Will Aptera Motors Inc. be the latest electric car startup to throw its founder under the bus? The Carlsbad company -- which is taking $500 deposits on an as-yet-unreleased, three-wheel electric car that it says will get 120 miles on a charge and cost less than $30,000 -- said today it had hired a new chief executive, auto industry vet Paul Wilbur. With experience at Ford, Chrysler, sports car maker Saleen and major industry suppliers, Wilbur seems like a competent choice.
The problem is that the company already had a CEO, Steve Fambro, who founded the company five years ago. According to an Aptera spokesman, Fambro will become chief technical officer, since "it is a much better role for him to concentrate on vehicle development."
If this sounds a bit like last year's soap opera at Tesla Motors, we hear you. That company's founder, Martin Eberhard, stepped down from the CEO job just over a year ago to be "president of technology," a move Tesla said at the time would allow him to "focus on...the advancement of our core technologies." The company said that Eberhard had been planning on making the transition since early in the year and was on board with the changes.
Yet just four months later, Eberhard left company management completely, trailing plenty of fire and brimstone that he later distributed liberally on the Internet, including the message that he was forced out.
Management struggles seem to plague electric car startups. In late 2006, Ontario-based Phoenix Motorcars saw its founder, Daniel Riegert, make way for a new CEO, Daniel Elliot. Riegert assumed the role of, wait for it, chief technology officer, but in March of this year, the company said it had severed relations with Riegert and the company's other founder, Dana Muscato.
What's the common link? It's early to say, but our money is on, well, the money.
Under Eberhard, Tesla grew from a struggling young startup with only a few backers to a money magnet, with $140 million in venture capital in its accounts by the time the founder left. In February, it announced plans to raise $250 million more. And shortly before Riegert's departure, struggling Phoenix got a $40-million shot in the arm from a Dubai-based investor, Eqbal Al Yousuf, on the board in Riegert's place.
And then there's Aptera. In late July, Google said it would invest $2.75 million into Aptera and a car battery maker. Just two days later, Aptera announced it had closed a $24-million round of venture fundraising, and now has a growing list of investors, including Idealab, Esenjay, the Simons family and the Beall Family Trust.
Just over a month later, the CEO gets demoted. The company spokesman said that this is "a good fit all around," but this song sounds awfully familiar.
Photo of production prototype of the Typ-1 by Aptera Motors.