How far are we from a self-charging solar car, I asked in 2017. We can now answer that question definitively. Turns out we were six years away. You can order a self-charging solar car now, and they should be on the roads in 2023. I’m aware of three. There’s the Sono Sion, which is available to pre-order and it will go into production if it gets enough orders. The Lightyear can be bought right now if you have a quarter of a million Euros to hand.
And then there’s the Aptera. By some distance, it’s the most radical. It’s not a lightweight electric car with solar panels stuck on it, like the other two. It’s pioneering a whole new approach to the car, with a shape so optimised for efficiency that it looks more like a spaceship.
With a fraction of the drag or rolling resistance of normal cars, the Aptera will do a thousand miles on a single charge. And since it has integrated solar panels that give drivers 40 miles a day from the sun, most people who use it will never need to plug it in.
This is counter-intuitive for British readers, as sunshine can’t be guaranteed for large parts of the year around here. But that’s not true for most of the world. Across Southern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, you’d probably never need to charge the Aptera. Even in Britain, you’d be looking at around 10 charges a year, according to the calculator on their website.
With all the usual caveats that active and public transport are the first priorities for sustainable transit, there are a couple of exciting things about this. First, solar cars blow away two of the biggest obstacles to EV ownership – range anxiety and the charging network. You’re just not going to run out of juice – and it’s not because the Aptera lugs around a vastly oversized battery. It’s because it sips it slowly. It weighs a third of what an normal car in its category would weigh, and has efficiency rates never seen on a production car before.
Secondly, this is an EV that can be widely adopted across developing countries, without lots of expensive charging infrastructure. You don’t need a charging network. You can plug it into a normal home socket and charge it overnight if you need to, but really that’s about it.
To make inroads into developed countries, it would need to be cheap, and there’s good news there too. The Aptera is priced at $25,900. With zero fuel costs, that’s an affordable car.
It’s not for everyone of course, and it’s early days. With its flying front wheels, it’s made for American roads and UK drivers might need to wait for a less wide second edition. My kids are very sad that it’s only a two seater. Not everyone will want to drive a spaceship, for reasons I don’t really understand. The Aptera may ultimately prove too odd to find its niche.
All that said, there’s something really pioneering here. For all the hype around Tesla and other buzz brands, they haven’t really investigated solar at all, and I suspect solar cars is where the future lies, globally. Whether Aptera or one of the other start-ups breaks through remains to be seen. I suspect the rising giants of the Chinese EV market will spot the opportunity, or possibly a far-sighted legacy car manufacturer (Mercedes look closest). But whatever badge goes on the front, the streets of African and Indian cities could be full of solar cars by 2040.