RIP Aptera: Lessons For Startup Electric-Car Companies

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Aptera 2e

Aptera 2e

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On Friday, Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur sent out an email with the news that the Aptera 2e -- the all-electric, two-seat, ultra-efficient car we’ve awaited for nearly five years -- wouldn’t be making it into production.

As the long, drawn-out story that has been Aptera’s existence finally comes to a close, what can other small electric-car companies learn from Aptera’s collapse? And what does Aptera’s failure to materialize mean for electric-car buyers?

It’s easy to be a large fish in a small pond...

When the Aptera 2e electric car (and 2h plug-in hybrid) were first conceived in January 2006, few mainstream automakers were interested in making electric cars. As far as most were concerned, at least in public, electric cars were far too small a niche to spend time on them.

So when Aptera went public in 2007 with the news that it planned to bring the futuristic, 200 MPGe, two-seat car to market at a price of $20,000, it attracted a lot of interest from electric and hybrid car fans who desperately wanted to drive a car that made the Toyota Prius look like a gas-guzzler.

Being one of the first companies to attempt to build a mass-market, ultra fuel-efficient plug-in car won Aptera a lot of interest and publicity. It garnered everything from a feature in Wired magazine to a cameo role in the Star Trek movie reboot

 

Aptera 2e during Automotive X-Prize handling tests, from Consumer Reports video on YouTube

Aptera 2e during Automotive X-Prize handling tests, from Consumer Reports video on YouTube

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....but much harder to be a small fish in a large one

In fact, had Aptera made good on its promises and brought the Aptera 2e to market before the end of 2008, it may well have become a volume leader in plug-in cars--at least temporarily.

As time passed, however, Aptera’s quirky design, rising price tag and apparent lack of progress soon saw it overshadowed by the likes of Nissan and Chevrolet. Their announced 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt offered much of the plug-in promise Aptera was struggling to develop, packaged in undeniably more mainstream vehicles.

Competing against global automakers with billions of dollars to spend on developing plug-in cars, Aptera’s dream quickly became a nightmare. 

Gambling on a single event: recipe for disaster

The Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize, the competition designed to give startup automakers the chance to win a portion of a $10 million prize fund for producing the best super-100 MPGe car, presented a golden opportunity that Aptera felt it couldn’t pass up. 

Instead of concentrating on bringing the ultra-efficient three-wheeler to market by raising large amounts of venture capital as Tesla Motors did, Aptera focused its attention on winning the X-Prize--viewing the $10 million prize fund as a way of helping it bring the 2e to market. 

But Aptera’s poor handling performance during the event didn’t help its reputation. And when Aptera failed to win, it marked the beginning of the end at the company. 

Aptera 2e production intent vehicle

Aptera 2e production intent vehicle

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Don’t set goals you can’t reach

Perhaps Aptera’s biggest failing, and one that small electric automakers need to take note of, was its tendency to set impossible goals. 

For small automakers, it’s a tough dilemma. In order to obtain investment, a firm needs to be seen to be producing a worthwhile product that the public want.  To gauge that demand often means a company has to engage in heavy self-promotion. 

Constantly promising a car which never materialized however, did little more than to make Aptera the automotive equivalent of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

In the end, many of those who had proclaimed the Aptera 2e a futuristic vision in its early years began to doubt the company's statements and its self-proclaimed glory. 

Without its loyal supporters--thousands of whom reportedly put down deposits toward the purchase of a 2e--Aptera was faced with an ugly truth: It takes hundreds of millions of dollars, if not $1 billion or more, to develop a properly engineered vehicle that will pass government tests and can be legally be sold new in the United States.

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