Wired has some fantastic coverage of Aptera’s coming-of-age struggles, which have been come to a head since the firm received permission to tap the federal ATVM loan program, the most important rite of passage for boutique EV startups. In short, the auto industry insiders led by Paul Wilbur, formerly of Ford and Chrysler, were delaying production for reasons that made little sense to the firm’s founders. One passage by Wilbur poignantly indicates the nature of the rift:
For months we have been receiving important feedback from you, our depositor community, and we have come to realize there were flaws in our initial product assumptions — specifically as it pertains to satisfying the needs of real-world consumers. Our greatest degree of learning came just a few months ago when we asked all of you to participate in a brief survey. This critical piece of research requested insights about your expectations for our company and our products, and we discovered a notable disconnect between our product plan and realistic expectations. Some modifications had to be made. For example, you helped us realize that some trade-offs for convenience (like being able to grab a burger in a drive-thru) might be necessary to make the ownership experience more palatable, even if it cost us a couple tenths of a point on our drag coefficient.
Wilbur’s team struggled to raise new capital, although to be fair the fundraising environment has been tough this year. Had Aptera frozen the car’s design and started shipping cars late last year, the cash flow could have sustained it longer and perhaps helped it raise new capital.
The problem now is that though Aptera has successfully lobbied to make its three-wheeled 2e eligible for the federal ATVML loans, as Wired puts it, “time may be running out and the DOE is not known for moving quickly — neither Tesla nor Fisker has seen a dime, even though the loans were announced months ago.” The company needed a strategy, and Wilbur’s decision was to slash payroll and wait for federal money to arrive. The founders, Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony, proposed the company scrap Wilbur’s marketing-led redesigns and rush products to customers to get cash flowing. The board sided with the Detroit approach, the founders left the company (Aptera insists Fambro was not let go and says he volunteered to take a leave of absence to help the company save money while it waits out the DOE loan process).
Quick, take a look at the video of the Aptera at the top of this post. Does it look like a vehicle that should be given a marketing research-led redesign? Aptera’s chances were never very good, but if it doesn’t get a strikingly distinctive vehicle on the road soon, it will have missed what niche opportunity it did have.