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A new Dutch company, Lightyear, has acquired a manufacturing partner to produce a solar-powered electric car that will be called The Lightyear One. Valmet Automotive, a Finnish contract manufacturer, signed a letter of intent with the Dutch group this week, and the two businesses expect to start producing prototypes jointly in early 2022, with production of almost 1,000 vehicles beginning in midyear. A second mass-production vehicle has yet to be unveiled.
Lightyear was formed in 2016 by a group of engineers who met while competing in the World Solar Challenge, a race organised every few years in the Australian outback to push the concept of solar-powered vehicles. In 2019, the company unveiled the first prototype of the Lightyear One. It's a handsome sedan, and Lightyear made some bold claims at the time, including a range of 725 kilometres (450 miles). With the solar cells placed in the roof, the car will be able to generate roughly 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) per hour, allowing owners to go for lengthy periods of time without having to plug it in, according to Lightyear. The limited range of the Lightyear One will cost a hefty $165,000.
Lightyear said it spent over a year looking for the ideal manufacturing partner before settling on Valmet. The Finnish contract manufacturer has been producing automobiles for Saab, Mercedes-Benz, and even Porsche since the late 1960s. It is currently co-owned by a significant Finnish private equity firm and the Finnish government (each with a 39% share), as well as CATL, a leading Chinese battery producer (which has a 22% stake).
It's a huge order to use solar cells to power an electric vehicle since the amount of energy that the best cells can gather from the sun's rays and what's required to move a two-ton hunk of metal at speed is so vast. However, Lightyear isn't the only one working on it. Aptera, a California firm that went bankrupt in the wake of the Great Recession, has just been resurrected and is soliciting funds while developing prototypes of its own unique three-wheeled design. Sono Motors, a German firm, is also developing a solar-powered electric vehicle.
The Aptera 3-wheel solar-powered EV
Lightyear has raised over $100 million to date, with roughly three-quarters of it coming in 2021, indicating that it has been gaining traction. It announced a cooperation with Japanese tyre giant Bridgestone in April, and in early July, it presented the results of a long-range test that showed the business could reach its lofty range and solar output targets.
Udo Panenka is the president of ATS Automation Tooling Systems in Germany, which instals battery manufacturing lines all over the world (including for GM). He was a guest on a recent podcast discussing the EV battery supply and thinks there could be a shortage in the future.
““I hear what the CEOs of auto companies are announcing every day,” They have ambitious goals, but not all of them have a firm plan on how to get there. We’re seeing a wave of western companies moving into their own cell production, reducing their dependency on the large Asian battery manufacturers. It’s necessary—we need more cells and need to produce them in-region. But there’s a lot of pressure to get EVs out there.”
The concern is that manufacturers with developing cell and pack designs may find themselves investing millions of dollars in battery assembly lines that will be obsolete before they're even used. If they don't consider potential future technology improvements and build these lines for upgradeability. Furthermore, battery packs that were rushed into manufacture are more likely to be recalled.
If solar-powered EVs turn out to be feasible, it may be an alternative to the battery.