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Are Solar-Powered Cars Realistic?

You can get more range, but you'll still need a charger.

Fast Charging screen inside of a 2023 Chevy Bolt EV
Justin Duino / Review Geek

Imagine enjoying a vehicle that doesn’t run on gasoline or plug into a charger like modern electric vehicles. Instead, you can drive whenever, wherever, and even longer when the sun is shining. That’s what solar-powered cars promise, but are they realistic?

The idea of a solar electric vehicle (SEV) is hardly new, and over the years, we’ve seen a slew of concepts debut and eventually fizzle out. We constantly see news stories on the web that solar cars are the next generation and coming soon but don’t hold your breath.

Concepts and Upcoming Solar-Powered Vehicles

Lightyear 0 Solar EV exterior

As electric vehicles continue to gain momentum, manufacturers are looking for other ways to stand out or differentiate themselves. A prime example is the Lightyear 0, previously known as the Lightyear One. It was initially expected in 2021, then sometime in the winter of 2022, but that never happened.

Lightyear’s custom vehicle looks mostly like a traditional car, if not a bit goofy, with the hood, roof, and rear end covered in tiny solar panels. The elongated design helped give the team more surface area for panels, as it needed as many as possible actually to draw enough power from the sun to be usable.

It’s a great idea, but the Lightyear One had an estimated price tag of around $260,000. Even with five square meters of double-curved solar panels on the roof, it only net about 44 miles of range, and that’s on a good day. As a result, it also had a 60 kWh battery to give it more range. You can charge the battery with solar or plug it in.

That all sounds great, but it’s not all that realistic, nor is it solar-powered. Instead, it’s still a typical electric vehicle that gets a little boost from solar. Lightyear eventually canceled the launch and plans a more affordable Lightyear 2 sometime near the end of 2025.

Another example is the Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX concept, which drove for over 621 miles and still had some battery left by employing solar panels on the roof. The average speed was only 54 mph, and again, it’s nothing but an expensive concept.

Then we have Aptera Motors, with its unique solar-powered car, although it hardly looks like a traditional vehicle. This company is the closest of the bunch to have a “production” vehicle, but again, the Aptera is unique and won’t be for everyone.

All of these have one goal: to replace gas and plug-in electricity with the sun. In reality, though, that job is more complicated than it sounds.

Vehicle Designs Aren’t Pretty

Aptera Motors solar vehicle.

As you can see from the image above, the Aptera Motors SEV isn’t your average car. It’s a three-wheeled machine to cut weight, is as curvy as possible to be aerodynamic and improve range, and there’s no rear window because it needs all the space possible for solar cells.

Even with its unique design, the Aptera has a sizeable 42 kWh battery pack that delivers around 400 miles of range per charge. Then, the solar panels plastered everywhere will give owners up to an additional 40 miles per day with enough sunlight.

Technically, that’s not a solar-powered car. It’s more like a solar-equipped vehicle. Most owners still need to locate and plug into a charger, but you can get a little more range or do short daily commutes on solar.

It could be a viable alternative if you have a short enough commute, and it can recharge throughout the day while parked. Still, longer trips will require the battery and an EV charger, and if the sun isn’t out, you’ll still have to stop for a charge.

Don’t get me wrong; the Aptera looks like it could be an incredible vehicle I can’t wait to see on the road. However, we’ll need to see and hear more when it finally arrives.

The Elephant in the Room

Hyundai Sonata with a solar roof.
Hyundai Sonata with a solar roof. Hyundai

We can’t forget about the elephant in the room. What happens when it rains for a week straight, on cloudy days, or in the long cold winter months when we don’t enjoy hours of sunlight at a time? What then?

Even if solar-powered vehicles improve the slow charging rates and efficiency, you can’t always count on the sun being out and shining. Now, you’ll have a heavy car with a wild design and fewer windows, one stacked with solar panels, that you can only take advantage of during certain parts of the day or year. And that’s not even getting into the fact that different areas of the world, and even the U.S., don’t get as much sunlight on average.

At the end of the day, even as solar technology improves, we’ll still need built-in battery packs, fast charging technology, and charging stations everywhere to keep our vehicles up and running.

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Front right headlight on the 2023 Chevy Bolt EV
Justin Duino / Review Geek

So, are solar-powered cars realistic? That depends on what you consider practical or what you’re looking for. You’ll be waiting a while if you want a vehicle that never needs to plug in and can run forever from the sun.

For now, the numbers don’t quite add up, nor does the science, and we’re still a long way from replacing gas or electric cars with solar. The first gas-powered vehicle wasn’t that great, either, and look at them now. I’m not saying SEVs aren’t possible, but we’ll need to see significant battery and solar technology advancements to operate cars with nothing more than that ball of fire in the sky.

The designs aren’t ideal, the range isn’t that great, charging times are still incredibly slow, and solar charging isn’t nearly as efficient as a plug. And considering this is a breakthrough technology, the pricing will be out of reach for most.

I’m a bit of a pessimist here, but we’ll need to consider all of these things. That said, according to the Census Bureau, the average American commutes around 26 minutes each way, or roughly 41 miles round trip a day. If a solar EV can consistently deliver 60 miles per day, even with some clouds, then we’ll be getting closer to making SEVs a reality.

Don’t get me wrong, the technology for solar electric vehicles is certainly real and on the way, but whether or not they’ll replace gas or electric cars anytime soon or be remotely affordable is another question entirely. For now, “solar-assisted” vehicles, like the Aptera, are likely all we’re going to see any time soon.

Cory Gunther Cory Gunther
Cory Gunther has been writing about phones, Android, cars, and technology in general for over a decade. He's a staff writer for Review Geek covering roundups, EVs, and news. He's previously written for GottaBeMobile, SlashGear, AndroidCentral, and InputMag, and he's written over 9,000 articles. Read Full Bio »