Collin Arocho is an editor at Bits&Chips.

21 January 2020

Despite the wave of excitement behind Lightyear’s hybrid solar/electric vehicle prototype, the Helmond-based startup still has much to prove to deliver on promises of mass production. As the timeline continues to shrink, will the Lightyear One ever make it to the market?

More than once my Dutch counterparts have pointed out that I’m strangely optimistic. I’m enthusiastic and can easily buy into what people in the high tech world are selling. Startups are my favorite. I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned underdog success story and I love to see innovators try to change the playing field. But as positive as I am, there are some startups that leave me with many more questions than answers, clouding my zeal with realism and more than just a hint of skepticism. A perfect example – Lightyear.

Yes, the Lightyear One has some impressive technology. Designers opted to construct the car using light-weight aluminum and carbon fiber, which significantly cuts down on weight, while still delivering a sporty look. The extremely low drag coefficient means the car can travel further with each charge. A hood, roof and trunk all made from highly efficient solar cells panels for supplemental charging – all very cool.

I get the hype. What’s not to like about a group of young entrepreneurs looking to paint the automotive industry green? Since the unveiling of the Lightyear One in June of last year, the prototype car has been on a whirlwind tour of the globe, drumming up excitement, and more importantly, luring investors with promises to deliver the eco-friendly electric vehicle that can be charged by the sun into mass production and the market. But this David vs Goliath story seems to be missing something. Namely, results.

To start, the Lightyear One is not a solar car. It’s an EV with solar cells to provide some additional charge. As to how much this really contributes to the overall range is somewhat murky and hasn’t been substantiated with any real test or demonstration. Considering the limited number of days with full sunshine in the Netherlands, it’s hard to imagine that the solar panel offers a serious boost in charging – at least not in this area.

In ideal conditions, Lightyear claims its car can travel up to 725 km on a single charge of its modest 60 kWh battery. The problem: what constitutes ideal? It’s more than just the presence of the sun and good weather. Using the heat or air-conditioning? Connecting your phone and using the car’s infotainment system? Already, that’s less than ideal. Essentially, by using any of the creature comforts that we’ve all become accustomed to and expect in our modern vehicles means you’re not getting the most out of the car.

Still not deterred? Great. But to get a ticket to ride the hype train of the Lightyear One, you’ll need to lay down a cool 120,000 euros. That’s right, if you want to drive the car lauded as the “Tesla Killer”, you’ll need to be ready to make a real estate-sized investment. This in contrast to the 2019 top-selling car in the Netherlands, Tesla’s Model 3, with a base model coming in at just under 50,000 euros. Perhaps, the Lightyear team has seen the writing on the wall. Just recently the company said it wants to mass-produce a much cheaper second model to appeal to the average consumer. The price tag for that, 55,000 euros.

Cost and comforts aside, it’s time to get real about Lightyear’s ambitious production scheme. To date, it appears that the startup still only has one working prototype of the Lightyear One. That means that road, safety and crash testing, as well as the all-important certification from the authorities at RDW, might be on the horizon, but are nowhere near practice. Which means that seriously producing the EV for the market is even further away. Anything short of the backing from a billionaire solar-tech enthusiast, it’s not clear how Lightyear can transition from a nice story to a viable player in the auto industry. Perhaps as the R&D branch of one of the larger automakers, but not likely as a real manufacturer – at least not any time soon.