It’s a little-known fact that Munich’s BMW Museum looks like the company’s iconic logo from the sky above, but in 2016, Tesla took a swing at another instantly recognizable BMW icon, the 3-series, comparing its own all-electric Model 3 sedan to what seemed a symbol of automotive glory of yesteryear. BMW replied with a powerful ad campaign, but by the start of this year, Tesla appeared to regain its footing when it was ranked as the more valuable automaker.
It looked like the future of cars was quickly solidifying, but just 10 minutes away from BMW’s Munich museum, a more radical challenge is emerging. Two excited entrepreneurs in their 20s. Laurin Hahn, 25, and Jona Christians, 26, believe the car of the future is solar-powered, shareable, and supplies energy to the home.
“Where we want to go is that every car on the street you see is shared and is electric,” Hahn, who serves as CEO of Sono Motors, alongside Christians, tells Inverse. “And that means that you have to radically think of a new way of ownership, of driving, of the space in the city.”
It’s a project that came to life just seven years ago, when two high school students started chatting about the future. Sono Motors, a startup founded in 2016 with $13 million in funding, is set to start producing its first vehicle in the second half of 2020.
Hahn and Christians have been best friends since they were around seven years old in the second grade, chatting on the phone practically every day. As they grew older, these calls started to turn to more serious issues, like hurdles in society and how to overcome them. It was here, during these after-school chats between friends, that Sono started to take shape.
“Where we want to go is that every car on the street you see is shared and is electric.”
“It all went back to that one phone call we had in 2012,” Hahn says. “We basically said, OK, there are two major issues we have to face. We have to get rid of fossil fuels, and we have to deal with too many cars on the road.”
It’s not exactly the football banter or planning a big night out you might expect from 18-year-olds, but the pair were very much serious about their idea. As they finished up high school, they started looking into suppliers. Before they’d completed their studies, they’d already finished sourcing components.
Two weeks after graduation, Hahn and Christians decided to go all-in. Instead of immediately going public with their plan, they wanted to make sure it all made sense. For three years they kept quiet, working away on the engineering. Surprisingly, their grand plan didn’t draw much attention during this stealth phase.
“Our parents knew about what we were doing,” Christians says. “But, come on, 19-year-old guys working on cars! A lot of people do that! So actually, you can say from the outside it didn’t look much…er…”
“Suspicious,” Hahn says.
“Right, it just looked like we were tuning our cars and putting subwoofers in, but it was quite the opposite. We were focused on much newer mobility concepts.”
Jona Christians (left) and Laurin Hahn (right) the young founders of Sono Motors.
Sono takes flight
In December 2015, the pair declared their work complete. Sitting in Hahn’s garage was a pre-prototype car that could drive a few meters. The pair had started to make headway on solving one of the world’s biggest problems. Sono Motors was established in January 2016.
The two friends settled into a dual CEO arrangement. Hahn, the more creative of the two, took on responsibility for marketing activities. Christians settled into a more technical-focused role, focusing on IT.
But even as the team started to come together, they faced skepticism from the industry. That giant logo, emblazoned on satellite images of Munich, imprinted itself on comments from insiders.
“They were quite like, ‘OK guys, do you really know what you’re doing there? Because there’s BMW in Munich, look at them,’” Hahn says. “But it never stopped us. That was never the thing.”
This criticism, they argue, missed the point of what the pair were trying to do. Hundreds of millions of cars are being produced around the world, and it’s simply not viable for a small company like Sono to single-handedly take over the entire industry. Instead, the pair hope their ideas will spark a change, shape a new movement.
“It’s not our goal to destroy the auto industry, it’s our goal to change it,” Hahn says.
Curiously, despite BMW’s presence in the city, to this day Sono has had no contact with the giant automaker. But by September 2016, Sono Motors had left its own mark on the Munich auto industry. Pernsteiner’s successful campaign raised over €820,000 ($895,000) and helped generate hype around the nascent company. Four months later, in collaboration with industry partners, Sono took the wraps off two fully-functional prototypes of their first car.
Sono turns to the Sion
The €25,000 ($27,873) Sion doesn’t exactly dazzle with its specs. It’s a basic five-seater, five-door car that travels 158 miles per charge. It can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than nine seconds, has a top speed of 87 mph, and sports a 10-inch touchscreen. Tesla’s Model 3, by comparison, costs as little as $35,000, reaches 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, has a top speed of 130 mph, travels 220 miles per charge, and has a giant 15-inch in-car touchscreen. Tesla also claims the Model 3 will be able to execute autonomous driving.
But scratch beneath the surface of the Sion, and there’s a number of industry-shaking ideas that have been so far shunned by Tesla. An array of solar panels add around 21 miles of charge per day. A bi-directional charging system can act as a giant battery to power a camping trip, charge another car, or even hook into a house to act as a giant renewable energy battery.
Sono even packed the dashboard with moss (as in, the green stuff that grows in the shade). The innovation is one of the most visible flashes of Hahn’s creative approach, and it uses electrostatic gravitation to filter up to 20 percent of particulate matter.
“It was his idea,” Christians says, referring to Hahn. “He saw it in architecture applications already, and then he already tested it out in his room, and it works! It really refreshes the room.”
“But I have to tell you, a lot of people had huge doubt about it,” Hahn says. “They said, ‘come on, this will never make it to series’ and all that.”
As they had done many times before, the pair proved the naysayers wrong. They ran months-long tests to demonstrate that moss could withstand vibrations, extreme temperatures, and all manner of conditions.
The Sion has an attractive list of specs likely to entice many curious buyers, but Sono is targeting an even broader audience. It’s designed for a future where consumers don’t even own a car, with an app enabling others to use the car itself or its electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis.
“In five to ten years from now, Sono Motors is going to be much more a mobility and energy service provider than a car manufacturer,” Hahn says. “Hopefully all cars on our streets will by then be electric and shared.”
How to build a solar-powered car
Adding solar panels to a car seems a logical choice. After all, if the car needs power, why not attach some sun-gathering cells to create zero-emissions energy?
Tesla CEO Elon Musk dismissed the idea back in July 2017 for a number of reasons. First off, the car is indoors for a lot of the day. The actual surface area of a car is also relatively small. If you were going to place panels anywhere, Musk explained, it’s better to put them on a house — somewhere Musk has a vested interest in pushing consumers, as Tesla’s energy business offers the Solar Roof and retrofit panels so consumers can complete the zero-emissions circle.
Sono is taking a different approach. The Sion is packed with 248 photovoltaic solar cells, offering a yield rate of over 20 percent, which collects up to 1.2 kilowatts at peak performance. This translates into 21 extra miles of charge per day. Although that sounds quite low, Sono notes the average Munich resident commutes just 10 miles each day, meaning the panels could easily cover the journey.
Part of Sono’s breakthrough is in how the panels attach to the car. Instead of covering them in glass — a safety nightmare — they use a lightweight polymer solution that follows automotive standards for impact resistance. The curved panels surround the car, connected using a series of electronics, designed from scratch. This is important as the lower sun in winter means less light may hit the roof, an effect that grows more apparent as you move further north.
But what about the garage?
“We get this remark many, many times,” Mathieu Baudrit, head of research and development for solar integration, tells Inverse. “This is the right answer for the American model and way of life, but if you look at Europe, there are less and less people with a garage to park a car, because ground is getting so expensive…I would just point out that it’s very different from one country to another.”
He’s not wrong. The United States’ Department of Energy claimed in 2017 that 63 percent of all housing units have a garage or carport. However, England’s National Travel Survey found just 11 percent of vehicles were parked in a garage overnight, with figures varying depending on whether the car was in an urban or rural area.
An extra few miles of driving per day is nice, but Sono’s plan for the future of transport starts to take flight in terms of how consumers can use that energy.
The big battery on wheels takes off
Batteries are vital for renewable energy, as you need to switch the lights on when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing. An oft-touted solution for home-generated energy is a big battery, like the Tesla Powerwall that can pair with a Solar Roof to store the energy overnight.
With the Sion’s vehicle-to-grid technology, the car can become both a battery and generation solution for the house. Its 35-kilowatt-hour battery can store energy fed through the house as it comes from local generation, say solar cells on the house’s roof. But thanks to the car’s solar panels, it can also act as an extra set of panels to give the house a little more solar energy. Why settle for panels on either the car or house, when you can have both? Because of a built-in standard home plug, users could also charge their other devices using the car’s energy.
“If we have all these cars on the street, and every car has, like our car, 35 kilowatt-hours or more capacity in the batteries, and they are just standing around, that is a complete waste!” Christians says. “And we will never get to a fully sustainable world and society if we don’t get that, if we don’t think holistic.”
Building a new sharing model
Car sharing is about to become big business. An October 2018 report from ING found that Europe’s shared car fleet will rise from 375,000 at the moment to a staggering 7.5 million by 2035, triggering a “peak car” moment where sales and total numbers on the road start to decline. A RethinkX report in May 2017 claimed that this new model would mean each car would be in use around 10 times more than traditional cars, meaning smarter use of resources.
Sono Motors is designing the Sion with this new model in mind. The goSono app enables drivers to borrow a car for a while and map out point-to-point journeys. Drivers can also offer spare seats to other riders. Instead of just offering the owner’s car through a sharing app, users can also buy and sell electricity stored in the battery.
“What we trying to do is mobility as a service, coming from A to B with sharing vehicles,” Hahn says. “But to do that, you need access to those vehicles. And if you just retrofit those vehicles, you never have the data and you never have that perfect software you need to achieve.”
What about autonomous driving? “Only if it’s level five,” Hahn says, referring to the highest possible level of hands-free self driving cars, adding that Sono is “not playing the game” with in-between steps that offer semi-autonomous drives.
Preparing for the challenge
The Sion has more than 10,000 pre-orders so far. Production is set to start in the second half of 2020, using a plant-based in Trollhättan, Sweden that used to host now-defunct automaker Saab. The plant will use all renewable energy, and all emissions are offset along the supply chain.
Now that their car is set to roll off the production line, family and friends have taken notice.
“At the beginning, [our parents] didn’t believe in it, to be honest,” Hahn says. “They thought like, go study and do the real stuff. But since it came public and got bigger, they’re now very into it and behind us.”
“We have these seeders campaigns where people can buy shares,” Christians says. “One group of friends, they buy these shares regularly and say that one day they will take over Sono Motors!”
Before the 100-percent-renewables plant flicks the “on” switch, the Sion may be out of date. Netherlands-based Lightyear has unveiled the One, a car with five square meters of solar panels that adds a staggering 7.5 miles per hour to the battery. It has a provisional purchase price of €149,000 ($165,133). The battery can hold enough energy to travel 450 miles, and its creators claim that with the panels it could drive just under 500 miles on one charge. Deliveries are set to start in early 2021.
But far from wanting to crush the competition with their superior vehicle, the pair are more excited about potentially pushing society in a more beneficial direction. This is perhaps surprising — a solar car with higher specs (albeit a higher price) is entering the market, but the pair are happy. It’s emblematic of what drives them, the much broader goal to push e-mobility further into the market.
“If we have an effect on other people that they think, ‘hey, I could start that project too,’ then we reached 100 percent what we want,” Christians says. “We want the whole society to move on, not only one company.”
It’s possible that Sono Motors stays in the shadows of BMW’s logo, remaining a small player in the world of industry juggernauts. But for those two boys who sat on the phone chatting about the problems of the world, sparking a global shift is probably more than they could have dreamed of.