Drivers often try to park their cars in the shade. But that’s the last thing you’d want to do with a new vehicle from Germany called Sion.
Munich-based Sono Motors showed off a prototype of the vehicle at Boston’s High Street Place on Friday, the second stop on a tour of five US cities. With its dull black exterior and bare-bones passenger cabin, the Sion would never be mistaken for a Tesla. Then again, it’s priced at only $25,000, much cheaper than most electric vehicles. And it’s also one of several electric cars that use solar panels to help with recharging the battery.
Dozens of photovoltaic cells are embedded in the Sion’s roof, hood, doors, and fenders. The cells deliver enough energy per day for about 10 miles of driving, far below the Sion’s maximum range of 190 miles. But Sono cofounder Laurin Hahn said that Sion owners won’t have to plug in their cars as frequently as other electric vehicles. “It just reduces your hassle to recharge every day, and that’s convenience,” said Hahn.
They’ll also save money. Hahn estimated that a Sion owner would get enough energy from the solar panels to drive 5,000 free miles per year.
The arrays of solar cells are clearly visible on the Sion prototype, giving the car a rumpled, unfinished look, but Hahn said the imperfections will be corrected before the car goes into production in the second half of 2023. Hahn said the company already has 20,000 pre-orders from customers in Europe who have pre-paid 2,000 Euros — about $1,970 — to reserve their cars. In addition, businesses that want to electrify their vehicle fleets have ordered 22,000 Sions. The vehicles will be assembled by Valmet Automotive, a Finnish firm that also builds cars for Mercedes-Benz.
The company has no immediate plans to bring Sion to the US market, but they’ve begun work on a larger crossover vehicle that could be more appealing to US motorists, said Hahn.
Other startups like Aptera and Lightyear are also trying to create solar-powered cars. But Sam Abuelsamid, who tracks the electric car industry for Guidehouse Insights in Detroit, said that solar cells offer limited benefits. Cars are routinely parked in shady locations, and even in open areas on clear days, the light will be at the wrong angle to produce maximum power.
“Even if you park it at the most ideal spot,” Abuelsamid said, “some of those cells are going to be at off-angles from the sun.” As a result, he said, solar power will make only a modest contribution to the battery.
But Abuelsamid said the idea might still make sense if the solar cells are used to run the car’s auxiliary systems, like the air conditioner or radio. Such a system could significantly extend the range of a battery-powered car.
In fact, Sono is exploiting this concept, but for buses rather than cars. The company has built a solar power system that can be retrofitted to diesel-powered city buses. The solar cells power the buses’ electrical systems, taking the load off the engine and reducing fuel consumption by 400 gallons per year. Hahn said that at European diesel prices, the system would reduce operating costs per bus by $3,200 every year.