Tri, Tri Again for Aptera 3-Wheeler Loan From Feds
Aptera Motors is building an electric car that goes 100 miles on a charge, draws power from an ordinary electrical outlet, and should be in driveways by the end of the year. But the federal government won’t consider lending the California startup any money to build the car for one reason.
It has three wheels.
Rep. Brian Bilbray wants to change that. The California congressman is pushing legislation that would give Aptera and other companies making three-wheelers a shot at billions in federal loans to encourage the development of electric cars. The "Innovative Vehicle Act" would expand the loan program’s definition of a car to include vehicles with three wheels.
"I’m trying to get rid of antiquated regulations that stand in the way of innovation," Bilbray (R-California) told Wired.com. "We should not only allow this kind of innovation, we should encourage it."
The issue goes to the question of what constitutes an automobile as the Department of Energy prepares to hand out $25 billion to hasten the production of EVs and other high-efficiency automobiles. The Big Three and startups like Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive are among the 75 companies lined up for a piece of the pie, but Aptera’s application was tossed aside because its funky electric car, the 2e, doesn’t have four wheels.
"It offers a lot more room than a [Mazda] Miata and crash protection better than some small cars, but because of an arbitrary designation made ages ago by some bureaucrat, it’s not considered a car," Bilbray said.
"It’s an arbitrary exclusion," agreed Daryl Siry, a green-tech analyst with Peppercom. "There’s no reason a three-wheeler should be subjected to de facto exclusion."
The 2e uses three wheels because such a design reduces weight and minimizes aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance — all of which help maximize the range of the car’s lithium-ion battery. "It’s a very detrimental impact going from three wheels to four," said Laura Marion, Aptera’s chief financial officer. "Instead of 100 miles of range, you’re looking at 60."
Such a design also can make it easier to get a car on the road because three-wheelers are classified as motorcycles, meaning the federal safety regulations and certification requirements aren’t as stringent. That can save a company tens of millions of dollars in development costs. (The bill doesn’t address this classification issue.) But Marion insists maximizing efficiency is the only reason Aptera opted for three wheels instead of four.
"This vehicle is designed for optimal efficiency," she said. "That was the whole reason for the architecture."
Bilbray’s legislation (HR 1382) would amend Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to create an "ultra efficient vehicle" classification defined as "a fully closed compartment vehicle designed to carry at least two adult passengers." The vehicle must deliver at least 75 mpg if it’s a gasoline or diesel; and at least 100 mpg — or the equivalent — if it’s a hybrid or EV. It also would direct the Department of Energy to reconsider loan applications from manufacturers of such vehicles provided they were submitted before Jan. 1, 2009.
In other words, the feds would have to take another look at Aptera’s application.
Marion wouldn’t disclose how much money Aptera hopes to get through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program but said it’s far less than what many other companies have sought. General Motors, for example, has requested $8.3 billion, and Ford is seeking $5 billion. Telsa Motors hopes to obtain $350 million to develop a factory to build its forthcoming Model S electric sedan.
Marion said Aptera would use the loan to ramp up production of the 2e, which is slated to begin rolling off an assembly line by the end of the year. "It would help us scale up production to get these vehicles on the market faster."
Marion says the company has received 3,600 orders for the car, "which represents over $100 million in sales."
Image: Aptera Motors