Can the Solar Car Take Off?

lightyear-one-photo-front-high2

Credit Lightyear

Op-Ed by P. Wimsett

In a recent Wired article, the point was made that solar powered cars are a bit of a romantic fantasy. You can’t be rid of trips to the charger (or petrol pumps). There is just a limit to amount of energy you can get from the Sun.

The use of solar power roofs (such as those introduced by Hyandai, for instance) seem like an obvious idea, but for now it’s just this season’s fad? They can help the battery, but you don’t as yet get enough juice from the sun to power an electric car for as much use as an average driver needs.

Toyota is claiming 1.15 horsepower from their car-mounted panels, which is all very well and good, but when the amount needed is 122 horsepower…1.15 (less than 1%) feels like a drop in the ocean. The only alternative is to park your car in the son for a week or two between uses.

Sex Appeal

Another problem is that you need to streamline the car to put solar panels on it. There is how a car should look, and there is what the car buyer expects an electric vehicle to look like—and then there’s having to radically modify the design to accommodate solar panels. Some of these designs achieve an eccentric look and despite a certain novelty the design doesn’t improve the car in any other way, like safety, comfort, durability and so on.

Looking at the sales copy for the solar car, “Lightyear One,” what comes through is their mission to create clean mobility. The allude to the idea that they believe a solar car really work as efficiently as a normal car, while also reducing emissions, but it’s not long on any other the other benefits a normal car add includes.

According to the same add copy it doesn’t follow convention, but “only the Laws of Physics.” Except:

  1. The law of physics aren’t a convention or cultural construct
  2. A car that succeeds at physics but fails at transportation isn’t a car.

The brochure sounds good but just won’t sell. Thus, solar cars are marketed to the militant environmentalist and virtually no one else.

We can give them the benefit of the doubt and choose to believe the advertisement is meant to indicate that they started from scratch?

The heart of the Lightyear “solution” can be summed up in two words–bigger battery packs. Unfortunately, it’s still hard to get a good result. Lightyear One boasts a range between 500 and 800 kilometres, which isn’t that far at all. Consumers are right to be skeptical.Lightyear_One-01@2x

As well as solar power the Lightyear One has been designed to operate aerodynamically, which makes it use less energy. Perhaps that helps to compensate for all the weight of those extra batteries.

There must be a great deal of common sense applied when you create a new car and the designers should remember this. To be successful the car must be eco-friendly AND user friendly.

The argument is this, consumer tastes must change (read lower your expectations). At least for the short run, consumers want green products, but we don’t want them changed in any major way.

You can applause-worthy their ideals Lightyear has fallen a bit short of the dream product—an “off-grid” vehicle—and for the time being consumer sentiment is clear; novelty is great but takes a back seat to utility. When a solar generator makes a more sizable contribution to how the car runs it will be an adequate selling point.

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