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.

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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.

  • Dukeisduke I'm not convinced that the "software update" installed by Hyundai/Kia dealers on later cars without an immobilizer (like my middle daughter's 2014 Kia Forte sedan) actually does anything. I'm able to lock the car with the remote, which is supposed to disable the ignition, then reach in through an open driver's window, insert the key, and start the car. That shouldn't happen.I opened a case with Kia corporate two weeks ago and haven't gotten a response.
  • Wjtinfwb I see all three backing away quietly and slowly. Between political winds and corporate green mandates plus the previously mentioned mandates, automakers will have to thread a needle between public demand and acceptance, and the extremely loud voices of the minority screaming for fossil fuels to be abandoned by 2030, which of course won't happen. Ford jumped in early with the Lightning and Mach-E, but since has tempered their enthusiasm and probably spent less money as the Lightning shares a lot with the gas F-150. GM however has built some bespoke platforms out on the edge that will end up being a gigantic waste of money. The Hummer EV is a joke and the new Silverado EV while impressive is both expensive and less practical than an electric version of the current gas Silverado could have been. The Cadillac EVs are the dumbest move yet, especially their upcoming 400k model. Ford seems to have a leg up on GM in Hybrid which would seem like a better interim measure, I'd be surprised if a Hybrid Explorer isn't in the works and could see a Gas/Electric Expedition and Super Duty being successful as well. US energy policy and gas prices into the next administration will play a significant role in consumer demand, if prices stay high and supplies artificially constrained, demand will increase for more efficient cars and trucks. If we go back to a self-sufficient energy policy and prices drop, demand for Hybrid's and EVs will moderate even more.
  • Wjtinfwb Poor cousin to the Blazer & Bronco that dominated this segment. The 1st Gen Ramcharger was a much better and better looking truck, with the 440 available and without the AMC Pacer style real windows. The Bronco and Blazer felt and looked much more modern and cohesive than the Mopar's, and that's not saying very much. Probably attractive to the Mopar faithful but for the rest of us... No thanks at any price.
  • Not Ford will have a great reckoning with its EV production goals. Their EVs haven’t been as popular as initially anticipated and have been dealing quality issues (persistent recalls on Mach E) or disappointing performance (cold weather and towing greatly diminishing range on Lightning).Their top selling vehicle remains the ICE powered F-series. Consumers will only tolerate so much price increase as Ford tries to subsidize the massive losses it incurs with EV production. Being forced to eat profit off of 2-3 ICE F-series to offset losses from a single Lightning will quickly prove to be unsustainable business. This is the very same company that abandoned cars entirely to focus on more profitable trucks.
  • LYNN DELANEY Mine is a 2001 Pure White Miata. I bought it at Concord Mazda. I love it but Imay be about to get rid of it I guess. It's been in my garage for quite awhile. Why? 1. I don't have a lot of money (I'm a retired teacher) And I've had issues with it that require financing. For example when you insert the key and turn it nothing happens. Why? I got it at Concord Mazda and somehow. it came to my condo shared garage to die and has remained such to this day. If you want to experience it you put the key in the keyhole and turn it but silence ensues and you wonder why but you know it's because the key was "programmed and it worked when you brought it home but not since.I'm told it requires a new battery but I've not had the financial energy to deal with it. I love my Miata but will I keep it? I'm unsure. Next step? Install a new battery...When it came home from Concord Mazda it was perfect for a quick minute. I tested it. I drove it around my block in Oakland, California just one time. That was the end of it. Since them I'm told it needs a new battery. It's a 2001. Shall I go ahead and splurge?