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Lightyear One – the car of the future?

Text: Bas Vink Graphics: Alain van de Ven Media: Alesander Aydin & Lightyear

The car is starting from the archetype of a car, and it is creating a new archetype of car.

Brace yourself car and design fanatics. The Dutch Lightyear One is coming with a commercial solar car. This interview with Koen van Ham about Lightyear is done on Friday 27th, two weeks into quarantine. Koen studied ID from 2008 till 2014, he was Interaction Designer of Solar Team Eindhoven and is Co-Founder and Chief-Design of Lightyear since 2016. Since then he has been working on the Lightyear One. 

I interview Koen via Skype. The whole company works from home now if it is not strictly necessary to be at the office on the Automotive Campus in Helmond. We organized a meeting there just before the whole Corona situation broke out, to take some sick shots of the Lightyear One. Here is a good alternative.

The Lightyear One is the first car of the company Lightyear. It is an electric car that is charged by sunlight. You might say that many electric cars nowadays are charged by sunlight. But this car has its own solar panels integrated into the roof and hood. This car is a fundamental change in how we use energy for transportation. The Lightyear One was unveiled last summer in TheaterHangaar in Katwijk aan zee. All cars combined drive about 9.500.000.000.000 km in one year. That is one lightyear.

The Lightyear One is expected to debut in late 2021 with an exclusive series of 946 cars, which will serve as a platform to showcase the maturity of Lightyear’s innovative technology on a commercial scale. The car now costs €150.000 (and is approached as an investment). The goal is to sell and make around 100.000 cars by 2023. When that happens the price could drop enormously. You can even pre-order one right now. Fundraising is still in progress.

Climate change is a common subject in design. A change in energy consumption and transportation is necessary according to Lightyear. Change, for better or for worse. Let’s talk design. This article is written by a Designer and Engineer hyping up about a Dutch car that drives solar. The car is designed by TU/e students who graduated only six years ago! The only thing I can write critically is that this car can be a tipping point in the whole fossil fuel paradigm. Whole industries are slowly shifting and this can have big, but subtle, changes in our day to day life.

Fundamentals

Fundamentally, Lightyear One has a minimalistic (link to minimalism) and futuristic but retro design. Light, aerodynamic and solar. Much thought and effort went into this first car of Lightyear. The automotive styling was done in Turin Italy in collaboration with designer Lowie Vermeersch and his team at Granstudio. The Belgian designer Lowie Vermeersch has worked for famous design agency Pininfarina, responsible for many well known after war sportscar designs. The Human Interface experience is done in The Netherlands.

The car is built around its fundamental requirements:

  1. the car must have a 5m^2 roof of solar panels
  2. the car must be energy efficient
  3. the car must comfortably carry a family on their average year use-case

This is the starting point of a journey from the abstract, to the physical. The rest is designed around this.

Beauty

These requirements start from something absolutely essential and overlooked in current technology. Beauty.

What is beauty in car design? What is ugly? Starting from the essence of the car and its requirements, how can this lead to new shapes that will be perceived as beauty? Questions that are essential in the design of the car. Around that, sketches are formed. Shapes that makes something good, that lead to beauty.

Sketching is often associated with exploring the concept. One thing that is visible in the sketches is exploring what influence a shape has to the feeling of speed. Making the car longer adds a feeling of speed and also an attitude to being more of a race car. An idea is translated into the layout of the design using different aspects which are developed entirely virtually. During the first stage of the work, the creation of a “holistic” 3D model made it possible to view a synthesis between aesthetic aspects and technical and ergonomic content.

Holistic Design

Chief designer Koen van Ham creates a valuable user experience through user centred design. Current technology of cars is mostly a means to an end, which means it serves the purpose of transportation. The targets that Lightyear exposed for the car are rather extreme in terms of aerodynamic performance and weight. To tackle those, holistic design is necessary. This means the human must be the centre for the car, the rest is just in perfect distance around it. Every aspect of the car is measured such as the distance from your hips in the chair to the ground. So it is easy to get out of the car and the distance from your hips in the chair to the interface of the car. The design is made in such a way that the user experience fits the user. “Good proportions are the result of years of training, talent and a decent process.”, according to Koen. 

80% of the design is in the proportions 

20% of the design is in the details

Features

H Point

The first feature is not really a stand alone feature but a fundamental part in the proportions of the car, the H point. The H point is something we overlook because we tend to focus on material features which are more visible. But this is essential to the experience you get and the starting point for designing a car: from stepping into the car, to at what angle you press the ‘gas’, to how far you have to reach for the display to navigate and turn on some music, to looking back at your peaceful passengers in the back. Every millimeter from your hips is designed to give you this specific experience. 

Looking at it in black and white: a sports car is more flat, has an H point low to the ground and has less suspension to give you this race experience. An SUV much is more horizontal with a higher H point. It also is a bigger car over all and has bigger suspension to handle rough terrain. It is the job of the designer to know what target group to design for so you have to know your audience really well.

Roof

The roof is one example of holistic design and blending aesthetics and requirements. Obviously, one of the fundamental requirements is making the roof out of 5 square meters of solar cells. Making the car longer, to fit all those solar cells, made it more aerodynamic. This is an upward spiral. But this also creates the aesthetic feeling of speed and movement.

Lights

This brings us to the next feature: lights. Lights are the eyes to the soul of the car, or the jewels to the outfit. They give a car a specific character. The backlight line blends with the roof of the car. This line creates an extra feeling of speed which is another blend of aesthetics and requirements.

Mirrors

The mirrors are not really  mirrors, they are mirror looking cameras. It has screens built into the interior of the door, to see what the cameras register. If it wouldn’t have been because of laws there would have been no ‘mirrors’ and just built in cameras.

Interior

In the interior the minimalistic style is clear. Everything has straight lines and is made with the proportions of the driver in mind to make it look beautiful. Making it as light as possible made the interior look minimalistic which is an aesthetic that came with the requirement. Commonly, things are added to the design to make cars look better like fake plastic exhaust pipes or big grills to make it look bigger, better and luxurious. This interious is the opposite but still gives a feeling of freedom due to the absence of additions. There is less distractions and things to bump into. By leaving those additions out means less weight. This means more distance traveled and thus more freedom.

Wheels

The car has narrow and relatively small closed wheels with wheel covers over the rear wheels. If you look at the covers over the wheels, you can state that they are there for aerodynamics. they have this black ring around them to follow the shape of the read wheels. Would there have been no black ring around, the whole body of the car would have looked more heavy because of it being one solid material. This is an aesthetic choice.  

The wheels are relatively small and narrow to reduce weight. But most importantly this reduces rolling resistance.

For some more feelings on the exterior of the design, watch:

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is the driver behind this car. The car already has a mentioned WLTP range of 725 km. The car drives solar, is light and uses little energy needed per kilometer. This has a second upside of having less friction in air and rolling, which means less capacity of batteries needed, which makes it even lighter!

The solar panel makes it possible to daily add 50–65 km (the equivalent of an average daily Dutch commute) of range per day (during summer) purely on solar power!

Last words

This car is a very interesting development in the world. Minimalism, energy efficiency and holistic design are topics that will flow though in all kinds of different ways in the world. 

This article about Koen his work as Chief Design is a small step in the development of the Lightyear One.

This car can be one giant leap for humanity, as far as one Lightyear.