By on November 16, 2009

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.

And then:

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.

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19 Comments on “Aptera Founders Ousted In EV Startup Rite Of Passage...”

  • avatar

    Could you guys link to your sources?
    It’s a tough call as to which is the better strategy.  It looks like a niche car to begin with.  Likely the early adopters weren’t so worried about the window thing.  There is something however to be said for launching with the best possible product.
    Very similar arguments went on at Tesla.  Eberhard originally wanted a simpler car with plastic body panels and a single speed gear box that would have given only a 5 (or so) second 0 to 60 time.  Trying to get a 2-speed box to work caused about a year of delay until they managed to ultimately to increase the motor power so that a 1-speed could achieve their 4 sec acceleration spec.
    Would it have been better for them to have delivered inferior cars but a year earlier?  Hard to say.

  • avatar

    “Tough call” is an understatement.  But I doubt either the founders, their investors, or the prospective buyers were ever looking at this vehicle as a “safe” or “typical” venture.  With what little info we have here, I’d say push what you have out the door, but easy for me to say…

  • avatar
    Stu Sidoti

    Building real cars is real hard work…Really, it is.
    If they ever get saleable cars on the street and into the hands of actual consumers, they might just have a hit on their hands but more and more as time goes by the whole affair is starting to remind me of the Tucker fiasco.

  • avatar

    So the same people who are concerned about efficient vehicles and earth friendly practices are also concerned about getting their burgers on the fly? There is something rancid in the State of Denmark… Seriously what gives? Sell what you got Aptera, I am really surprised to see that people willing to go out on a limb and purchase a radical mode of transportation also require easy access to fast food.

  • avatar
    the duke

    I mean really, John Delorean didn’t even let that concern him.  In fact a Delorean owner once told me one of the most satisfying things about that car was to get your fast food you had to open the gullwing door (wouldn’t fit through the mini-me window) and that got great looks from the attendant.
    Besides, its not like Delorean had a problem selling his cars.  Oh wait.
    But sarcasm aside,  Porsche’s shouldn’t have cupholders and who cares if the Aptera can’t go through a drive through.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    I smell a red herring with the Cd. When the car was initially announced they predicted an absurdly low figure, 0.06. Since I have been measuring Cds of streamlined vehicles for 19 years I called them on it, and predicted that by the time they got into production it would be at least 0.12 and more likely up around 0.20 (which is still very good).

    Sliding windows are not going to be a ‘couple’ of points in themselves, that’s just an excuse for the inevitable further degradation.

    Other than that it is a shame they have run into such problems, sadly the “we’ve got a stage, we’ve got a band, let’s do a show” approach works better for musicals than it does for production cars.

  • avatar

    @Stu Sidoti: Tucker came to mind for me, too.

    This car is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.  In an attempt to produce the world’s sleekest Cd (drag coefficient), they’ve compromised basic utility – requiring things like outboard tires that require “wheel pants”, and owners to do the “Aptera dance” just to enter the vehicle.

    So Aptera might win first price at the local science contest, but never make a dime selling cars.

    You have to produce cars that satisfy more than technological curiosity.

    I like it, sort of.  The cheap 120 VAC plug will be a hit with those who are considering other cars that require expensive proprietary connections and chargers.  How could Aptera have incorporated such a common sense feature, yet used swinging doors and outboard pants?

    It’s probably too late, but if they reworked the car to have 4 conventional wheels – inboard – they would go a long way towards mainstreaming the company.

    • 0 avatar

      gslippy: you’re missing the whole point.  If they have four conventional wheels they need to meet all the relevant automobile standards.  The viability of these startup enterprises is based almost entirely on having the vehicle classed as a motorcycle so that much less stringent requirements must be met.

      • 0 avatar

        I had missed that point.  However – without being aware of the financing details – it seems unlikely to me that they can sell such a niche vehicle and recoup the $$$ of investor money it takes to develop it.
        It would have been cooler to add foldup wings and make it fly.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Everything old is new again. The Corbin Sparrow was built (in small numbers) about an hour from my home. I toured the factory in the early days. Funds back then were provided by customer deposits and local investors who got sucked into the hype. At that time, California had an electric vehicle car mandate coming down the pike and several companies thought they had hit the regulation driven mother lode. The Sparrow went down in a blizzard of recalls and lawsuits. The Sparrow was eventually re-incarnated as the Myers Motors “NmG”, a $30k single passenger three wheel curiosity.
    The chances that any one of these little boutique electric car companies is going to take the market by storm is very, very low.

    • 0 avatar

      Aptera’s car is much better than the Corbin Sparrow. Corbin was little more than a fraud. You are right, though, that the chances of Aptera succeeding in the consumer market is low. Particularly when the founders go at this early stage.

  • avatar

    If their reason for redesigning the car truly was an inability to use the divethru in its current configuration, that is a BIG mistake.  This is a niche vehicle; an inability to go through the drivethru at Wendy’s isn’t going to matter much.

  • avatar

    Apparently, the company hasn’t been taken over and the founders ousted, they agreed to take time off (i.e. a vacation of indefinite length) due to their funding crisis.  Jalopnik broke the correction @ 845pm last night, but here’s the link to their source:

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Puthuff

      he’ll come back in the new year once we get the series ‘D’ final round of funding closed and we can turn advanced concepts back on.”

      If they get the funding. Sounds like damage control to me. If the founding geniuses have been forced out, what chance is there that they’ll get that next round of funding? They are the brains behind the concept. Sounds like someone leaked and now they’re trying to put the cat back in the bag (“Oh, he’s just taking the vacation that he has accumulated.”)

  • avatar

    I saw this just after having seen Farago’s last post. Both sad stories.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    The “redesign for fast-food drive thru convenience” shows a certain managerial  schizophrenia about the product.  That is, they are not entirely willing — apparently — to embrace its quirkiness.  I mean, here’s a product that runs on batteries, has three wheels, two seats and doesn’t provide the occupant protection of any 4-wheeled car . . . and they’re worried about the windows!  That said, they might be well-served to think about having roll-down windows because otherwise, the car’s air conditioning is going to have to run constantly, even when ambient temperatures are down in the 50s . . . because of insufficient cabin ventilation to keep it cool naturally.  That’s a range killer, I would think.  People using this vehicle in mild temperatures at city-street speeds might be happy to just have the windows down to ventilate and cool the cabin, without using the a/c.
    Having recently done some research on “tadpole” configured human-powered tricycles, one thing I would be concerned about with this car is the cornering loads imposed on the single rear wheel, when the car is experiencing significant lateral g’s cornering at speed.  While there have been a few vehicles configured this way (the old Messerschmidt 1+1 comes to mind),  they have been fairly low-speed and probably incapable of the cornering loads the Aptera can generate.

    • 0 avatar

      Say what you will about the Aptera, but a lot of thought went into its design. I myself don’t think much of the car. But I’ve talked to some people there, and looked carefully into the car. I’m convinced that technically, it’s well-designed and well-tested. Whether or not it will appeal to customers is, of course, a different question.

  • avatar

    And it’s not true that things like roll-down windows and a narrower stance were the new team’s idea.  I remember Steve posting on the Aptera forum at the start of 2008 (or was it late 2007?) talking about how they *were* going to have roll-down windows on the production version, due out in Q4 ’08.  Then there was a photo from (April?) ’08 which showed a new hire standing in front of a 2e that had a split window tape line on it.  Then they released a rendering of what was to be the production version, with a split window.
    Split windows mean no door redesign.  They also mean that the door isn’t a hollow shell for glass to fit into (i.e., stronger).  And they also mean more aerodynamic windows.
    Who knows what went on when the new team came in, fall of ’08.  But one thing is clear: they nixed the idea and forced a redesign.  And probably a redesign of all of the other things that were promised for delivery in Q4 ’08.
    I’ve said some pretty harsh things in the past few days about the new team, and was partly speaking out of anger of what’s gone on.  Almost everyone who’s reserved an Aptera is especially angry, but I think it hit me particularly hard.  That said, I think they *do* deserve a solid heaping of criticism, and I can’t fathom how this isn’t their fault.  I just don’t understand how they could be so bad at communication, or how they could let delay after delay go by as if nothing ever happened.  I love this car… or at least what it was.  And what it might never be.
    But I’ll be nice give them the benefit of the doubt.  Until January.

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