Tapping solar to run an EV’s motor would perhaps be the ultimate electric vehicle design, cutting out the middlemen of power generation and plug-in recharging stations. Technology isn’t anywhere near this level. However, German EV company Sono Motors is launching a partially solar electric vehicle or SEV. Its Sion EV a small, affordable vehicle with an outside surface covered in solar panels.
Solar electric vehicles are rare today, with most EV automakers opting for direct battery electric vehicle (BEV) setups. Sono joins Aptera Motors in the rarefied club of companies looking to harness sunlight to supplement ordinary charging. While Europe is naturally its first market, Sono wants to bring the Sion to the USA. Here’s a look at how likely it is to succeed.
The Sono Sion EV’s Solar Power
Compact but chunky like a bulldog, the Sono Sion comes in a single color, charcoal gray. This monochrome approach isn’t a throwback to Henry Ford’s meme-worthy “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” line. Instead, it’s a side effect of the Sion’s unique construction. The hatchback EV’s body panels aren’t fabricated from sheet steel like most cars’ outer skin. Instead, they’re made from dent-resistant and scratch-resistant polymer with solar cells embedded within it, as Roadshow reports.
Only a single color is available. Painting the Sion’s exterior would cover the solar cells built into it. The panels include 456 integrated proprietary solar half-cells developed by Sono to absorb the sun’s energy while remaining nearly invisible. Every body panel absorbs at least some light.
Using polymer panels sandwiching solar cells inside them makes Sono’s hatchback EV more efficient at generating power from the sun than more half-hearted attempts featuring solar panels on the roof. It raises some questions about the Sion’s construction, though. Cutaways from the company appear to show the polymer panels mounted directly over a cage-like aluminum frame. Sono describes this aluminum frame as rust-proof, lightweight, fully recyclable, and “maximum strength.” It’s unclear whether a vehicle made of polymer panels over an aluminum frame will meet American road-legal safety standards. Zero steel panels or frames might make the EV too flimsy to venture legally onto U.S. streets without significant modifications.
How Much Power Does the Sun Provide?
Sono went all-out with its design to ensure the solar power feature is as useful as possible within technological limitations. The special monocrystalline silicon cells Sono uses in its solar body panels improve electricity generation. US News & World Report points out that they’re sensitive enough to continue producing power in the shade or cloudy weather.
The Sono app also helps owners pick a parking spot with the best possible recharging. Its solar position function tells the driver exactly how much power the solar panels are generating at any time. A Sion owner can, therefore, at least in theory, choose one optimal parking space out of several by testing each to find the best charging spot.
Sono says the solar panels provide 70 miles of electricity per week under average conditions, Green Car Reports reports. However, in very sunny climates like California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and other bright, dry areas of the West and Southwest, this could rise to 152 miles weekly.
If Sono’s claims are accurate, owners could benefit from 30 miles per day of solar-only driving for 5-day per week or nearly 22 miles daily spread out over 7 days. This could easily cover the driving needs of people making only short, local commutes and trips in major western metropolises. Some California or Southwestern desert drivers might need to plug the Sion in only a few times a year following the occasional longer journey.
The Sion EV offers vehicle-to-load (V2L) charging as a bonus feature and can power 120-volt or 240-volt tools and appliances. It can even provide electricity to a whole house during an outage, according to Sono. Exact figures on how long it can provide V2L power aren’t yet available.
Features of the Sono Sion EV
Sono priced the Sion to sell to people looking for a thrifty family EV with a likely $25,000 base price. The German hatchback competes directly against other budget EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt. Beyond its solar panel shell, the Sion’s specs and performance are similar to other compact electric cars.
Sion Drivers won’t win any races with their EV, whose top speed is 87 mph. The drivetrain is a front-wheel drive or FWD, meaning a single-motor option is the only choice currently. The vehicle develops 163 horsepower and approximately 214 ft-lbs of torque, though final specs aren’t yet confirmed. Some sources of uncertain reliability say its estimated 0-60 mph acceleration time is 9 seconds.
A 54 kWh battery powers the vehicle, giving a 190-mile range when fully charged. Recharging to 80% takes 35 minutes when the Sion is hooked up to a Level 3 DC fast charger. This indicates electric architecture limits that won’t be able to take full advantage of 350 kW output chargers. However, half an hour is probably acceptable to most drivers. Recharging on a Level 2, the 240-volt charger takes 4 hours to reach 80% charge. The owner can achieve a similar charge in 12.5 hours by plugging the Sion into an ordinary 120-volt household current.
Sono builds the Sion with a simple, uncluttered interior, probably at least partly to keep the price down. The company also says this provides a clean design for ease of use. The Sion is a five-door hatchback capable of seating five passengers. Despite the EV’s compact dimensions, Sono says its engineering gives ample legroom so taller occupants won’t feel cramped or uncomfortable. Seats are heated for cool-weather excursions, and the rear row features three headrests atop the bench seat back. Users can adjust seatbelt height, and child safety seat attachments are available.
The driver interacts with the car through a minimalist dashboard featuring a tablet-like digital instrument cluster behind the wheel. The screen displays information about the vehicle while driving and lets the front-seat occupants change radio, climate control, and other settings. There don’t appear to be physical control knobs for these minor adjustments. This raises the possibility some users might find leafing through menus to change heater or A/C settings inconvenient while driving.
Sono includes a tray of preserved Icelandic moss set into the Sion’s dashboard below the central 10-inch touchscreen. The pale green clumps of dried moss, contained under Plexiglas, look rather like a miniature deciduous forest seen from the air. Sono says the moss tray gets replaced simultaneously with the vehicle’s air filter. It’s included to provide a soothing natural accent to the interior and is a unique aesthetic choice.
Bringing the Sono Sion to the USA
Sono is talking about bringing the Sion hatchback EV to the United States in addition to its European launch. Company representatives took the Sion on tour across the United States in October 2022. They showed off their sample vehicle, dubbed “Neptune,” at multiple locations coast to coast. New York City was one of the first stops, followed by Detroit, ending with multiple stops in sunny, EV-eager California. People gave the affordable EV a usually positive reception.
Sono hasn’t made Sion EV reservations available in the USA yet. However, it offers a waitlist page so interested people can get an email when the Sion arrives on America’s shores. Meanwhile, TechCrunch reports the company has 20,000 consumer preorders in Europe and 22,000 more reservations from car rental enterprises. One of the biggest commercial orders comes from the FINN car subscription service, which wants 12,000 of hatchback EVs. This major order circles back to a potential American connection since FINN also operates its service in the United States.
Sono’s only currently planned manufacture is through Valmet Automotive, a partner in Finland. Valmet plans to start assembly line production in 2025 and build 257,000 compact EVs by 2030. If Sono chooses to import Valmet-made Sions to the USA, they won’t qualify for the $7,500 Clean Vehicle Credit under the Inflation Reduction Act. The Act offers tax credits only to EVs with American-assembled batteries and final vehicle assembly in the U.S.
However, Sono’s CEO Laurin Hahn said the company also seeks a manufacturing partner in America. Should the Sion pass U.S. regulatory hurdles and Sono find a company to build its vehicle in North America, the affordable family hatchback could get even cheaper, provided they meet Inflation Reduction Act guidelines.
Passenger and Commercial Possibilities
When selling to individual drivers rather than rental fleets, Sono currently uses a direct-to-customer model, at least in Europe. While it has a handful of showrooms most Sions are ordered online and will be delivered right to the purchaser’s door. Whether Sono means to use the same retail model in the USA remains unknown at this point. Such a system could eliminate dealer markups and keep the Sion’s low-cost appeal.
While the Sion is a family car, Sono also targets the commercial fleet market. The vehicle’s Car Sharing function is tailor-made for rentals, even though the company suggests it can be used to loan vehicles to family or friends. Power Sharing also enables the owner, whether individual or corporate, to dole out stored energy to other users and charge them for its use.
Beyond the Sion passenger EV Sono is exploring commercial uses with its polymer monocrystalline silicon cell solar panel technology. It plans to offer modular solar cladding mounted outside commercial vehicles to supplement its range with solar power. Its product lineup will include a solar bus kit for diesel buses to turn them into a sort of solar hybrid. It also intends to offer solar body panels for refrigerated trucks. Sono claims it can cut yearly energy use for refrigeration by half if a reefer truck is outfitted with its panels.
Sono’s solar electric technology could arrive in America as the Sion EV, solar equipment for trucks and buses, or both. While a pure solar-electric vehicle (SEV) isn’t yet possible, Sono shows the technology’s exciting potential. The Sion could be an intriguing, affordable EV option, especially for short-range city drivers in sunny areas of the Southwest and California.