Aptera: The Electric Ultra-Commuter
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 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.
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.
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.
Beyond the 100 miles, the mpg drops and stays fairly steady at around 130-140 mpg the further you drive.
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.
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 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.