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Range anxiety – a common prejudice

Interview with Jona Christians, Founder and CEO of Sono Motors GmbH

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European Business: With integrated solar panels in the car bonnet, the Sion electric car is intended to solve what is probably the most annoying problem with electromobility at present: long charging cycles and a scarcity of public charging stations. Do you think that will be enough to help electromobility make the breakthrough into the mainstream?

Jona Christians: We certainly think this has the potential to achieve a breakthrough. Before founding Sono Motors we clearly identified the three biggest problems with the current state of electromobility: price, gaps in charging infrastructure and range. These problems have taken root in the popular consciousness and have solidified into prejudice against electromobility in general. There is even a word for it: range anxiety. We tackle these problems head-on with our solar solution: The Sion can still be driven even when there is no charging station immediately available. We are also addressing the concerns of city dwellers: If you don’t have a garage, you can simply leave the vehicle on the street and it charges itself.

Jona Christians
Before founding Sono Motors we clearly identified the three biggest problems with the current state of electromobility: price, gaps in charging infrastructure and range. Jona Christians

European Business: With a target new price of around 20,000 EUR (16,000 EUR for the vehicle, 4,000 EUR for the battery), the Sion is not just an innovative vehicle but a relatively inexpensive one: Why can your start-up offer lower prices than many of the long-established players?

Jona Christians: That is because we have adopted a new manufacturing approach and a one-size-fits-all product policy. The Sion is available in a single version with all-standard equipment. That greatly simplifies our logistics concept and makes us much leaner both in manufacturing and in after-sales service such as repairs. Our intention with the Sion is to set it up so that it meets all customer requirements from the beginning without the need for optional extras.

Our intention with the Sion is to set it up so that it meets all customer requirements from the beginning without the need for optional extras. Jona Christians
Jona Christians

European Business: Sono Motors currently has almost 7,500 preorders for the Sion. Even with outsourced manufacturing capacity, can a new start-up cope with such a high number of advance orders? In the long term, what production rate are you aiming for?

Jona Christians: Our long-term goal is an annual output of 260,000 cars. We were able to start taking orders so quickly and confidently because we have outsourced production. We observed the problems encountered by other companies in the electromobility industry, and how they struggled with initial production difficulties, and made a conscious decision to take a different approach. Instead of building a new factory and starting completely from scratch, we work closely together with our sub-contractor to merge our production with their existing plant. That means we have been able to access comprehensive manufacturing expertise right from the beginning and kick off with a high production rate right from the start.

European Business: Your company is headquartered in Munich, the battery for the Sion is also made in Germany and the vehicle is made and assembled in Europe. By contrast, the end of the road for Germany’s all-powerful auto industry is constantly being prophesied in the press. Has Sono Motors boarded a sinking ship? Or are the market experts wrong?

Jona Christians: I don’t think the ship is sinking – not even for the existing car-makers. I think it is more the case that the ship is being forced to change direction and the industry needs to adapt. But, because of its extremely rapid growth, there is huge potential in the electromobility sector. There is no shortage of demand; it is the supply side that is failing to keep pace. We believe Germany will retain its position as an automotive powerhouse and have made a conscious decision to base the value chain in Europe to guarantee short delivery times and quick decision-making. Germany’s automotive sector is not running aground, it is just entering new waters where things will be quite different.

Jona Christians
Because of its extremely rapid growth, there is huge potential in the electromobility sector. There is no shortage of demand; it is the supply side that is failing to keep pace. Jona Christians

European Business: Talking about change: In our interview with the chairman of Porsche, Oliver Blume, he put forward the theory that the automotive industry will face greater change in the next five years than it experienced in the last 50. Do you agree with him? And where do you think the biggest changes will come from?

Jona Christians: I completely agree with Mr. Blume. We are probably experiencing the greatest upheaval in the history of the automotive industry. It is being driven by two megatrends – electromobility and self-driving vehicles – and the fundamental changes that they bring in their wake will continue to shape and force the pace of change in the next five years. They are the reason why so many new concepts are coming to the fore and why so many new companies are able to find a foothold.

European Business: Do you think that these two trends – electromobility and self-driving technology – go hand in hand?

Jona Christians: There is definitely a large area of overlap, although the technology behind each is not dependent on the other. Electromobility makes autonomous driving easier but is not essential. However, electromobility is already fairly advanced. Electric cars are already driving on the roads – unlike self-driving cars. We think it will be another five years before fully self-driving cars will appear on the roads.

European Business: Sono Motors has not so far been involved in self-driving vehicles. If you say you expect to see fully autonomous vehicles on the roads in the next five years: Doesn’t that mean that your own technology will be obsolete within a few years?

Jona Christians: That is admittedly a good question. But we are deliberately not pursuing that trend at present. There is a simple explanation for this. Self-driving technology is predominantly deployed in the luxury car segment where prices start at 70,000 EUR. From an economics point of view, we expect it to spread to the mass market in the same way as past technological advances: A new feature that is initially developed for the luxury market subsequently undergoes improvements that make it suitable for the mass market. Sono Motors will become involved in self-driving technology when it has been developed to the stage where it is suitable for the mass market – at that point, we will be able to equip the Sion with the technology.

Sono Motors will become involved in self-driving technology when it has been developed to the stage where it is suitable for the mass market – at that point, we will be able to equip the Sion with the technology. Jona Christians
Jona Christians

European Business: Something approaching a philosophical dispute has broken out amongst car manufacturers: On the one side are those who want to reduce cars to mere functional objects, while on the other side, there are those who want to keep it as a lifestyle object for enjoyment and fun. Do your slogans “Driven by the Sun” and “Endless Mobility” lead us to the conclusion that you see the Sion more in terms of its practicality than driving experience?

Jona Christians: The motor car will continue to cede its leading position as the dominant actor in personal mobility and adopt a role as part of an overall mobility concept. At the same time, we don’t want the Sion to be seen purely as a functional object but for it to show a human component, a certain simplicity. We are not trying to build a sporty speeder but a car that will get its driver from A to B and make them feel good doing it. In the segment in which we are active – families, city drivers, commuters – that main challenge is to ensure the clarity of the vehicle and a functional design. When you sit in the Sion, you will always have enough space, there is plenty of light in the cockpit, it is comfortable and pleasant, but not frivolous.

Jona Christians
The motor car will continue to cede its leading position as the dominant actor in personal mobility and adopt a role as part of an overall mobility concept. Jona Christians

For us, the car is just one piece of the puzzle. We are not following the trend to try and produce as many cars as possible so that they clog up the roads. Instead, we want to offer sustainable mobility. In the future, Sono Motors will also stand for mobility services.

Interview: Julian Miller, Photos: Sono Motors

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