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Driving Change

This German automaker will make you rethink solar cars

Sion prototype from Sono Motors

The current Sion prototype is encased with 248 solar cells.

Sono Motors

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential of solar electric vehicles (SEVs), my thoughts inspired by a Forbes article that asks, "Why aren’t more people talking about solar cars?"

Several answers to this question may come to mind, such as the perennial problem of the weight of solar panels on a car, potential safety concerns and, well, esthetics. Another answer might be that people are talking about SEVs, just not here in the U.S. At least not yet. 

The Forbes article’s author, Steve Tengler, points to a few SEV startups that warrant giving solar technology on cars another look. Among them is German automaker Sono Motors. In another eye-catching headline, MarketWatch said that this Munich-based startup is "giving Tesla a run for its money in terms of cash preorders for its flagship vehicle and could go public soon." Serendipitously, an invitation popped up in my inbox to speak with the CEO and co-founder of Sono Motors, Laurin Hahn, and CTO Markus Volmer. I jumped at the chance to find out more about this SEV that is attracting so much attention. 

The basics

Founded in 2016, the company released its first-generation Sion prototype in 2017. The current model is encased with 248 solar cells, proprietary technology that CTO Markus Volmer tells me boasts 21-23 percent efficiency. The cells are completely integrated into the body of the car, which is reported to add up to about 152 miles of solar-generated range each week (more on the battery later). Total range is about 190 miles per charge. 

The lightweight frame is made of aluminum and is 100 percent recyclable. The prototype is offered in black or white color options, seats five adults and offers all the connectivity and features you’d expect in any passenger vehicle on the market today. In fact, Sono Motors just announced last week that Sibros, a company specializing in deeply connected software and over-the-air (OTA) updates, will lend its Deep Connected Platform (DCP) to the Sion fleet of vehicles.

We did over 13,000 test rides throughout Europe in 64 cities, and every time someone sits in this car they love it, and they go home and reserve it.

With a planned base price of about $30,000, Sion is priced to sell. Although it is still in the prototype stage, Sono Motors plans to ramp up production next year, followed by direct-to-consumer deliveries in 2023. It’s proving to be a desirable vehicle, with more than 13,000 preorders representing $331 million, stemming from predominantly European demand. 

Between reservations and funding, the company has raised about $118 million. The Sono Motors team is chock-full of global talent with vast industry experience at BMW, Nissan, Chrysler, Daimler and Audi. 

The battery

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Sion, from a sustainability standpoint, is the cobalt-, nickel- and manganese-free 54-kWh battery. The battery is made from lithium-iron phosphate (LFP),  which is known to be particularly durable and has demonstrated low power loss. Production of it generates only about 4.1 metric tons of CO2, which for reference is about the same as a one-way flight from Munich to New York City.

One concession Volmer made is that this type of battery does add significant weight to the car as opposed to lithium-manganese-cobalt-oxide (MNC) format more commonly used in EVs. However, he said Sono Motors recently employed a weight reduction expert to bring the weight down, as it is overall worth it to use a battery that is safer and follows its "company philosophy of being friendly to the environment."

The battery also features the ability to allow for bidirectional charging capabilities, enabling it to act as a power generator in case of emergency — which the Sono Motors team said might be of particular interest to potential American customers in Texas. 

The bet 

I asked Hahn what Sono Motors is doing to overcome potential skepticism about a solar car, and what the company is doing to change people's minds and earn buy-in. 

His response:

"Well, we let them drive. Over 13,000 down payments have shown people are convinced here in Europe. So, what is this issue? It's not so much known in the U.S. yet because we haven't tackled the market there yet. But here in Europe, our traction is massive already, and with almost no marketing. We did over 13,000 test rides throughout Europe in 64 cities, and every time someone sits in this car they love it, and they go home and reserve it. What we think is dealerships are doomed. Online direct sales is the only thing you can do in the 21st century."

A bold assertion for sure but backed by some bold new technology. I’m betting this is just the beginning for Sono Motors, and we’ll soon be seeing the company in U.S. backyards.

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