Does the Aptera futuristic three-wheeled vehicle have a chance to succeed in the real-world market? Or is it destined to become another visionary, but entirely impractical vehicle, much like Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 three-wheeled Dymaxion Car?
Aptera fans will not like the comparison between the two visionary vehicles. The Aptera 2e and 2h—all-electric and plug-in versions respectively—earned an almost cult-like following nearly from the moment the first images of the vehicle hit the web in 2007. The vehicle, something like a cross between a motorcycle and an ultralight single-occupant airplane, garnered tens of millions of dollars of investment, thousands of $500 deposits, and innovation awards and cover shots from prestigious publications. The Aptera’s lightweight aerodynamic design, and electric drive, promised hundreds of miles per gallon. But in recent days, it appears that the visionary reach of its founders may have exceeded their grasp.
Wired.com, the Los Angeles Times, and the unofficial online Aptera Forum are reporting that founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony were ousted from the company over a dispute with Paul Wilber, the CEO hired to run the company in 2008. Apparently, the founders wanted to push the vehicle into production ASAP as a way to generate cash for the struggling company, while Wilber insisted on modifications to satisfy the needs of real-world customers. For example, Wilber reportedly wanted the Aptera to have windows that could roll down, instead of the fixed windows built into the gull-wing doors.
As much as its remarkable efficiency, unusual appearance, and three-wheel design appeal to devoted followers, its lack of practicality is an obvious obstacle to commercial success. Tensions have been rising at the company, as it struggles through tough financial times prior to delivering the first model to a customer—delayed by about a year. The company has gone into cash conservation mode—while it waits on an application to receive a federal loan from the Department of Energy.
Fuller’s Dymaxion Car held similar promise. Like the Aptera, the Dymaxion was built as a lightweight aerodynamic tear-shaped vehicle with excellent fuel efficiency. It got 30 miles per gallon—an achievement at 20 feet in length with capability to carry 11 passengers. Fuller, the legendary architect and inventor, first sketched the vehicle in 1927 under the name “4D transport” as part aircraft and part automobile (with wings that inflated at sufficient speed).
Fuller found an angel investor who helped him build a couple of prototypes, which were fawned over by the media and celebrities. However, an accident at the 1933 Chicago world’s fair damaged the first prototype badly, killing the driver and the prospects of a production version.
The Dymaxion is now considered an oddball of automotive history—but it’s credited as the inspiration for many streamlined aerodynamic designs that would follow, including the Aptera. Hopefully, Aptera and its founders will bounce back. But regardless of the fate of Aptera 2e, it has already earned its place in history alongside Buckminster Fuller’s creation—as an inspiration for what car designers might achieve with innovative body design, propulsion system, and fresh ideas.