FEATURED ARTICLE
Aptera Typ-1 is 300 mpg super-efficient commuter car

Aptera: The Electric Ultra-Commuter

Exclusive EV World interview with Aptera inventor, co-founder and CEO Steve Fambro.

By Bill Moore

Siting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic in San Diego, California gives one lots of time to think. In the case of Steve Fambro, an electrical engineer working for a biotech firm, he spent his time musing about finding a way to travel safely, economically, and legally down the High Occupany Vehicle (HOV) lane in something even more efficient than your standard Prius or Civic Hybrid.

His musings led to what may well be a truly paradigm busting vehicle that is part fish, part airplane, part motorcycle and all-electric.

No, Aptera isn't an amphibious flying motorcycle. It's a three-wheeled, two-passenger (with room for a possible third person) car that combines the extremely smooth aerodynamics of a dolphin, the latest styling cues and composite structures found in the newest generation of general aviation aircraft and an ultra-efficient, clean, quiet electric drive (battery-only and plug-in, range-extended versions).

The result is an ultra-commuter vehicle that its creator estimates will get the equivalent of 300 mpg (0.784 L/100km). To find out more about the genesis of this incredibly efficient prototype, I wrangled 30 minutes of Fambro's time from his increasingly hectic schedule.

You can listen to my 30-minute conversation with him using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page. Or you can download the 6.8MB file to your computer hard drive for transfer to and playback on your favorite MP3 device.

IN BRIEF: Synopsis of Conversation with Steve Fambro

  • Fambro decided to investigate the three-wheel vehicle option because it would technically be classified as a motorcycle, which would gain him legal access to the carpool lane in California. But he found that none of the available designs, either as kits, plans or limited production vehicles, offered him the kind of performance he wanted. He wanted to experiment with aerodynamics to seeing how efficient he could make his design. It ended up fairly closely approximating the shape of a dolphin.
  • While Fambro brought his electrical engineering experience to the project, along with his passion, his co-founder, Chris Anthony contributed his knowledge of high-strength, light-weight composites, which form the Aptera's super-clean shell. It is Anthony, whose own Epic Wake Boats are built using similar composites, who realized that it would be quicker and cheaper to use his technology to construct the Aptera. He recommended getting the design into CAD and from that fabricating inexpensive molds. In the end, Aptera would be assembled much like a plastic model airplane.

    Fambro recognized the value of bringing Anthony into the project when IdeaLabs -- a venture capital firm investing in start-ups like Aptera -- came down to the company's Oceanside airport hangar on a due diligence visit.

  • Aptera's "father" also has one infant daughter and another on the way, so he appreciates the need for family-sized vehicles like a minivan, which he owns.

    That being said, he contends that a three-wheeled design can be just a stable as a 4-wheel model. He also argues that with the advent of the rise of the automotive stylist, the focus of design shifted from engineering functionality to sales esthetics. That lead to the situation where aerodynamics where downplayed for fashion; and much of the energy used to power the vehicle was concentrated in pushing styling through the air.

    He recognizes that the emphasis on four-wheels has a long historical record dating back to the Pharaohs of Egypt; and he can't envision a three-wheel SUV or minivan. But for certain applications like his super-efficient commuter car, three makes sense.

    He also hinted that future Aptera vehicles will not be limited to the current "tadpole" configuration.

  • While being careful to not reveal too much information for competitive reasons, Fambro told EV World that the drive system is based on a California-manufactured, three-phase, AC electric motor.

    He explained that Aptera's intellectual property is based on its aerodynamics and composites technology, not on its drive system, which is largely considered "off-the-shelf".

    The Typ-1 is an all-electric vehicle, which will also be offered as a plug-in, serial hybrid version with a smaller battery pack that is supplemented by a small gasoline engine spinning a 10kW electrical generator.

  • The power-to-weight ratio is more than a Honda Insight. However, he wouldn't get more specific than that in terms of top-speed or acceleration. The answer to the question of range is a complex one, but basically, using software the company has developed, the vehicle can duty cycle the IC generator on and off enough during a 100 mile commute -- which represents the 99th percentile of nearly everyone's commuting needs -- to get the equivalent of 300 mpg.

    Beyond the 100 miles, the mpg drops and stays fairly steady at around 130-140 mpg the further you drive.

  • Fambro is also a pilot, which accounts for the strong aircraft styling on the interior of the vehicle, as well as the exterior. To get its very attractive, functional interior layout, he hired the automotive design firm Eleven. He gave them license to improve the esthetics of the vehicle as long as it didn't change the coefficient of drag. Using a cluster of Linux computers running CFD (computational fluid dynamics) software -- a wind tunnel in a computer -- they tweaked the design into its current iteration.

    The result is a vehicle that resembles the original Mark Zero prototype, but has much more room inside from head room to hip room.

    While his team was at it, Fambro set the company on a path that would someday allow the vehicle to also be classified as a motorcar, instead of a motorcycle.

  • Because of the extensive use of composites, manufacture of the vehicle will not require the use of robots to handle heavy pieces of metal like in conventional auto manufacturing. All of the body parts can be easily handled by workers. The company is borrowing Toyota's manufacturing methods, as well. All this makes capitalization costs very low.

    Aptera will spend the next six-to-eight months working out the final manufacturing details, like how to get the price of the paint finish down or have a particular steel part made cheaper.

  • The Aptera Typ-1 is not only formed of plastic composites, but the passenger cabin is surrounded by a steel and aluminum safety shell.

    The company has nearly completed FMVSS frontal zone impact testing -- using CFD computer modeling like that used by Honda and others -- and will shortly begin side impact testing. Also incorporated into the vehicle will be in-seat belt-based airbags, as well as the integrated energy redirection and abatement engineering in the chassis to insure passenger safety.

  • IdeaLabs was Aptera's first-round investor, followed by S&J Petroleum -- an oil company -- who provided second-round funding. The company is now putting together its third round package.
  • The company as already pre-sold more than 200 vehicles. Once the company begins manufacturing, it will sell and service the vehicles through company-owned stories starting on the West Coast. These buildings will also reflect the environmental, energy efficiency esthetics found in the vehicle itself.
  • EVWORLD Future In Motion Podcast

    Download MP3 File

    Times Article Viewed: 34386
    Published: 18-Oct-2007

    READER COMMENTS

    blog comments powered by Disqus