Collin Arocho
27 June

Late 2016, after having been twice crowned champions of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, a group of Solar Team Eindhoven alumni decided to establish their own company. They wanted to build a long-range solar-powered car that could be sold on the market. Two years later, the team from Lightyear made good on their promise as they unveiled their prototype – the Lightyear One.

Just at the break of dawn, in the TheaterHangaar in Katwijk, the Netherlands, Lightyear was ready to pull back the curtain on the prototype of its first-ever long-range solar vehicle. With a lot of fanfare, in front of an audience of about a thousand investors, customers, partners and press, the Helmond-based start-up officially unveiled the Lightyear One.

Despite this being the first look, Lightyear has already taken pre-orders for more than 100 cars, with the first expected deliveries to take place in 2021. To purposefully design a car that ‘gets the most out of every ray of sunshine’, the prototype was engineered starting from a very nontraditional perspective of ignoring convention and instead being guided by the laws of physics. “Our main goal is to fill in where other electric cars fall short,” comments Lightyear CEO and co-founder Lex Hoefsloot. “Research has shown that range and the lack of charging options are still the top concerns that people have when considering electric cars.”

Clean mobility

By proving the viability of its solution in the automotive industry, Lightyear hopes to push the market in a new direction – toward the future of ‘clean mobility’. It expects that within 10-15 years, the operating cost of these solar-electric cars, per kilometer, can be significantly lower than that of gas-powered vehicles and will greatly contribute to the reduction of global auto emissions. But, to prove this, they had a long list of obstacles that first needed to be addressed.

One of the main points of focus for the Lightyear team was efficiency. Specifically, what they refer to as ‘ultra-efficiency’. From the very start, every design choice was going to have major consequences in performance and the overall efficacy of the car. To get this project off the ground, developers were going to have to make some very distinct design choices, such as wheelbase, battery size and most importantly weight reduction and aerodynamics. For these crucial details, Lightyear enlisted the help of experts from the likes of Tesla and Ferrari.

To meet the strict goals of efficiency, the Lightyear One is constructed from high-tech and light-weight materials, such as carbon fiber and aluminum. This helps to reduce overall weight, crucial for EVs, while also maintaining stringent passenger safety standards. Though the final weight hasn’t been disclosed, the Lightyear team claims to have a weight reduction of between 30-50 percent compared to Tesla, whose popular model 3 weighs in at 1,610 kg.

Designers selected a narrower wheelbase to cut back on bulk and to improve aerodynamics, touting a drag coefficient of 0.20 – compared to the current average of conventional cars with a drag between 0.25 and 0.3. The car itself is propelled by four independently driven in-wheel motors, so no energy is lost in transit from the engine to the wheel. It’s claimed to drive from 0-100 kmh in 8-10 seconds. The team also opted for a smaller, 60 kWh battery, which is roughly two-thirds the size of other EV power supply options but has a range of up to 725 km when fully loaded.

Credit: Lightyear

To fill the battery, Lightyear implemented a hybrid charging system that utilizes solar energy as well as power from the existing electrical infrastructure. The roof and hood of the car are comprised of five square meters of integrated solar cells in safety glass so strong that a fully-grown adult can walk on them without causing dents. For these solar cells, Lightyear elected to uncouple whole panels, and instead to create smaller circuits within them. Each of these small circuits is then connected to a power converter that evenly distributes the power throughout the cells, before charging the battery. By taking advantage of the solar charging option, it’s claimed that for every hour of charging, the vehicle can gain up to 12 km in driving range.

For electrical ‘refueling’, Lightyear claims to offer a 60 kW fast-charging option, which it says can yield 570 km per hour, as well as an option for standard public stations at 22kW – offering 209 km per hour. Finally, the car can be plugged into any ordinary 230 V outlet (3.7 kW), which nets around 35 km per hour – or up to 400 km from an overnight charge. According to Lightyear, this means that limitations due to the lack of sun or the absence of sufficient battery charging stations are no longer a hindrance.

Roadblock

Despite its jubilation, Lightyear still has a long way to go. Yes, it has generated a lot of buzz and excitement. Yes, this prototype is full of innovation and promise. The reality, however: there’s still much to prove.

The Lightyear One consists of only one, single prototype and it hasn’t been thoroughly tested, not by any stretch of the imagination. Over the next six months, the car is slated for summer, winter and wind-tunnel testing. This doesn’t include safety and crash testing, nor does it consist of the mandatory approval from RDW or on-the-road testing. All of which are some hefty obstacles that will need to be overcome before there’s any chance to go to market – and with the looming deadline of 2021, the next eighteen months are sure to be interesting for the young start-up.

Credit: Lightyear

Along with these hindrances, there’s also the cautionary tale of Tesla that has made similar audacious promises and has spent billions to still not quite deliver on them. This coupled with the fact that almost every auto juggernaut is now getting into the electro-car realm as EV interest is booming, it’s harder than ever for a newcomer to get a firm footing in the automotive market.

Regardless of this potential for competition, Lightyear doesn’t seem too concerned. “I’m honestly not afraid of electric car companies because there’s more than enough market for everyone in the coming decades,” Says CTO and co-founder Arjo van der Ham. “What we try to do is pick out the key parts and really make them a hell of a lot better and invest in those – you end up with a more expensive car, but it’s a lot better in terms of specifications and how much you actually get in return.”

Which leads to another major roadblock: the cost. Coming in with a price tag of 119,000 euros, it’s hard to envision the Lightyear One as a logical choice in the quest for a future of ‘clean mobility’. At that price point, conventional gas-powered cars will continue to dominate on the road. Lightyear plans to continue to innovate and to drastically bring down cost through means of mass production, but according to CEO Hoefsloot, it will be 10-15 years before these cars will be truly affordable for everyday consumers – an eternity for any automotive hopeful.