14 Jul 17

Lightyear, a solar car to disrupt the mobility economy

Imagine a car that you only need to charge once every few weeks or, if you live in a sunny climate, only a few times a year. That car is called Lightyear, and Charlotte Serres, partner of Moby-D, met up with Lex Hoefsloot, CEO of Lightyear at the Climate Change Global Solutions Program at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley. Will his solar car disrupt the mobility economy of the future? 


Lex, Lightyear has been in the news since end of June and is generating increasing curiosity. Please explain. 
“Simply put: we build solar-powered cars. We’ve been doing so for five years, at first for the World Solar Challenge competition. Recently, we realised that a lot of the technology we use for the cars has become very cheap over the last 5 to 10 years. And better, of course. The technology is now being used in electric cars, solar panels on roofs, etcetera. Because of this trend, it is now ready to be mass-produced. Which means it’s at a point where it can provide real value to customers. Previously, it was either too expensive or not good enough”.

“At the moment, we’re building a prototype that has a range of 800 km on a single charge. It still has a normal battery, like an electric car – but the great thing is that you don’t have to charge it that much. In sunny climates, you only have to charge it four or five times over a whole year. In the Netherlands, we have a bit more clouds. So there you would need to charge it once every three weeks”.  

How do you see your company in relation to traditional car companies – collaboration or competition?
“Collaboration. We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. The auto industry has been developing itself for over 100 years, so there is no point in us trying to copy it from scratch. But I do think that the fact that we use a different type of architecture provides a real opportunity. In our setup, the components can change location. That means, for example, that you get more luggage space and that the aerodynamics of the vehicle improves”.

“This creates a domino effect: improving the aerodynamics means reducing the energy consumption. As a result, you can use a smaller battery for the same distance. As the battery gets smaller, the car weighs less and energy efficiency improves further... It’s this effect that we’re leveraging. Tesla did it the other way around: they added more batteries to get more range. As their got heavier and used more energy, they needed a bigger battery again”. 

How does your technology help you differentiate yourself? 
“Improve the car’s energy consumption, increase the energy yield from the solar panel: those are the two main tricks. We do the former by reducing the car’s weight, improving its aerodynamics and the latter by increasing the efficiency of the powertrain from the batteries to the motors. In so doing, the car achieves a level of energy consumption similar to what a solar panel will generate throughout the year”. 

With solar cars, the difficulty is finding a balance between the space used for solar panels and the range of the car. How are you managing that?
“A very good question, because this is very difficult to do. And not just to find a balance between esthetics and performance. You could build a solar car that looks really ugly, but has great mileage in the sun. This is what we did for a number of years. Now we have partnered with an Italian design company. They have helped us build a car that is also beautiful, pleasing to the eye”.

“But we realized that the unique selling point of a solar car is that you are independent from the infrastructure of the electricity grid. You don’t need charging points to drive. Since we really want to leverage this fact, we made sure our car is a robust and capable four-wheel-drive vehicle with high ground clearance. It’s an electric car that can drive in any city and on any terrain in the world”. 

In terms of the cradle-to-cradle cycle, how carbon-neutral is your solution?
“The battery is smaller than in normal electric cars. Batteries are still dirty to build, but we’re getting there. Lithium batteries are almost 100% recycled and it’s already a lot cleaner than combustion engines when you consider the whole lifetime of the vehicle. There are still problems with the chemicals being used, mainly at the production stage”. 

“The same goes for some other materials in the car. But we are considering using organic fibres in the car instead of steel. In producing the car, we tried really hard to look for materials that would help reduce overall CO2 emissions to zero”. 

“But when you consider emissions through actual use, a solar car will only produce a fraction of the CO2 emitted by an electric car, if you use normal grid output. Of course, if you power that electric car via the solar panels on your roof at home, you can achieve similar, low levels of CO2 emissions. The real value of a solar car is that you are sure the energy comes from a clean source, and that you don’t have to worry about the origin of the energy”.

What is your road map in terms of product development, investment, expansion and sales?
“Right now, we have started accepting reservations for the car. We already have dozens of reservations, from all over the world. We will start delivery of the cars in the EU and the US by 2019. We will appeal to the high end of the market: our car costs about €120,000, excluding taxes. At that price, it’s for people who are keen to drive the first vehicles of this kind. Since our cars are both very capable and very pretty, I think they will not be disappointed”.

What does the future of mobility look like from your perspective?
“It’s an interesting time. Many experts say we will witness more change in the automotive industry in the coming decade than over the last 100 years. The three big trends are: autonomous cars, electric cars and shared cars. I believe these trends will converge and that in 5 to 10 years most cars will be electric, autonomous and shared. The best car for a sharing platform is an electric one, because it has a very low cost of operation. The best autonomous car is a shared one, because you can reduce the purchase price by spreading the cost out among a large group. An autonomous shared car is like an Uber. Who needs a car if you can have an Uber in one minute from your house?”

“The implication is that the whole car industry will shrink, because you only need 15-20% of the number of cars that are driving right now. A big change is coming and you need to be prepared for that. What we are doing, is building the best electric car – that will be shared in the future. We are not developing a shared program right now, but that will be a next step”. 

Are you also considering partnering with private and public fleets, and taxi and ridesharing companies?
“I think those are very important markets. Our primary market is exclusive, with us selling no more than 1,000 units. Those cars will be purchased entirely. But the next car will definitely be oriented towards the shared-vehicle market. Working towards this, we aim to do pilots with companies in this segment, to explore and develop the idea. This will be the future”. 

What will be the insurance needs for this type of car?
“Interestingly, electric cars break down less often than combustion-engine cars. They are much more reliable. The powertrain in an electric car has only four moving parts. Compare that to a combustion engine – 250 moving parts. That difference explains the difference in reliability”. 

But will it be safer?
“We are working with partners to include some excellent safety features in the front, back and sides of the car. Electric cars don’t have an engine in the front. In combustion-engine cars, the location of this engine limits the length of the crumple zone in case of a frontal collision. In an electric car, this crumple zone is quite a bit longer, meaning you have a bigger buffer to slow the car down. That’s a big advantage. Tesla is already leveraging that and is doing it quite well.  

Thank you, Lex. Any final words?
“If your readers want to make a reservation, we’re very happy to oblige!” 

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Interview and picture by Charlotte Serres