A recent video by Aptera tells us not only that its vehicle-mounted solar panels are in production, but gives us some clues about the journey to get to this point. It wasn’t easy, and certainly wasn’t just a matter of slapping some panels on the outside of the car.
As pointed out in the beginning of the video, the companies that Aptera works with initially thought that the plan for a solar car, at least the way Aptera was trying to do it, just wasn’t really possible. If you’re looking for a solar cell that can bend not just in one direction, but two, and still be strong enough to withstand the rigors of riding around on a car, there’s no automotive supplier you can just go to and order cells. The technology just didn’t exist.
Why? Because it’s a HUGE ask. Bending a solar cell in one direction is already challenging. bending it in two directions was guaranteed to shatter or crack it. That’s why most vehicle-mounted solar cells in the past have only been on the relatively flat parts of vehicles like you’d find on the roof.
But, it’s even worse than just not snapping the panels during manufacturing. If there’s too much stress on them to begin with, and they’re on the edge of cracking, they probably wouldn’t survive. You’re talking about 20 years of heat, cold, vibrations, shocks, rain, hail, snow, blowing sand, people sitting or leaning on the car, and the relentless assault of ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light. Solar cells take just a tiny portion of that last one, and convert it to energy, but that energy also tries to break down and discolor anything you put over the cells to protect them.
So, it really is a very different game than you see for stationary solar or mounting solar panels atop something like an RV or semi-truck trailer.
So, Aptera had to do lots and lots of testing. When I visited their facility in 2021, I saw some of this work sitting out, but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures or share some of what I learned. They had a little airgun there to shoot prototype solar cells and panels with ice, to simulate hail. They had all sorts of testing going on, some of which was hidden behind thick curtains. Now, the video lets us get a better peek of what was going on back then (and since).
They had to do this two-axis design both because the vehicle needed to be a specific shape for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and because they needed to cover as much of the vehicle in solar as possible. Between these two things, they could develop a vehicle that could get meaningful range from the sun.
More importantly, though, they couldn’t come up with a design that they could build just a few of. They needed to make a plan and a design that could work well to make a million copies quickly enough to fill Aptera’s orders and cover many, many more. That added yet another layer of challenges to what was already a gauntlet.
Why This Matters Beyond Aptera
As much of a fan as I am of what will be the most efficient car ever, I’m also a realist. I know that a two-seater vehicle with a very unconventional design just isn’t going to displace a whole industry. It doesn’t have to do that, because there’s a lot of money to be made even in niche markets. Aptera also wants to make some more vehicles in the future, including some with more wheels and more interior space/seating.
But even then, the technical challenge of squeezing enough miles per kilowatt-hour of energy to get meaningful range from the small number of those kilowatt-hours of energy the solar cells can collect up means that unconventional design choices have to happen, even with larger vehicles. While it could be improved upon, you’d need something not that different from the Dymaxion to get enough efficiency out of a larger vehicle.
But, solar technology continues to advance just like battery technology. Today’s solar cells on the mass market top out at around 24% efficiency, with 30% efficient cells coming in the near future. That means there’s a lot more energy that solar cells could capture in the future as the technology continues to improve. At 40% efficiency (something that’s in active development), the power you can get from a car’s surface will double. If they can get as far as 90% efficiency (a real possibility), a vehicle like the Aptera could add 120 miles of range on a good day.
When solar cells get better, conventional manufacturers are going to want to add panels to their cars. Being able to add 40-50 miles to a more conventional vehicle’s range per day would be worth the extra cost of adding solar. With folding designs, they could offer even more range.
If a company like Aptera hadn’t pioneered vehicle-mounted two-axis flexible solar panels, companies probably wouldn’t be able to do it. But, with the hard parts all figured out, tomorrow’s more efficient panels will be easier to integrate into future vehicles.
Beyond The Automotive World
We’re really only at the dawn of solar technology. It’s been around for a long time, but as it improved, it ended up on a lot of rooftops and will be going onto cars’ roofs next. But, we’re going to start seeing solar technology show up in all sorts of places.
Earlier this year, a team in Australia printed their own roll-up solar panel and took it on a drive around Australia to show how well it worked. The thin film and cheap costs make their design an ideal way to start putting solar panels everywhere. But, the world can be a rough place. Putting solar cells in many locations will be challenging because the surface’s shape and the environmental conditions can be almost as challenging as putting them on a car.
Having the know-how ready to go for putting solar cells in harsh environments on curved surfaces is going to open up a lot of power-generating possibilities that don’t exist today.
Featured image: a screenshot from Aptera’s video.
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