Aptera Founders Ousted In EV Startup Rite Of Passage

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
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  • Bruce from DC Bruce from DC on Nov 17, 2009

    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.

    • Daanii2 Daanii2 on Nov 17, 2009

      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.

  • KarenRei KarenRei on Nov 17, 2009

    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.

  • Bd2 Jaguar's problem was chasing the Germans into the mid size and then entry-level/compact segments for volume, and cheapening their interiors while at it.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Aja8888 I expected that issue with my F150 starting at 52,000mi. luckily I had an extended warranty and it saved me almost $8,000. No more Fords for me, only Toyota.
  • Lou_BC I saw a news article on this got a different read on it. Ford wants to increase production of HD trucks AND develop hybrid and EV variants of the SuperDuty. They aren't scaling back EV production. Just building more HD's and EV variants of HD's .
  • Lou_BC Backing up accidents are one of the most common causes of low speed accidents. You'd think sensors and cameras would help.
  • Jpolicke Jaguar started making cars that were dead ringers for Kia Optimas, but less reliable. They now look like everything and nothing; certainly nothing to aspire to.