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I keep seeing ads for a 3-wheeled solar car

My sister and I talked about solar cars once, and now I get ads for one all the time. So why aren't more of them on the road?

Adam Baumgartner
March 28, 2023
A three-wheeled EV covered in smooth solar panels sits parked in an open field. Its trunk is open, with a tent attached. Someone is parasailing in the distance.

The Aptera boasts a range of up to 1,000 miles.

I was talking to my sister, who was car shopping at the time, and she asked a great question. Why can’t EVs come equipped with solar panels on their roofs?

She reasoned that like regenerative braking, solar panels would at least restore some of the vehicle’s power, if not all of it.

Well, the advertising gods must have been listening, because shortly after, I began getting ads for a car called the Aptera.

I have to say, the Aptera does not seem to care about what transportation looks like today.

And maybe it doesn’t have to – its range kind of speaks for itself, at something like 1,000 miles on a single charge.

The spaceship-like body is also covered in solar panels, which its manufacturer says can account for about 40 miles each day.

A lot of EV designers are focusing on factors like aerodynamics as a way to squeeze out more range from their batteries, and the Aptera looks like it leans into that challenge fully. According to its website, the vehicle's shape means 30% less energy is lost compared to other EVs.

Photos via Aptera's website

This car isn’t alone – more manufacturers are exploring solar

The Aptera is cool, but I had to wonder if there were other solar EVs out there. A 3-wheel design probably doesn't appeal to everybody.

Sure enough, a bunch of car companies are experimenting with rooftop arrays.


On that list is a company called Lightyear with two models: the Lightyear 0 and Lightyear 2.

Their designs look a bit more conventional while staying super sleek.

The Lightyear 0 has a range of about 388 miles, about 43 miles of which can come from solar power each day.

And the not-yet-released Lightyear 2 is expected to have a range of up to 500 miles per charge – though details about its solar-powered range aren't totally clear.

Lightyear 2
Lightyear 0, in production


There's also a company called Fisker producing a solar-boosted SUV they've named Ocean. Its range is around 350 miles – comparable to a Tesla Model X. The SUV's Extreme and One options will come with solar arrays on retractable rooftops, which it says account for about 1,500 driving miles each year.

Fisker Ocean
"SolarSky" technology


And then there’s Toyota, which announced its new Prius Prime will feature a solar roof option to help recharge the battery while parked. 

It’s a plugin-hybrid, so its range is around 35 miles before switching over to gas.

The company is also promising a solar roof option for the all-electric bZ4x SUV.

Toyota Prius Prime
Toyota bZ4x

The list goes on

Hyundai has a version of the Sonata with a solar roof. Audi and Volkswagen have ordered a concept car with flexible solar panels. Kia just released a concept SUV with a solar bonnet. And those are just the projects that I know about.

The doors in the Kia EV9 Concept
Kia EV9 concept

So why don’t all EVs come with solar panels?

According to Forbes, the answer is largely space – there’s not enough surface area on most vehicles for solar to account for a substantial amount of charging.

Looking at the bZ4x, for instance, Toyota says its solar panels only account for about 1,118 miles of range each year. That’s pretty on par with other solar-boosted EVs.

Free charging is free charging, and 1,100 miles of solar energy is pretty impressive – but when you consider that the average American drives 13,000 miles each year, you start to see the challenge.

All of that said, solar panels and EVs alike seem poised to become more efficient and more affordable over time. And since some solar-boosted vehicles are already in production, it seems likely that these technologies will continue to fuse.

Why does all of this matter?

Most obviously, this matters because consumers have range anxiety. A J.D. Power study from 2021 showed at the time that most EV buyers look at range as a top factor when researching electric vehicles. Range is also among the most common reasons some people steer clear of EVs.

Solar panels could help alleviate range and charging concerns. Since most people drive fewer than 40 miles each day, the sun would account for a decent amount of miles. That could in turn help relieve some stress on our current electrical grid as EVs gain traction in the U.S.

And of course, there's the issue of pollution. Though EVs emit less over their lifetimes than gas vehicles, most of America's energy is produced using fossil fuels. If drivers can cover their errands and commutes entirely using solar power, their cross town trips become emissions-free.

The solar present

For now, most electric vehicles aren't solar powered – my own among them.

To help account for this, I've signed up for a renewable energy program.

That means I'm contributing to the growth of new wind and solar projects while proving to power companies that there’s consumer demand for clean electricity.

The future is coming at us pretty quickly, but between awesome evolutions in technology and growing use of renewable energy, I’d say things are looking pretty cool.

(By the way, if you want to sign up for renewable energy, Canopy can help you get started. Just create an account and check out your personalized guide.)

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