Aptera returns from the dead, unveils 1,000-mile EV

Long-time followers of the EV scene may remember Aptera, a startup that was founded in 2006, designed a unique three-wheeled two-seater EV, then went into liquidation in 2011.

Now, Aptera is back. Three
of the founders have bought back the intellectual property, and have spent many
months working on an improved version of Aptera’s vehicle – an EV that will
have the lowest drag coefficient of any vehicle on the market, and will deliver
up to 1,000 miles of range.

John Voelcker spoke to three of the founders, now leading the reborn company: Chris Anthony, Steve Fambro, and Michael Johnson. In a substantial article in IEEE Spectrum, Voelcker explains how the Aptera team has updated its design, and why the Apterans feel energy efficiency is an overlooked issue in the EV world.

The team has redesigned every mechanical system of the car,
taking advantage of a decade’s worth of advances in computing, fluid dynamics and
additive metal manufacturing, as well as an EV component supply chain that didn’t
exist in 2009 when they first planned to produce a vehicle. The company has
launched a crowd-funding campaign on WeFunder
with the goal of raising $2.5 million to build three prototype vehicles. They
hope to reveal a final design in 2020.

Aptera’s three-wheeled EV will be powered by 50 kW (67 hp) in-wheel
motors (perhaps three, perhaps two, depending on how it affects overall
efficiency), sourced from an unnamed Eastern European maker. It will be offered
with a range of battery capacities, from 40 to 100 kWh. This will be the most
efficient EV on the road, with an energy usage figure of less than 100
Watt-hours per mile. (For comparison, the most efficient version of Tesla’s
Model 3 uses 250 Wh/mi.)

After the original Aptera folded, its founders expected other
automakers to follow its lead and explore how advances in EV design can improve
efficiency. That never happened – Tesla pursued performance, while Nissan and
GM stuck with traditional hatchback designs. “What astonishes me is that none
of them have yet taken up the challenge: How efficient can a car be?” Chris
Anthony told Voelcker.

One exception is the BMW i3,
which incorporates many efficiency-boosting innovations, including an aluminum
chassis and a body shell of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. However, as Voelcker
puts it, “the i3 and its ultra-efficient construction looks to be an
evolutionary dead end.” Now that the legacy automakers are beginning to focus
on actually selling EVs (as opposed to producing just enough to comply with
regulations), their plans center around SUVs and pickup trucks. The next
generation of EVs will be heavier than comparable legacy vehicles – 2,500 kg
and up – thanks to the weight of large battery packs designed to maximize

Aptera is taking the opposite route, reducing mass and drag
to achieve maximum efficiency. The team told Voelcker that the 60 kWh Aptera will
weigh about 800 kg (1,800 lb). The most efficient LEAF, which has a 62 kWh
battery, weighs almost double that – 1,557 kg (3,433 lb) – and delivers only a third
the efficiency – 310 Wh/mi.

Aptera will rely on high-tech materials to achieve a balance
between strength and weight. The vehicle’s body is made of resin-infused
sandwich-core plastic composites, which are lighter than aluminum and “many
times stronger than their steel counterparts.” Relying on additive
manufacturing, rather than expensive stamping dies, means that parts will be
far cheaper to produce. The Aptera has only 10 “key structural parts,” compared
to the 300 of a typical EV.

The team insists there’ll be no compromises on safety – Aptera’s composite passenger compartment will be “stronger than that of any other vehicle on the road today.” As soon as Aptera builds its prototypes, it will submit them to a full crash-testing regimen.

The Aptera team doesn’t expect their car to appeal to
everyone, and they make it clear that they’re not trying to be The Next Tesla. They’ll
be happy if their unique two-seater finds a niche with buyers who want the ultimate
in efficiency. The company is projecting production of 10,000 units by 2022,
and 40,000 by 2024. The market is wide open.