Recent posts at CNEVPost.com and Interesting Engineering tell us the story of a team which took the concept of a relatively crude Mini EV and turned it into a vehicle that (at least in some ways) surpasses the technological capabilities of full-sized electric cars.
The Chinese Mini EV Market
It’s impossible to understand what this solar autonomous vehicle is and what it represents without taking a wider look at the Chinese Mini EV market.
This market has been growing exponentially in recent years. In 2012, only 12,000 Mini EVs were sold in China. By 2017, that number had increased to 1.3 million. And this growth is expected to continue, with sales projected to reach 3 million by 2025.
What’s driving this growth? A big part of it is simply that these vehicles are much cheaper than full-sized EVs. In China, the average price of a Mini EV is around $5,000, while a full-sized EV will cost you at least $10,000 (and that’s for a very cheap one that can’t compete with a Tesla). This makes them much more accessible to the average Chinese consumer.
But there are other factors at play as well. For one, these vehicles are much more efficient than their larger counterparts. While a full-sized EV might have a range of 200 miles on a single charge, a Mini EV can often go for twice that distance on the same battery pack, or go a more modest 100-200 miles on a much smaller pack. This is thanks to their smaller size and weight, as well as the low speeds they tend to travel (which is more than enough for China’s dense urban areas).
Finally, Mini EVs are also much simpler in design than full-sized EVs. This makes them easier and cheaper to manufacture, as well as easier to repair.
You can get these advantages from micromobility, but there’s a big downside to things like electric bikes and electric motorcycles: they’re open to the elements. This doesn’t stop people in many countries from still using them in many cases, because they’re so useful (and raincoats are a thing). I’ve seen this for myself in Taiwan. However, most people in the United States would not want to ride a motorcycle or drive a bike through heavy rain. Even the most dedicated of cyclists would probably rather take public transportation on days with rain or snow.
In a previous article, we explored how mature and varied the Mini EV market is in China. There are hundreds of producers selling millions of little vehicles every year, and they acquire components from thousands of suppliers. Manufacturers and suppliers change frequently, making supply chain management a difficult task, but because design freedom allows manufacturers to make rapid modifications to their operations as needed, dealing with these frequent changes is less difficult in the electric vehicle world than it is in other industries.
The Chinese government is also playing a role in the growth of the Mini EV market. In 2017, it was imposed a 20% quota for “new energy vehicles” (which includes EVs) on carmakers which sell more than 30,000 vehicles per year. This has spurred many companies to begin investing in EVs, including Mini EVs.
Taking This Technology To The Next Level
Details are sparse, but we do know that the vehicle is equipped with a high-density lithium-ion battery pack that can push the vehicle up to about 49 MPH, which is a little faster than most Chinese Mini EVs. It’s also a bit on the large side by Mini EV standards, weighing in a 2,250 pounds with a 13-foot length. So, in some ways, it’s kind of between the world of Mini EVs and traditional cars.
A collaboration of 42 businesses and three institutions built the vehicle in five months. While the features seem pretty basic on the surface, the car includes 47 cutting-edge technologies that are only found in top-tier automobiles today. The team is led by China’s Southwest Jiaotong University, which has worked on other futuristic transportation projects in the past, including a maglev train that can reach speeds of over 600 MPH.
The vehicle is still in the prototype stage, but the team plans to mass produce them eventually. It already has some form of autonomy. When the car is driven on empty roads, it’s difficult to assess how well the system performs in this video. Level 4 automation is tough to achieve, and Chinese regulators tend to require that motor vehicles stay in a geofenced area like Cruise or Waymo instead of going everywhere like Tesla’s FSD Beta.
The Chinese team isn’t the only one working on solar vehicles. US company Sono Motors is also working on a solar EV, although its car is much larger than the Chinese one. Sono’s car, the Sion, is a hatchback that seats five and has a range of about 155 miles. It can also charge itself with solar panels, but will still require many drivers to plug it in at least some of the time. Aptera is also working on a solar EV that we’ve covered quite a bit here at CleanTechnica.
The Chinese team’s vehicle is still in the early stages, but it’s an interesting proof-of-concept that shows what’s possible with current technology. It’ll be interesting to see how this project develops in the future.
The Potential Of Solar-Powered Mini EVs In The Developing World
While the idea of a solar-powered car is still in its infancy, the potential for solar-powered Mini EVs to make a difference in the developing world is huge. In many parts of the world, electrical infrastructure is either nonexistent or unreliable. This makes it difficult to charge EVs, which limits their usefulness. However, solar-powered Mini EVs could be a game-changer.
If these vehicles can be mass produced at a low cost, they could provide reliable transportation to those who need it the most. They would also help to reduce pollution and carbon emissions in areas where air quality is a major concern.
It’s still early days for solar-powered Mini EVs, but the potential is there for them to make a real difference in the world. Only time will tell if they can live up to their promise.
Featured image: Screenshot from a video at CNEVPost.com
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