic billionaire running for president may suggest otherwise. More on vehicle costs below.

The wheels started turning for co-founders and design partners Lex Hoefsloot and Koen van Ham after competing and winning the 300km World Solar Car race from Darwin to Adelaide Australia in 2013. The race reflects a sandbox to develop innovative energy engineering.

The race featured requirements of no external power supply, no conventional engines and seating for four. Hoefsloot and van Ham wound up winning, up against well bankrolled teams from the likes of Honda and Siemens.

After winning the race, funding came in to develop a solar powered, road worthy sedan. Perhaps in homage to the grip and durability of Goodyear racing tires in combination with sunlight, the partners launched a startup based in the Netherlands, called Lightyear.

Lightyear sought to build off of what they learned in the process of designing their winning solar race car and apply it to the road. They started over with a fresh piece of paper and designed their car around three criteria: hyper efficiency, comfort and safety. Instead of jaw dropping sub 4 second zero to sixty figures, think a “comfortable” 10 seconds or more.

The Lightyear One is the first production concept. It is not 100% solar powered, is still in the early stages of testing, and no consumer models are on the slate until 2021. It is being billed as a “long range solar panel car”, capable of charging itself.

“Trust is high with winning the World Solar Challenge,“ said Tussie Hartjes, VP of sales at Lightyear.

They worked with engineers from JLR, Porsche, and Tesla to design the Lightyear One prototype. The company calmly built a prototype in 2019 in the span of four months after 6 years of design.

Lightyear One Technical Specifications

One of the key design principles the partners integrated into the Lightyear One from their experience winning the race relates to energy siting logistics. “The cheapest, most convenient way to get energy in your car is to locate the source of energy closest to the site you use it,” said Hoefsloot. “Efficiency is magical, it helps in so many ways, it was our starting point.”

That philosophy led to perhaps the most compelling technical innovation about the Lightyear One, its independent tire motors instead of a central motor. Each motor can be tweaked to respond individually to changing road conditions.

The benefits of such a design are twofold: they make for a much better experience cornering and gripping the road and siting engines in each of the wheels avoids parasitic energy loss through the drivetrain.

Lightyear One solar panels integrated into car hood

There are over 50 square feet of solar panels integrated into the roof and hood of this car, protected by safety glass the company says is safe enough for adults to walk on without dents.

According to Hoefsloot, the panels are capable of providing enough power to cover 12,000 miles over the course of the year. Whether that is in the middle of a desert with zero cloud cover, that’s to be determined.

Lightyear One is designed to be super lightweight. Its battery banks are 65% as large as competing electric vehicle sedans, yet its range is still impressive.

Seeking to address lack of range and charging options, Hoefsloot and van Ham decided to integrate a fast charging port and a standard outlet adapter.

Lightyear One can charge a distance of 12 miles under ideal sunlight over an hour if you run out of power, 450 miles per night on an overnight charge from a standard power, and 250 miles in an hour through a standard power outlet.

The Lightyear One uses half as much energy as a similar car in its class. The Tesla Model S uses more batteries and its range is about 370 miles.

Lightyear One Design

Design of the lightyear one solar car

Changing what it means to have a “sun roof”, the Lightyear one is relatively dark inside, because the roof is lined with panels.

Koen van Ham, co-founder and design chief has mentioned they brought the prototype across three continents. People liked the concept of a long range solar car, but the design didn’t give confidence at first look.

“We needed to combine the technology with a look to instill confidence. We partnered with a design firm in Torino and sat down to shape the concept of what a solar car should look like”, said van Ham. The Lightyear One is styled to reflect freedom and aerodynamics.

Though the car is relatively small, it feels spacious because all the unnecessary things traditional cars have have been completely stripped away. There’s a lot of empty space in the car, and that was by design to keep things comfortable and lightweight.

Lightyear One cabin interior

For added comfort, the air conditioning can power on remotely before you arrive at your car configured through a phone app, sort of like the Tesla model X.

Practical Concerns for Solar Cars

Bird poop on a solar car parked under the wrong tree

While it is surely exciting to work toward the dream of making it so people never have to worry about charging their cars in the future, there are practical concerns about embedding solar panels into your car for power.

What happens to your power production when birds decide your roof and hood are good targets? Will owners and valets get into new arguments about where these cars are parked relative to the sun? A fender bender sounds pretty expensive here. Imagine replacing all those solar cells in addition to your hood! Also, it may be far more economical to simply invest in solar panels for your home than rely on car panels to provide an emergency trickle charge.

The Future of Lightyear, is it really a “Tesla Killer?”

Elon Musk designed his launch of Tesla around a perception shattering sports coupe, the Tesla Roadster. He believed people needed to see and experience the power, speed and handling of what could be capable with an electric car to pave the way for other, more pedestrian Tesla models to gain market viability. That design philosophy was based around performance, technology and luxury.

Will the market reward a safe and comfortable, hyper efficient car as well as it has embraced Tesla for valuing performance, luxury, and technology?

At a $135,000 initial price tag, that prospect for Lightyear seems a little dubious. While surely the idea is to build lighter, smaller, affordable and even more efficient solar cars, the strategic road to get there from here may be financially treacherous.

If the solar car design principle catches on, other automakers like GM and Tesla may be in a much better position to follow suit and outcompete Lightyear.

Now it’s time for Lightyear to show what this car can do on the road. We wish them well.

Last modified: February 25, 2020

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