Today I test drove the Sono Sion, a solar charged EV that comes in “any colour so long as it is black”. Henry Ford implemented this single colour policy for his Model T in 1914, in order to streamline the production process, reduce costs and simply because of the durability of the paint. The similarities between the at the time startup Ford Motor Company and modern time start up Sono Motors go however far beyond beyond colour options.
Henry Ford, an engineer by trade, believed in a strong product market fit. This meant the model T was conceived to be a single, non-configurable product that would satisfy the vast majority of the market. This did not mean the T-Ford was only available in one model, in its production run of almost 20 years (1908-1927) numerous body styles were made that included sedans, coupes, roadsters, pick-ups and delivery vans adding up to a grand production total of 16,5 million model T's. All models were being built with the same technical components on the same platform strategy, allowing for one model for each specific market. Each model however, came in one configuration only.
The Sono Sion comes only in black, not because the owner of the company decided so but because the majority of the online community of Sono Motor followers decided so. When given the choice between black and white for the first production run, the majority of voters elected black. The online community was also asked to choose between two proposals for the front headlight design. This clearly illustrates Sono Motors' strategy to pay very close attention to the best product market fit by actively involving the market in the decision making.
Another example of how Sono Motors is engaging with the market at an early stage is of course the fact that prospects are already invited to test drive one of the two (!) prototypes. Something that is unheard of in the car industry where new cars are developed in secret and car manufacturers camouflage their test vehicles and do everything to hide their precious prototypes from prying eyes.
So how did the actual test drive go? Upon entering the car the first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful transparent polycarbonate roof with solar cells laminated onto the top surface. The sunlight scatters between the cells creating a sparkling mosaic of light and dark. According to Sonos Motors it is unfortunately not sure this feature can be turned over to the final production version because of safety reasons, precisely because of the way the light is being scattered in the car's interior which can be distracting. I guess a tinted roof might be a good way to reduce this effect, because seeing the solar cells on the roof is a very nice design feature and a distinct reminder that you are driving something special. Another reminder is of course the moss in the dashboard that acts like a natural air filter to improve the interior air quality. Other than this I found the car drives like any other electric vehicle on the market today which, keeping in mind that this is still a prototype and development started only 2 years ago, is a big compliment.
It is very clear that the Sion has been made with practicality and affordabilty in mind. That is why it has a (to modern EV standards limited) range of 250 km on a single charge, which should be more than enough to satisfy every day's practical needs. It is compatible with a wide range of charging solutions (household socket, charging station, fast charging) thanks to a wide range of charging connectors and even has a power output (bi-directional charging), which means it can be used as a mobile energy station to charge other electric cars or even a household. The solar panels that are integrated into the bodywork passively charge the car when it is not plugged into an external energy source, while driving for instance. All though solar charging does extend the range, it should be considered as an extra add on and the Sion is primarily conceived to be an affordable, practical electric plug-in vehicle and not a solar car. Even more so, it should foremost be considered a practical family car that seats five persons and has a spacious luggage compartment.
Therefore there is also no budget spilled on making it self driving, instead it comes with built in car sharing (and billing) technology that allows it to be accessed remotely to be driven by other people if the owner is not using it. Payment and reservation are made via the Sono app, which also enables people to hitch a ride as it goes about. Power sharing, car sharing and ride sharing are all part of the Sion's mobility concept that aims to maximize its capacity by making it available to other users. This makes it not only very efficient but also a truly social car.
What I like most about the Sion however is that it's not endlessly configurable, but rather purpose built. In a time where “personalization” of mass products leads to extensive development and marketing costs and thus a higher consumer price, it's a relief to see a mass product that is not trying to please single individuals in the market but rather the market itself. Because after all, what the market wants is a good product at an affordable price. As Henry Ford put it in his memorial My life and work:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Just like the model T was conceived to convert the automobile from an expensive curiosity into an affordable means of personal mass transportation, the Sion aims to make electric mobility more affordable to the general public using the same single product strategy. Today electric cars still have a considerable higher price tag than their fossil fueled competition, but the Sion might just be the car to mass electric mobilize the general public. With a suggested retail price of € 16.000,- excluding tax and a monthly subscription for the battery rent (prices to be announced) or single purchase of the battery pack (€ 4.000,-) Sonos Motors has already received 7329 pre-orders. Not bad for a car with an option list that is limited to a tow bar. I do wish however the mosaic roof (in modern marketing terms) will become available as a second option!