Are solar-powered vehicles the future of transportation? If the recent announcements from Aptera Motors are indicators of anything, then yes. The company claims to have created the first-ever vehicle that can run purely on energy from the sun for daily use.
The popularity of electric vehicles has increased dramatically over the past decade, with global car supplies rising to a reported 4.79 million vehicles in 2019—a huge jump when compared to 2010’s numbers, which were reported as being fewer than 17,000.
This market behavior can be attributed to multiple societal changes, as improvements in battery technology have made electric vehicles much more practical and affordable. Beyond expanding the infrastructure to accommodate electric vehicles, fluctuations in gas prices have made electric vehicles more appealing to the public too. And as we continue to experience drastic climate irregularities, food shortages, and unprecedented levels of air, water, and land pollution, consumers have begun looking to electric vehicles as a solution to decreasing the output of greenhouse gas emissions.
Chris Anthony and Steve Fambro made sustainability their mission when they co-founded Aptera Motors, Inc. in 2005. Anthony and Fambro set out to create the most efficient and eco-friendly vehicle on the road. After reforming as Aptera Motors Corp. in 2019, the team is back stronger than ever. This past December, Aptera pulled in over 3,000 preorders within the first eight days of releasing their prototype model.
Design and Energy Use
With its 3-wheeled, futuristic design, it makes sense that Aptera is regarded as the “vehicle of the future.” It’s the first-ever vehicle to be powered by solar energy and has been touted as the most efficient vehicle with a range of 1,000 miles on a single charge. Each Aptera vehicle will reportedly save 14,000 pounds of CO2 every year when compared to an average fossil-fuel guzzling car.
Aptera was able to achieve this feat through skillful engineering and a deep understanding of aerodynamics. The founders and engineers of the company knew that if they could reduce drag to zero, a car’s range would increase drastically per unit of input. Heat, friction, aerodynamics, and weight are all important factors that impact vehicle performance. In the average vehicle, 60% of fuel is used just to overcome air resistance when driving at highway speeds. Aptera’s vehicle design is made to reduce all inefficiencies and achieve near-zero drag, giving it a range four times farther than other electric vehicle competitors.
In a video posted on Aptera’s website, Chris Anthony, Co-CEO of Aptera, claims: “Today’s transportation industry is so inefficient. You put gas in a vehicle, you burn it, and you only get about 25% of the energy out of that gasoline. The rest is just up in smoke, literally.”
The fact that only 25% of the fuel burned is utilized by our vehicles is astonishing. Even worse, 100% of the fuel is eventually released as a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Now we have the chance to change these numbers. With Aptera’s vehicle, nearly 100% of the energy is used and 0% of the energy is derived from fossil fuels.
How Does it Work?
All of these numbers seem too good to be true; a never-charge vehicle that is extremely efficient with zero greenhouse gas emissions must be a work of fiction. But the numbers all add up. As Aptera claims, Aptera never requires any charge for use on an every-day basis. Running purely on solar power, the vehicle has a range of 40 miles and requires no additional charge. This is perfect for driving to work during the week or around town on the weekends.
Solar cells integrated into the body and dash of the vehicle capture and store the sun’s energy, adding miles to Aptera’s driving range. At its peak, the solar energy will add an additional five miles for every hour Aptera is in the sunlight. Although the average person only drives 29 miles per day, it may be necessary to have more than 40 miles available. For more mileage, just plug in Aptera to an electric vehicle charger to reach that 1,000-mile range.
But what about people who live in a place that isn’t sunny? Luckily, Aptera’s battery pack will store energy accumulated on previous sunny days for use on cloudy days. If this isn’t enough, Aptera is still by far the most efficient vehicle even without its solar power. Simply charge Aptera like any other electric vehicle and you’re good to go.
With a strange new design and lightweight materials, safety may be a concern for many people. We will not know the safety performance of Aptera until testing is complete, but Fambro and Anthony are confident that Aptera will pass the test with flying colors.
In response to questions about the vehicle’s safety, the team responded on their website, “…we are designing to exceed all passenger car standards and the previous version had the highest roof crush strength of all passenger cars on the road, and it performed exceedingly well in actual side and frontal crash tests.” Additionally, Aptera is designed to handle well in ice, snow, and rain.
While the process of constructing a car is never ideal, Aptera has made some headway into sustainable construction. In items requiring electronics and technology, materials needed are mined from the earth—one of the most environmentally destructive things to do. Electric vehicle batteries require many resources from the Earth and are most often manufactured using fossil fuels, meaning Aptera is not really emission-free. However, Aptera’s lightweight and three-wheeled design means it will require much less input than any traditional vehicle.
Some critics of Aptera—such as Forbes contributor Brad Templeton—are not the biggest fans of the “never-charge” idea. With the solar panels on Aptera having an estimated cost of $1,500, it would be much more efficient and cost-effective to install solar panels on your home. The allure of free miles captivates buyers into believing they are getting a better deal than they are. While the solar panels may be perfect for a place like Arizona where it is sunny about 300 days per year, the benefits of the panels will drop off in areas with less sunshine.
Additionally, the benefits of Aptera’s solar power will be wasted when parked inside or in the shade. Even if you manage to find a parking space that receives full sun throughout the day, the heat will hasten wear and tear on your vehicle. Parking the Aptera in full sun will undoubtedly increase the temperature inside the vehicle, requiring the energy to be put towards air conditioning instead of accumulating mileage.
While this may be true, the convenience factor is most appealing to Aptera’s fans. Why not have solar panels on both your car and home?
As with all sustainability challenges, creating the perfect eco-friendly vehicle is complex. However, Aptera is on a great path toward solving at least a small number of the problems our world faces with climate change. A never-charge vehicle has the potential to change the entire paradigm of our transportation industry and will hopefully inspire the creation of a new generation of vehicles powered by renewable energy.