The origins of a solar empire

Energy efficient road transport equipment can be realised by harnessing the sun according to Sono Motors. This Munich-based operation is developing revolutionary solar-powered innovations that could transform the semi-trailer industry.

Laurin Hahn founded Sono Motors in 2016 alongside Jona Christians and Navina Pernsteiner in a garage where they developed their first prototype by hand. They wanted to see whether their vision of a Solar Electric Vehicle (SEV) could come true.

“We envision a world without fossil fuel,” said Hahn. “That’s why we want to make electric cars available to the mass markets. Fossil fuels are a limited and unsustainable resource. That is why we want to use the energy of the sun to power cars as well as other commercial vehicles.

“With our solar technology, we want to help the logistics industry become greener and meet CO2-targets while operating as efficiently as possible.”

Solar can be used to bring down the costs associated with diesel in diesel engines via solar integration, while there is potential to extend range and operating hours of electric engines.

“Driven by the ambition of realising system change, I decided to stop my studies in electrical engineering and fully dedicate myself to the development of an efficient, affordable electric vehicle suitable for everyday use and whose battery can be additionally charged by the sun,” said Hahn.

“Within three years, me and co-founder Jona built our first electric car with integrated solar modules in a garage. We named this car the Sion. Based on this project and the vision of a sustainable mobility concept independent of fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuels, according to Hahn, are responsible for a significant amount of global greenhouse gas emissions with mobility being one of the five main contributors to CO2 emissions.

“The main issue in mobility is the burning of fossil fuels,” he said. “Sustainable transportation is currently constrained by infrastructure (charging grid for EV) and industry conventions (technology development bottleneck). The demand for personal and commercial transportation is only rising. Due to growing demand, future availability of petroleum continues to present economic, political and environmental risks. Renewable energy sources are not only more sustainable but also more economical due to the rising energy prices.”

Environmental awareness, urbanisation, policymaking and technology development are key industry trends that the team at Sono Motors are following closely.

“We are seeing access restrictions in cities for the diesel fuelled transportation and logistics sector where diesel bans are already in effect across many large cities,” said Hahn. This will only increase.

Also, the EU wants to be carbon neutral by 2050, mobility is one of the main contributors to CO2 emissions. Hence, the EU has support for EV mobility, and its infrastructure.

“The Paris Agreement and the EU’s 2030 Climate & Energy Framework will require steep cuts in CO2 emissions from transport. Solar EV is the next wave in electric vehicles – there are some OEMs currently integrating PV panels into their EVs (Cybertruck, Prius).”

According to the IDTechEx Report on Solar Vehicles, the number of units of Solar Energy Cars will grow from 5,300 to 2,852,400 in the next twenty years (2021-2041) and the market will grow in value from $0.2 billion USD to $39.5 billion USD in the same period (2021-2041).

Sono Motors, according to Hahn, is committed to addressing these industry issues with affordable, convenient mass market electric vehicles and technology. “We want to become a role model in how we can enable individual mobility while preserving what is important to us: the environment, people and nature.”

From prototype to development to series production
Mathieu Baudrit – Solar Integration Group Lead at Sono Motors – has worked in photovoltaics (PV) since 2002 and has immersed himself in everything from solar cell development to high efficiency PV module development. Following several international PV product development projects in different countries, Baudrit joined Sono Motors in the beginning of 2018.

As the lead of Sono Motor’s Vehicle Integrated Photovoltaics (ViPV) business unit called Sono Solar, based in Munich, his primary responsibilities include driving innovation in the team by bringing experience in this field between PV and automotive and overcoming challenges that hinder his team in developing solar integration for vehicles.

“Our mission is to develop ViPV solutions to make mobility greener, to save energy, reduce fossil fuels (and protect the environment),” he said. “Our vision is that every vehicle consuming energy and having access to sunlight should have PV integrated on it. It is at the end the cleanest and cheapest source of energy available for years according to the International Energy Agency.”

Sono Motors Solar Integration Group Lead, Mathieu Baudrit, and Sono Motors co-founder, Laurin Hahn.

Sono Solar has a team of 23 members with lots of open positions.

“The team is growing, and it is really multicultural and multidisciplinary,” said Baudrit. “We have in the Sono Solar group five different nationalities (and increasing) represented and a perfect mix of experienced and younger people, from the automotive industry and the photovoltaic industry.”

Among the exciting projects that Sono Motors is engaged in, Baudrit is passionate about the Sion – the reason why he joined the business.

“We wanted to tackle this challenge of having a real Solar Electric Vehicle (SEV), but there was not really a satisfying solution for us in the market to fully cover our car with PV,” he said. “In the end, we created and patented our manufacturing process to embed the solar cells on the car body panels during the manufacturing.“

“This is where it all started, manufacturing in one step our solar integration concept, for any kind of vehicle, became our motto, in order to save cost and integration complexity. And it seems now people really love our idea to push further the solar integration on vehicles such as trucks and trailers.”

The Sono Motors PV-system will allow electric cooling engines to run independently from other energy sources for a certain amount of time while operating, depending on the individual use cases

“It is our goal to make the benefits from the sun accessible to a wide range of vehicles,” said Baudrit.

“Trailers with cooling engines have a huge potential to satisfy most of their energy needs due to the vast areas of the trailer available for our solar technology. A 13-plus-metre-long reefer trailer with solar modules on the roof and on the sides can satisfy up to 100 per cent of its energy needs for the refrigeration unit. The coverage proportion mainly depends on the sun irradiance of the region and the refrigeration parameters, like target temperature and ambient temperature and can therefore vary. In our hometown Munich the yearly average of energy earnings by our solar technology is approximately 50 per cent of the energy needed. Just imagine the upside potential in regions with more sun irradiance and hours than we have in Munich.”

This solar technology is expected to be a game changer for autonomous vehicles and electric reefers because logistics companies will ultimately cut costs through efficient energy use.

“We can provide by far the cheapest form of energy compared to diesel or energy from the power grid,” said Baudrit. “Fleet owners also gain more autonomy from charging infrastructure – they can expect less standing time and can increase the operating hours of their trailers on the streets. With the rise of electric logistic vehicles over the following decades the importance of decentralised energy generation like our solar technology will be key in order to reduce charging cycles for the operating fleets. Here electric trucks can gain extra range or don’t lose range if the refrigeration unit can be fed by the sun. With the upcoming trend of access restrictions in cities for the diesel fuelled transportation and logistics sector, the electrification of these fleets will gain momentum. We can support the fleet owners with our solar technology by offering range extension, charging autonomy and maximised operating times. Finally, with our sustainable approach the fleet owners can lower their carbon footprint.”

Sono Motors’ offering comprises a one-stop shop featuring all needed components, software and aftermarket services.

“We do not only deliver the solar panels, but also sophisticated power electronics, engineering services for the mechanical and electrical integration into the host vehicle, and even telematics software for the integration of the solar energy forecast function into the fleet management system,” said Baudrit.

“For maintenance purposes we offer diagnosis tools and currently build up a wide network of service and repair partners for the fleets to run smoothly. One of our main advantages is our solar control unit, called Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) central unit. This intelligent control unit features an optimisation algorithm that considerably maximises the energy yield from solar. Especially in half-shadowed fast-changing sun irradiance situations our MPPT central unit can react in only 40 milliseconds, whereas other such control units are stuck in local optima and do not reach such energy yield levels.

Sono Motors MPPT unit.

“With our telematics service we can give the fleet manager a report on the energy yields and even a forecast of what to expect in the next few days.

“We offer several depths of solar integration – from low level integration giving easy replacement possibilities to full vehicle integrated solar technology.

“Our solar panels are mostly embedded in polymer instead of glass which results in low weight while combining robustness with a high vibration resistance and cutting-edge efficiency levels.

“We work with a wide range of materials such that we can adapt our solution to the various needs of our customers’ vehicles.“

As for retrofitting Sono Motors’ tech, Baudrit recommends it is a good first approach and entry point for new customers.

“Indeed, for every customer, the energy consumption profile is completely different, and retrofitting existing vehicles is an excellent step to gather data and properly dimension the solar system to be integrated in the future for the particular customer needs,” he said. “But what we are targeting is really the series production. We are developing technologies adapted to series production, meaning they will add very little extra weight and height compared to normal trailers but will offer a powerful source of energy.”

In addition to the benefits of reducing energy operation costs compared to diesel and the power grid, Baudrit said the system can reduce Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) concerning by decreasing the dependence on charging infrastructure and also by decreasing the needed battery capacity.

“Due to the constant low speed charging the battery lifetime can be extended which gives the opportunity to also prolong the whole vehicle’s lifetime,” he said.

“Due to our automotive background, we can benefit from cost efficient sourcing while maintaining high quality in all our components and services.

“We use a best-in-class self-developed solar control unit with unrivalled efficiency level. With these maximised energy yields our customers can feed the majority of the energy needs of their auxiliary systems, such as refrigeration units and lifters. For full electric trailers fleet managers can extend the range of their fleets and lower the dependence of charging/fuelling infrastructure. Every kilowatt hour or litre of diesel saved gives the trailer the opportunity to stay longer on the streets. Our customers appreciate the low additional weight and thin solar panels while maintaining robust quality and a lifetime adapted to the one of the vehicle. With this decentralised energy provision approach we seek to offer the logistic and transportation industry a sustainable and efficient way to contribute to the decarbonisation of their fleets.”

Baudrit said the project has come a long way but there is never a one-size-fits-all solution.

“We are looking for partners interested in testing our technology and then we will do the last part of customisation of our solution with them,” he said. “In general, we can make working prototypes in a few months but then a series product needs a bit more time. We estimate between one and two years, as we always try to adapt our product to the assembly concept of our customers to make sure our product will not cause a headache in the assembly line.”

This year the company is set on expansion.

“Since last year we have started to market our technology and we have received so much positive feedback,” said Baudrit.

“It is definitely a technology with a lot of potential, and potential customers convinced us to continue.

“This is the year we are definitely setting up the team to go to the next speed and further improve the technology. This year, we will also integrate our technology for the first time on existing buses, but I cannot say more at the moment. We are constantly testing and improving the efficiency of our solar technology. We are in a working collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for the testing and certification of our solar technology.”

Industry luminary brings commercial vehicle enlightenment
Former SAF-Holland CEO, Detlef Borghardt, is no stranger to Global Trailer or the international truck and trailer market. He is an expert in trailer axles and suspension systems as well as fifth wheels and furthers his extensive career by venturing into new territory – the electrification and solar integration of cars and commercial vehicles.

Sono Motors Senior Advisor Transport Innovations, Detlef Borghardt.

“I have worked for three decades in the global commercial vehicle and automotive industry,” he said. “Most recently as CEO and Board member of SAF-Holland between 2011 and 2019 and before that in several different managerial positions within SAF-Holland since 2000. Prior to that, 10 years of experience in the aluminium industry in the Alusuisse Group. From March 2020, I am an independent consultant, and in this role I am engaged longterm with Sono Motors as well. I also serve the Supervisory Board at TIP Europe and the BoD at Haldex AB.”

With more than 30 years of specialised industry experience, Borghardt is supporting Sono Motors’ ‘triangle combination’ by bringing his valued knowledge and market expertise to a start-up-like environment boasting brilliant product innovation.

“I am asked to support the Sono Motors team in all aspects of a successful market entry in the global commercial vehicle world. Our industry is very different to automotive, it is B2B with unique players and characters, its own roles and very special terms and conditions. It is a people’s business. Sono Motors knows that I was the driver for some successful market introduction of several new products in the CV market already. Remember, the introduction of the disc brake technology for trailers approx. 20 years ago was and is a prime example of how a game changer idea can change even a very conservative industry that much. The entire SAF-Holland team under my leadership was the driver behind that disruptive change and perhaps, Sono Motors is able to achieve something similar.”

Borghardt is convinced that the entire cooling logistics with all reefers, regardless of container, trucks, trailers, from heavy duty to light duty will look very different in the future.

“The commercial harvesting of more or less free of charge solar energy will play a significant role in these changes and will influence the design and utilisation of all related equipment,” he said. “Sono Motors’ system approach is in my eyes the actual best available option to fulfill the different requests of all stakeholders in cooling logistics and does have the potential to become the global market leader in solar integration. I see huge opportunities for solar integration in general but for Sono Motors in particular. This is because of their high focus on one product only, the technically and commercially very interesting synergy effects with the intended high volume car-production and the unstoppable megatrend of decarbonisation. I look forward to being an active part of this exciting development.”

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