Climate

Solar-powered electric vehicles move one step closer to market

Sono Motors revealed its production design for a passenger vehicle outfitted with a solar kit. It's slated to get the vehicles to customers starting next year.

Laurin Hahn and Jona Christians in suits leaning on a car.

“Basically every moving object can be equipped with that solar technology,” said Sono co-founder and CEO Jona Christians (right, with co-founder and CEO Laurin Hahn).

Photo: Sono Motors

Solar-powered electric vehicles are one step closer to reality.

On Monday, solar EV company Sono Motors released the production design for its passenger car, dubbed the Sion, as well as for its “solar bus kit” designed for public transportation fleets across Europe.

“Basically every moving object can be equipped with that solar technology,” Sono co-founder and CEO Jona Christians told Protocol, including buses, trucks, trains and even ships.

The four-door Sion is a simple electric hatchback that’s compact but still spacious by European standards. What sets it apart from other EVs are the solar panels set into the body of the car on all sides. These will allow the Sion to generate its own electricity, which can add up to roughly 150 miles of range per week to the regular battery and create “full self-sufficiency on short distances,” per the Sono website.

Photograph of the four-door Sion vehicle The Sion's solar panels will allow the vehicle to generate its own electricity, adding up to about 150 miles of range per week to the regular battery.Photo: Sono Motors

Over the past five years, Sono developed the technology to do more than just slap some solar panels on the roof of the Sion.

“We had to develop a completely new technology and get experts from the automotive sector and from the solar sector and let them sit together,” Christians said. “Because these were two separate industries, and they did not talk with each other so much. And so we had to have … the experts sit together and bring up solutions that are automotive-grade and made to be really durable and sustainable.”

Sono left behind the fragile and heavy glass encasements that solar panels typically rely on in favor of monocrystalline silicon cells protected by a layer of polymer, integrated into the body of the car itself. The polymer is shatterproof and provides extra protection for the cells in the case of collision.

Sono signed a binding contract with Finnish manufacturer Valmet Automotive in April and already has at least 19,000 pre-order customers, all of whom have already paid a down payment of roughly 2,000 euros (though these payments are refundable once the car is available).

While the Sion is Sono’s flagship, it represents just the first of Sono’s two pillars. The company’s solar bus kit is the tip of the potentially fruitful iceberg of licensing its technology to other, non-Sono vehicle makers. Christians said the company’s focus is divided “fifty-fifty” between these two priorities, as both have huge potential for growth.

An overhead photograph of a bus next to a car Sono co-founder Jona Christians said the company’s focus is divided “fifty-fifty” between its passenger vehicle and a solar bus kit.Photo: Sono Motors

“In Europe alone, there are 80,000 buses driving around, and all of these buses have the potential to integrate solar,” Christians said, pointing out that just a few manufacturers make the vast majority of Europe’s fleet. Sono adapted its bus kit to fit the most common models. While the buses are primarily diesel-powered, the addition of the solar panels can generate enough power to run the buses’ auxiliary systems, such as lights, heating and cooling. Sono estimates that the systems save nearly 400 gallons of diesel per bus per year.

The company is also in talks with other automakers to share its technology. “We don’t want to simply keep it for ourselves,” Christians said. “There is a bigger problem, and that’s climate change.”

For the time being, Sono is focused on the European market, though it has seen interest from other markets. Of its 19 unnamed B2B partners, Sono already has one in the U.S. applying Sono solar technology to its own vehicles.

Sono’s model brings together two emerging trends as the world looks to address climate change: The price of solar technology has fallen even as efficiency has improved, while at the same time, the public is clamoring for EVs.

Of course, Sono is also emerging right as the supply chain of critical minerals needed for both batteries and solar tech is in serious trouble, something Christians acknowledged has had an impact. He expressed optimism at the company’s path ahead, though.

“Because production will start next year, we are still able to adapt and change to make sure we have all materials in place,” he said.

Sono has suffered major production delays in the past — its first round of pre-orders was set for delivery in 2019 — which have cost the company, at the very least reputationally. Sono went public in November 2021, which brought the influx of cash it needed to get to this production design step.

The Sion is set for delivery in early 2023.

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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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