Lex and Lightyear – BWSC’s Bright Future
24 Jun 2019
In 2012, a group of students in The Netherlands approached the Board of their University, proposing a new team to participate in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. They would join Solar Team Twente and Vattenfall Solar Team (formerly Nuon) as the contingent of teams from The Netherlands.
They were immediately faced with some doubt, and advised that they might struggle to compete with the two established Dutch teams, Nuon having won the Challenge six times at that point. The Board had a point, the students admitted. They were a first-time team, with no members who had experienced the Challenge themselves. They needed a new plan.
Immediately they knew that they would compete in the Cruiser class. They wanted to build a car for the future. So, a group of students formed a team and set out to build a solar car that would compete in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in around a year’s time. The team was Solar Team Eindhoven, and one of its members was Lex Hoefsloot.
Today, Lex Hoefsloot is the CEO and Co-founder of Lightyear; a company founded by five of those original Solar Team Eindhoven team members, who will soon make commercially available a road legal, solar powered car; Lightyear One.
Back in 2012 though, Lex and his colleagues were facing an uphill battle. They needed to build a car that could seat four people and drive 3000km, and they needed a brand new team.
“We were lucky if I’m very honest. Of the 22 people we asked, 21 said yes”, said Hoefsloot.
“Our biggest advantage, although at the same time our disadvantage, was that we didn’t have a team before us.”
Many teams in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge join a legacy of students at their university or school that have carried the tradition of the BWSC for years. They inherit experience and advice from their predecessors, and often many of the tools they need to build – or upgrade – a solar car.
Solar Team Eindhoven received no such inheritance.
“You have to think everything through – we overthought everything. It wasn’t really fun a lot of the time… But it brought us together, and we were able to be well prepared for Australia.”
“I always saw [starting a new team] as an advantage, but your quality level can suffer from being a first-time team. So, you have to win from something else other than that; having a revolutionary concept”.
Lex and his Solar Team Eindhoven teammates in Darwin for the 2013 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
In preparing for the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, Solar Team Eindhoven sought advice from the other Dutch teams, who willingly provided them the support they needed. Once they arrived in Darwin, the team – most of whom had never visited Australia – first faced some challenges no amount of engineering can prepare you for.
“Darwin is really, really hot. We could barely sleep. It was like we were in a movie. Preparing for the race is so unreal. Once you arrive you recognise everything from the footage other teams have made…. We had talked for a year about it, and then suddenly we were right there”.
Throughout the testing period, and the Challenge itself, Solar Team Eindhoven quickly learnt that the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge isn’t just about building a solar car.
Teamwork is just as vital a feature of the Challenge as the solar panels on the car. Only with cooperation and teamwork can a team overcome the challenges they face along the way, which in most cases, are many.
“Leading up to the competition, in the month before, you’re only dealing with things that go wrong; what happens if there’s a fire? What happens if you lose communications? This all prepared [Lightyear] for a lot of things that can go wrong”
“There were some very big lessons from being in Australia. There was no leader in our team that would instruct people. It was always organic; everyone knew what they needed to do. It made me realise that leaders are not the people they think they have to be. Leaders are the people that prepare everyone well, they’re not shouting and instructing.”
Despite every challenge they faced, Solar Team Eindhoven ended up winning the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in the Cruiser Class that year with their car Stella, and the next two Challenges after that as well (Stella Lux in 2015, Stella Vie in 2017). It was in 2015 that they set a Bridgestone World Solar Challenge record; 1,500 kilometres travelled on a single battery charge, in a car with at least 2 occupants.
Lex features in Solar Team Eindhoven's 2015 documentary documenting their 2013 BWSC journey.
It was indeed these challenges that provided the foundation for a team that would eventually become Lightyear. In 2016, Lex Hoefsloot along with Arjo van der Ham, Martijn Lammers, Qurein Biewenga and Koen van Ham started working at the kitchen table in Lex and Koen’s apartment.
They moved quickly, both physically and in their progress. They moved to an office in Eindhoven and started work on gathering ambassadors and funds to accelerate their ambitions, approaching Lightyear in a very similar way to their BWSC team.
“We looked at it in a very rational and objective way; how many solar kilometres per year can we get out of the car? There was a customer now, so we needed to push efficiency.”
Lightyear continues to grow in all ways, one being their list of BWSC alumni on their staff.
“A lot of people within our company have participated [in the BWSC]. They have the mindset that we need to get every gram out of the car to make it light and push the aerodynamics, and the ability to look it at in a very rational and objective way; for example, if we switch this component for that component, how many solar kilometres can we get per year?”
“We have 15 different cultures [in our staff] and hope to welcome people from the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge this year.”
Lightyear will soon be unveiling the Lightyear One – the first commercially available solar car. They unveiled their plans to the public in 2017, with just a few brief details of what could be expected. Reservations for the vehicle were immediately made. A further glimpse of the design of the vehicle was shown in September of 2018, and only two months later, the company celebrated the milestone of selling 50 Lightyear One vehicles.
Now, the finished product is set to be unveiled in full.
“On one side, I’m really excited, but I’m anxious as well. People will be much harsher on what you’re doing when you’re a company, rather than a student team.”
Although the unveiling of the Lightyear One comes with much more international attention than that of their previous solar car for Solar Team Eindhoven, they still share a lot of similarities.
“The car we’re building now is the same concept, the same architecture as the car we built in 2012”.
The Lightyear One is a car fully fitted with a solar roof and battery system, enabling a 600-800 kilometre range of travel without charge, depending on the speed and terrain travelled. It is capable of charging two to three times faster than existing electric vehicles, as well as topping up its own battery by self-charging using rooftop solar array. To charge it at home, you’ll simply plug it into a standard socket for 8 hours.
For many this advancement in science may be hard to fathom, but for the upcoming participants in the 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, it’s a reality within reach. From the vast Australian outback to the Netherlands, Lex Hoefsloot and Lightyear One have in just a few years demonstrated the awesome power and future potential of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. They’ve shown us that the work done by teams in the BWSC exists within a very large and very important story about the World around us, the resources we consume, and our future.
If there’s anything to be learnt from Lex, it’s that their road – both Solar Team Eindhoven’s road to the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, and Lightyear’s – hasn’t been smooth sailing.
“I hope everyone realises that you can really start with scratch from nothing. Although it will take a long time, if you work hard, make the right decisions and involve the right people, you can get there”.
Lex Hoefsloot will be attending the 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.