The race is on to build the most efficient electric car. This alone is worth taking note of, as only a few years back, most major carmakers seemed to be in silent agreement that ranges of around 200 miles would meet most people’s everyday driving needs and convince them to switch to electric models. Well, reality struck hard, a new phobia - range anxiety - was born, and the industry had to adapt.
All the more reason for a quick stocktaking on where things stand today.
For many years, Tesla
Looking a little bit further down the Top 30 list, one thing becomes quite apparent: incremental changes still seem to be the norm as most current cars offer mediocre ranges of under 300 miles under optimal conditions.
Quantum leaps are on the horizon – with newcomers leading the way
Thankfully, there are great examples of quantum leap innovations on the vehicle level which will result not only in hugely efficient EVs but will lead to a radical change in the entire user experience.
Take Mercedes Benz. In June of this year, Chief Executive Ola Källenius proudly reported a range of 1,202 km (about 747 miles) on a single charge between Stuttgart, Germany and Silverstone, UK, for their concept car, the EQXX. This recent test drive was the second time it exceeded the 1000 kilometres range, solidifying its world record status in ‘real-world’ testing. That’s impressive! Customers will have to remain patient, though, as the first production models of the EQXX will not be available before 2024.
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But even with the EQXX’s stunning performance there is competition already brewing. Again, it is newcomers that are leading the way.
One of them is Aptera Motors from San Diego, whose solar electric car is offering a mind blowing 1,000 miles range per charge (1.600 kilometres). Yes, that’s right, 1,000 miles! Importantly, that’s not simply a promise for the distant future, as Aptera is moving quickly toward final production readiness. Their first consumer vehicle is set to launch this year from an 80,000 sqm production facility in Carlsbad, California.
Another newcomer to watch is Lightyear One from the Netherlands. Just recently, on June 9, Lightyear One officially launched its first production vehicle, the Lightyear 0, which will be delivered to the first customers from November of this year. The Lightyear 0’s powertrain reaches an incredible 97% efficiency level.
A glimpse of what to expect was given last winter, when Lightyear tested one of its prototype cars on a Bridgestone track in Aprilia, Northern Italy. The test took place under suboptimal conditions – with outside temperatures around 50⁰F (10 degrees Celsius), and at a constant high speed of 81 mph (130 kilometres per hour). Still, the prototype car reached over 250 miles (400+ kilometres) on a single charge with a relatively small 60 KWh battery (similar to VW’s ID.3 with a real range of 170 miles). And the optimization work was far from finished then.
Solar integration and better aerodynamics are key to performance
So HOW is all of this possible?
Unsurprisingly it is a combination of significant technological advancements, one of which being - the integration of solar.
The EQXX for example features 117 solar cells on its roof to increase range and efficiency. Newcomers like Lightyear and Aptera even aim for grid independence. With 5m2 (53 ft2) of solar roof panels, the Lightyear 0 for example enables up to 12k miles (20,000 km ) per year, and the Aptera 14,6k miles per year – powered solely from the sun. Although solar generates a relatively small amount of energy, it can make a meaningful addition to range - if the vehicle has a low energy spend per kilometer.
Also immediately apparent, and even more meaningful in terms of efficiency, are the enhanced aerodynamics. Looking at the so called drag coefficient (Cd), which measures the amount of resistance an object encounters as it moves, Mercedes-Benz’s EQXX reached a benchmark of 0.17. Aptera claims even better with 0.13 due to its unorthodox dolphin-like shape. These are impressive figures that easily knock all existing production EVs out of the park.
In-wheel motors - a paradigm shift in overall car design
But in the case of Aptera and Lightyear, there is one often overlooked component, which, quite literally, drives not only their performance but has a huge impact on the entire car design.
And that’s their in-wheel motors.
Yes, these motors are placed directly in the wheel, or, more precisely, in the rim. The concept is far from new. In fact, Ferdinand Porsche himself equipped an electric vehicle with in-wheel drives for the 1900 Paris exposition. However, back then, centralized combustion engines were superior across key technical characteristics like weight, noise, and overall performance. The rest is history.
But today, some 120 years later, as we’re entering a new electrified, sustainable era of mobility, the fundamentals have in many ways turned upside down, making in-wheel motors the logical choice for the future (solar) electric cars for the masses.
The reasons are simple: for one, in-wheel motors generate power directly where it is needed most. This practically eliminates mechanical losses, results in high torque and, in turn, maximum efficiency and range. Moreover, it improves the handling, maneuverability, and hence, security for the driver. Since in-wheel motors make do with much less components than their centralized relatives, the car becomes lighter, which again increases efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
More than that, in-wheel powertrains free up significant space in the car. This allows for drastically different form factors – opening up the playing field for car designers who can focus even more on the user experience. And since distributed powertrains are modular in nature, leveraging to a large extent standard parts, they can significantly drive down overall manufacturing costs, and be quickly integrated into new vehicles. Not only can this result in a wider range of cars, but it will accelerate the journey from the drawing board to actually driving.
Only a few specialized in-wheel motor suppliers ready for uptick in demand
While (presumably) all large carmakers are therefore looking into ways to tap into that potential, only a few highly specialized companies offer solutions ready for integration into production cars.
Here are two examples.
One of the pioneers in the space is a company from Slovenia, called Elaphe Propulsion Technologies. One of their founders, a quantum physicist, started to work on in-wheel technology all the way back in the late 80s before co-founding Elaphe in 2006. This company backed by European cleantech investor EIT InnoEnergy has recently moved quickly from operating behind the scenes to taking centerstage. After starting a partnership with Lordstown Motors in 2020, a few weeks ago both Aptera and Lightyear One announced Elaphe as their in-wheel powertrain supplier for their solar electric production cars. The multi-year deal with Aptera alone is worth several hundred million USD.
To accommodate the expected uptick in demand, Elaphe is currently expanding their existing factory in Slovenia to volume-ready scale, aiming to be able to produce up to 100,000 units per year. In the medium term, Elaphe plans to open up another production facility in the US.
Another contender is Protean Electric, which was founded in the UK in 2008. In late 2021, Protean got acquired by British EV maker Bedeo, taking over from Saab successor NEVS (National Electric Vehicle Sweden) who felt the effects of their parent company, Chinese Real Estate giant Evergrande, almost sliding into bankruptcy. Together, Bedeo and Protean plan to develop new EV platforms for commercial vehicles and passenger cars using in-wheel motors. This could help put them in a good position to grab some share of the estimated USD 4,4 billion market (by 2026) for in-wheel powertrains.
Automotive industry to be more in line with other major tech segments
In a way, the opportunities in-wheel motors present could bring the automotive industry more in line with other segments of the tech industry, where development cycles have drastically shortened, and more focus is placed on the user experience. Just think of the Apples, Samsungs and FoxConns of the world.
This will be an important trend to watch in the coming years as countries around the world seek out how to best navigate the energy and mobility transition. Perhaps bold attempts based on new technologies like the ones being put forth by new entrants will put pressure on the entire industry to think more outside the box. At the very least it will lead to more opportunities for meaningful innovation. Rethinking the vehicle design means that efficiency and range is able to not only surpass the internal combustion engine, but also improve on the experience and convenience of electric vehicles as a whole.