There was a hubbub around the water cooler here at CleanTechnica world headquarters five years ago when Sono Motors — a German crowdfunded startup that promised to bring a solar powered electric car called the Sion to market — announced its first prototype would be unveiled on July 27, 2017. It was an affordable electric car with solar panels embedded in the hood, roof, and hatchback but that wasn’t the only innovation the Sion promised.
Unlike the ultra-pricey HEPA filter in the Tesla Model X, the Sion’s air filtration system relied on moss to remove unwanted pollutants and odors from the air. The seats all folded together or separately to allow people to lug all sorts of stuff around or there was room for six passengers when needed. Two versions were planned. The Urban would be equipped with a 14.4 kWh battery, have a range of about 75 miles and cost $13,200. The Extender version would be equipped with a 30 kWh battery, have a range of 155 miles and cost $17,600.
Neither price included the battery. Customers could either buy it or lease it the way Renault Twingo owners did. It should be noted that Renault later dropped the battery leasing idea, but Vinfast is now contemplating a similar sales strategy.
Sono Motors History
Sono Motors was founded by Laurin Hahn, Navina Pernsteiner, and Jona Christians in Karben, Hesse, in January 2016. The trio said their mission was to “significantly reduce the misuse of valuable and finite resources — such as oil, because oil is an important fossil, non-renewable raw material. Nevertheless, over 61% of the world’s oil reserves are consumed for transport. This produces 128 million tons of CO2 every year. Even if the extinction of the sources is delayed by new delivery methods, in the long term, there is no future for vehicles with internal combustion engines. Our future is sustainable mobility.”
In the year it was founded, Sono Motors secured funding for two functional prototypes thanks to two crowdfunding campaigns — €549,995 from 1,686 backers on the internet platform Indiegogo and €1.8 million on Seedrs. The year after the prototype was revealed, the company took the Sion on a European tour of 42 cities in 10 countries to generate some buzz about the car and get feedback from potential customers about what they liked and didn’t like about the car.
The Sion Dream Is No More
Nevertheless, despite all the promises and support from the public, the reality of getting a new car into production has caused the Sono Motors Sion dream to crash.
In a blog post on February 24, 2023, co-founder Laurin Hahn announced the termination of the program.
“Sono Motors will pivot to a purely solar tech company and we have terminated the Sion program. We are extremely saddened that we have terminated the Sion program so close to bringing it to the streets. We are still fully committed to making a real difference in mobility and making every vehicle solar. Therefore we have made the decision to continue with our solar B2B business. This was a very difficult decision, as you can imagine, and we do not take it lightly.
“Despite more than 45,000 reservations and pre-orders for the Sion, we were compelled to react to the ongoing financial market instability and streamline our business. Given also the resource intensive nature of the Sion program, including personnel requirements, we are now implementing a significant cost reduction program. This includes the redundancy of approximately 300 employees. This is not a decision we take lightly and we are incredibly grateful for their hard work and dedication to Sono Motors.”
There are a few coincidences here that bear touching on. The Sion was scheduled to be manufactured by Valmet, a Finnish specialty manufacturer that was once part of the Saab group. It was also deeply involved with Lightyear, the other solar car company that recently went belly up recently largely due to the turbulence in financial markets happening worldwide today. Lightyear says it is now focused on a less expensive ($40,000) model. As of last week, the company says it is exiting bankruptcy proceedings and looking forward to the start of production. We’ll see.
What’s Next For Sono Motors?
As we have reported previously, Sono Motors has been deeply involved in bringing its automotive solar panel technology to larger vehicles such as tractor trailers and buses that are powered in whole or in part by electricity. The cruel reality is that the Sion was just too small to be able to produce a significant amount of electricity, especially if the cars were parked indoors part of the day. But large commercial vehicles are out in the sunshine all day every day and so are better candidates for solar power.
“We will pivot our business model to exclusively retrofitting and integrating our solar technology onto third party vehicles,” the company says. “This marks a significant next step in Sono Motors’ business development. Our technology is already in application today, with 23 B2B customers across Europe, Asia, and the US piloting our integrated solar technology on a variety of vehicle architectures, including third-party OEM cars, buses, refrigerated vehicles, and recreation vehicles.”
Sono Motors has embarked on a trial program to demonstrate how solar panels on cargo trucks and trailers can help lower operating costs and reduce carbon emissions from commercial transportation. We don’t think much about it, but a lot of the products shipped by truck are refrigerated and those refrigerators are powered almost exclusively by diesel engines. Even if solar power won’t help a truck move down the highway, it can eliminate the need for those diesel AC units and save about 5000 liters of diesel fuel a year per truck or trailer.
“Our revenue generating solar business has been going from strength to strength and we are currently already working as a development-partner and supplier with companies across ten countries in Europe, Asia, and the US,” Hahn says in his blog post.
“Customers include Mitsubishi Europe, CHEREAU, and two Volkswagen subsidiaries — Scania and MAN Truck & Bus. Going forward, we intend to focus specifically on buses and third-party OEM cars, and will now scale up our technology. We will start with the introduction of the next generation of our mass-market ready retrofit solution for cleaner public transportation — the ‘Solar Bus Kit’ — planned for the second quarter of 2023. And as we will now exclusively focus on solar technology, talks with potential investors progress.
“The potential of our technology has been validated not only by our commercial partnerships but also by the European Union. In January, we secured €1.46 million in funding from the EU Commission’s European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (“CINEA”) to advance the development of the Company’s proprietary solar technology. We had also announced 52 patents granted or filed.
“This move means we can continue our mission of ‘solar on every vehicle’ and provide solutions that can benefit the lives of everyday people around the world, by reducing greenhouse emissions. The time for this mission is now, and our technology is ready to implement it. This is not the end. The future is solar. For a world without fossil fuels.”
We wish Hahn and his team every success. The difference between the bright promise of new technology and the real world where commercial success hangs by a very thin thread is stark. Sono Motors has its work cut out for it. They are going to need all the luck they can find to succeed.
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