Interview: Jona Christians

“We don't want to wait any longer“

Munich has been shaping the automotive landscape for decades thanks to BMW and, more recently, the start-up Sono Motors looking to revolutionise the industry.

Sono Motors was founded in 2013 by Laurin Hahn, Jona Christians and Navina Pernsteiner. Their product, the Sion – an electric car coated with solar cells – is expected to be launched this year. We asked Jona Christians what tomorrow’s mobility will look like.

Sono Motors has grown up fast: In 2013 you welded solar panels on the roof of an old Twingo in your parents' garage. Today, 80 employees are channelling their efforts into making the Sion reality. How did you feel about suddenly having to make 7-figure investment decisions?

It's not like there's a threshold that you cross and then say "Now, all of a sudden everything is going to be different”. You take one step at a time and often only recognise such momentous moments in retrospect. One such moment, for example, was when we drove down the driveway in the prototype for the first time and realized: Yes, it works!
Then came the founding of Sono Motors with Laurin and Navina and our first crowdfunding campaign. Before that, we hadn’t told anyone about our project, so when it came to the campaign launch, we laid the foundation for the Sono Motors Community. The next milestone was putting the team together: In the last year and a half, we have grown from fifteen people to eighty.

Are there any constants throughout this transformation process?

Us, of course, as the founding team. But more importantly, the basic premise behind the company has remained the same: We do not see the Sion – the vehicle itself – as the absolute solution to all problems. Munich offers the best example here: There are roughly 1.5 million people living here and there are 700,000 cars. That's crazy! Traffic becomes unbearable, parking becomes a rare commodity. We have to start using our resources more responsibly, and we urgently need to produce fewer vehicles while also using cars more efficiently.

So the plan is not to replace these 700,000 cars with 700,000 Sions?

No. From the very outset, the plan wasn't simply to make the vehicles themselves more sustainable, but to rethink the concept mobility in its entirety. In a city like Munich, space is unbelievably valuable, yet cars in the city remain unused 95 percent of the time. The Sion is therefore equipped with the necessary technology ex works to share it via an app with other people. While you're at work and don’t need the car, for example. We want to allow the owners of a Sion to give sharing a try. At some point, they may ask the question: Why do I still need a car of my own then?
For many, this may sound unrealistic, but twenty years ago nobody thought that Airbnb would be a success. Today it is the world's largest hotel group, without actually owning its own hotel. In Germany, while the car is still hugely important to many, we find that more and more people are less concerned about whether the car in which they are travelling actually belongs to them.

Most young people wanting to build an electric car would probably first study electrical engineering or something akin to that. You simply dived straight in. How did that happen?

Laurin and I also studied for a few semesters, but only ever on the side and always with a focus on accruing the right knowledge for Sono Motors. That's why we only visited the relevant lectures for us: for me that meant experimental physics and computer science.
The reason why we started straight away with our own project is simple: We didn’t want to wait anymore. It was often said: In ten years time, the solution for a sustainable society will have arrived and then, just like before, nothing will happen. If you look at surveys from the 1950s, people at that time assumed that we would already be much more advanced today. But the reality is that we're not. Any why? Because the old argument raises its head again and again that things need preserving. Right now, it’s coal. I understand the reflex, but there has to be a moment when someone says: We just have to tackle it now – and give up something else in the process.

“From the very outset, the plan wasn't simply to make the vehicles themselves more sustainable, but to rethink the concept mobility in its entirety.“
Jona Christians

What would you have done if you hadn’t come up with the idea for Sion? Finished your studies?

The fact that we’d set about building an electric car was not that important to us in the beginning. At the outset, we simply said that we needed to change something. The transport sector is responsible for the emission of roughly 160 million tonnes of CO2 every year. The way in which we travel can have a major impact. If I hadn’t devoted myself to mobility, my focus would have probably turned to the meat industry or education. These are the other two levers with which you can really achieve something if we truly want to make our society more sustainable in the long-term.

When did you experience the biggest learning curve over the last few years?

At first, you're still your own master and can immediately put your ideas into action. Now that we’re a little further forward, I think of Sono Motors as more of a marathon, so that any decisions I make today will have to see us through to the end of the race. In the meantime I don’t deal so much with technology side any more, but far more with people. With eighty employees on board, we have to make sure that people aren’t simply chasing their tales. The setup is just as important. That all sounds very theoretical, but in the end it simply boils down to this: You have to work both within and with the team.

Now let's talk about the actual product, the Sion: What sets it apart from other electric cars?

In terms of every detail, we asked ourselves the question: How can we make the most efficient use of all available resources? The fact is: Vehicles need space, but how else can we use this valuable space? The answer is the solar panels, which are integrated throughout the vehicle body. In a city like Munich, you can generate an additional 34 km of range per day simply by harnessing the power of the sun.
While it won’t get you to the world’s end, it is enough to cover typical daily distances, which average 17 km in Germany. We also use sustainable components: for example, we incorporate specially prepared Iceland moss in our air filter.

“We also use sustainable components: for example, we incorporate specially prepared Iceland moss in our air filter.“
Jona Christians

When it comes to electric cars, one frequent criticism is that the battery production is not exactly environmentally friendly.

That's right, the battery is one massive CO2 backpack. The Sion is equipped with a 35 kWh battery, which has a real range of 250 km. About five tons of CO2 are produced during production. In comparison to fossil-fuelled mobility, this initial emission is re-couped after just 50,000 km. We are also working hard to reduce CO2 emissions that occur throughout the supply chain and during production, while also making every effort to compensate for all other emissions by investing in climate protection projects.
What also sets the Sion apart from other electric cars is its price. It costs EUR 16,000 – excluding the battery – which itself either costs another EUR 9,500 or can be leased. This is an extremely aggressive price within the electric vehicle segment, which we have been able to keep so low because, among other reasons, we only offer one type of vehicle. This saves an enormous amount of cost. By doing so, we hope to make electro-mobility suitable for everyday use across the broader population, which will finally help it to achieve the breakthrough it needs.

In order to build the Sion, you are dependent on suppliers: the drive motor is built by Continental, for example. How were your ground-breaking ideas received there? Let's face it, you are throwing down the gauntlet to the mighty automotive industry.

Of course, as a young company, we have other hurdles to overcome than established OEMs. We are yet to have a vehicle on the market and we still have to prove it first. At the moment, however, the entire automotive industry is in a state of flux, meaning that many suppliers are also realigning their own focus and welcoming new players. In our case, our sustainable overall concept is often key in the end.

We have already found ourselves in a situation where someone test-drove the Sion given their own private interest and ended up being so convinced that they decided to get their own business involved in working with us. This is how, by way of example, one of our most important partnerships came to be. At other suppliers too, we have also met enthusiastic people who want to work on our project.

The Development Chief of Sono Motors is Roberto Diesel who was previously at General Motors and Opel.

(laughs) Probably the cleanest diesel there is.

Was it a conscious decision to stay in Munich with Sono Motors?

Yes, definitely. Munich is an excellent industrial location. Transport connections are great, you're situated in the middle of Europe, and there is plenty of automotive expertise in the city. Munich is also a great place to live, which helps a lot when recruiting new employees.

How will the city change when the Sion hits the market?

It will be quieter and there will be a lot more space. A car-sharing vehicle like the Sion is able to replace so many cars that endless rows of parked cars will become a thing of the past. As a holistic mobility service provider, we are also working hard to make sure that the vehicles are more integrated into the existing infrastructure and are actually used wherever it makes sense.
The Sion can be used as a kind of buffer storage, because it not only draws electricity but can also re-supply it. Energy peaks, which are mainly caused by the increased use of renewable energy sources, can thus be absorbed. From upwards of 90 Sions, we would see a savings potential of a whole power plant.

Can anything go wrong now?

There's always the potential for surprises that could throw us off course. We are constantly learning, but we communicate our difficulties openly, thus preserving the necessary level of trust that our investors and customers place in us. I firmly believe: As long as we stay Sono, we can overcome every challenge.

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard, Photos: Frank Stolle

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