Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California
The ongoing shakeout in startup automakers just proves the point. Earlier this month, Aptera closed its doors, dashing the hopes of the 5,000 potential buyers who'd put down money to reserve one of their ultra-aerodynamic, three-wheeled, all-electric, plastic-bodied two-seat motorcycle-cars.
Over the last three years, under CEO Paul Wilbur, the company bet its fate on receiving low-interest Department of Energy loans. That didn't pan out too well.
Other startup makers hoping for government subsidies are in similarly precarious positions.
And Bright Automotive, which hopes to build a 100-mpg plug-in hybrid urban delivery van, is waiting on the DoE as well. At least GM owns a portion of Bright, perhaps giving it a slightly ... errrr ... brighter future.
2012 Fisker Karma EcoSport
In the end, perhaps the only startups to win DoE loan guarantees will be Fisker Automotive (now delivering its first 2012 Karma extended-range electric luxury sport sedans) and Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].
Even there, industry observers expect both companies to be bought by global carmakers if they survive into mass production. As we opined earlier this year, CEO Elon Musk says Tesla won't be sold, but analysts suggest he is wrong.
After all, if a long-established maker of sport sedans that pioneered numerous technologies and is known globally--with a rabid if small fan base--can't survive with all its brand recognition, what's the future for unknown startups?
Right wing targets Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf sails through unscathed
By now, General Motors is well aware that some portion of the electorate and the political spectrum really, really hates the company.
And they especially hate the Chevy Volt, the extended-range electric car that GM desperately wants to act as a technology halo car--just as the Prius hybrid has done, so successfully, for Toyota.
2011 Chevrolet Volt destroyed in Barkhamsted, CT, garage fire; image from WTNH News 8 report
Alarmist headlines about two garage fires in which Volts were destroyed kicked off the Volt-bashing. Both cars were subsequently exonerated, but the "Volt sets garage on fire" headlines had already gone out, courtesy of Matt Drudge and others.
Then a battery pack in a Volt wrecked during an NHTSA crash test caught fire--three weeks after the test. GM acknowledged it hadn't propagated instructions on how to drain the battery pack after a major crash, just as emergency responders would drain a gas tank.
One commenter quipped at the news, "So I should make sure to get out of my wrecked Volt within three weeks?"
But the incident didn't come to light for several months. Then a second pack, being studied in a lab in an attempt to replicate the condition, did indeed catch fire.
Cue the "Volt fires" articles, along with hysterical accusations of massive coverups. As usual, Obama was probably at fault.
Around the same time, GM admitted that Volt sales wouldn't reach the first-year goal of 10,000. Chevy says it's a result of its commitment to put the car on sale across thousands of dealers in all 50 states by the end of this year.
Cue more headlines on "Volt sales disaster" and so forth. None of them, perhaps predictably, bother to note the context that GM shut down the Detroit-Hamtramck plant that builds the Volt for more than a month to retool it. As we keep saying, today the problem isn't demand for Volts--California dealers have waiting lists. It's supply and distribution.
2011 Nissan Leaf SL
Meanwhile, the Nissan Leaf battery-electric car has sailed through unscathed. It's had no reported battery-pack fires (its pack is not liquid-cooled, unlike the Volt's, which possibly lowers the chance of short circuits after major accidents).
Its sales have averaged just about 1,000 vehicles per month--though it will be nowhere near meeting the sales goal of 20,000 it had put forth a couple of years ago.
In fact, Nissan might seem more vulnerable, since it accepted $1.4 billion in low-interest loans from the Department of Energy advanced technology vehicle manufacturing program. That's the same DoE being pilloried for losing several hundred million dollars on loans to failed solar-panel maker Solyndra.
The money will go toward building a lithium-ion cell manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, next to the assembly plant where the Leaf will be built alongside Altimas and other Nissan gasoline models.
Nissan got the second-highest loan amount of any carmaker; Ford was first at $5.9 billion, the bulk of that cash going toward speeding production and launch of its EcoBoost line of smaller, more efficient engines across all its vehicle lines.
Yet nary a peep out of the anti-Volt forces about The Gummint subsidizing sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car. Wonder why ....