There will be blood. Let’s face it, some electric carmakers aren’t going to make it. The odds are always going to be against startups succeeding because it’s incredibly cash-intensive to launch a new car, and it’s even harder when the cars are in an emerging market like electric vehicles. Norwegian battery car maker Think has just been rescued from its third bankruptcy — by a wild and wooly Russian timber magnate, no less. And, lacking such a sugar daddy, Aptera just quietly closed its doors.
“After years of focused effort to bring our products to market, Aptera Motors is closing its doors,” Paul Wilbur, the company's departing chief executive, said in a statement. "This is a difficult time for everyone connected with our company because we have never been closer to realizing our vision. Unfortunately, though, we are out of resources.”
If you know Aptera, it’s because the company fielded a truly memorable looking aerodynamically designed three-wheeler called the 2e. It looks — I should say “looked” — like an airplane without wings, having its origins in a napkin sketch of the ultimate wind-cheating design. The company launched in 2006, around the same time Tesla’s Roadster first appeared, and there was a lot of EV goodwill and fairy dust around then. Aptera said the 2e was just the beginning — there was going to be a hybrid version, too.
By 2009, Aptera was taking orders. There seemed to be a headwind for the unusual-looking car, which even managed a guest appearance in a "Star Trek" movie. (That was it, parked at Starfleet Command.). My daughter and I trekked into New York around that time and met CEO Paul Wilbur (a former Pontiac executive, at right) at a Manhattan sports car showroom. He had the keys to one of the very few Aptera drivable demonstrators. Wilbur wouldn’t let me drive, but he gave us a trip around Soho for MNN, and we saw people do double-takes as this space shot of a car drive by. “When will it be on the market?” they asked. “October,” Wilbur said.
It was not to be. To get the 2e into production, Aptera was counting on a loan through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) program, which had already richly rewarded both Tesla and Fisker. Whenever you asked Aptera about its blown launch dates, they’d point to a non-disclosure agreement with DOE. The loan was pending, they said.
In 2010, after the company made an ill-fated bid to win the Progressive X Prize, I was finally able to drive the Aptera 2e for the New York Times, and became one of the few — and, ultimately, only — journalists to get behind its wheel. My conclusion then was that the car was still very much a work in progress. It had ample power, but the steering effort was excessive, and the brakes terrible. I rode with ex-Ford Chief Engineer Tom Reichenbach, who’s a really well qualified guy — I hope he lands on his feet.
Unbeknownst to me, Aptera had quietly abandoned the 2e because the DOE made clear it wasn’t going to get funded. Wilbur told me that the company chose to shelve its space vision and reapply to the DOE with a much more conventional Camry-sized four-door sedan (right, that's Reichenbach on the floor). According to Wilbur, the car (with a composite body) would have weighed in at less than 2,500 pounds and had a 130-mile cruising range.
The irony here is that Aptera got its loan — sort of. It received a letter promising $150 million if the company jumped over several hoops, including coming up with a similar amount of venture capital. And, try as it might, Aptera couldn’t find ready cash, for either three-wheeled or four-wheeled cars. There was government money on the table, but Aptera couldn’t rake it in.
Wilbur thinks the company’s composite manufacturing system can have a life of its own, but that remains to be seen — automakers seem to like carbon fiber. “Aptera has contributed new technologies to build a future for more efficient driving,” the company said. “All that remains is for someone to grab it. We still believe it will happen."
The story, unfortunately, has a very sad end. Instead of quietly shutting its doors, some bright minds at Aptera decided to not only destroy the remaining 2e body shells, but to document that fact in some shaky YouTube videos. They capture a frat boy ambience, complete with cars dropping off forklifts. It lacks the emotional dissonance of the crushing of General Motors’ EV1, but it’s dispiriting anyway.
Is there a lesson here? Aptera was probably trying to do too much all at once — launch a new car company, employ revolutionary composite materials, build a better battery, introduce a radical body design, and create public awareness. The company showed resilience in coming up with the alternative sedan scenario, but it was probably too late in the game by that point. In the wake of Solyndra, the DOE is very wary of processing another bad loan, and Aptera wasn't going to go forward unless every condition had been met — in triplicate.
It’s an unsettling time for electric vehicles right now, because the Volt battery fires aren’t going away, and they’re threatening to scare people away from a fragile, still-embryonic clean car movement. The timing couldn’t be worse. But all the big drivers — global warming, peak oil, stringent federal and international regulation — are still in place. Don’t write off the electrification of the automobile.
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