November 23, 2007 The nature of personal transportation is changing. The pressing need for a shift to efficient, low-emission vehicles has seen an array of eco-friendly models showcased by major auto manufacturers in recent times. But not only is this new era opening up the path for different design platforms that think outside the “box with wheels” mentality that has been the mainstay of the car industry since its beginnings, it also provides a starting point for smaller players with fresh ideas to enter the marketplace. Fitting squarely into this category is Aptera Motors, a Californian based company that has just announced the official launch of the Typ-1 - a radical new three-wheel, two-seat design available in all-electric or plug-in-hybrid versions that bundles bleeding-edge aerodynamics, incredible fuel efficiency and a strong focus on safety in a package that will cost less than USD$30,000. Gizmag spoke to Aptera Co-Founder & CEO Steve Fambro on the technology behind these eye-catching vehicles and the future plans for the company as it moves rapidly into the commercialization phase.
At first glance the Aptera Typ-1e and the Typ-1h (the hybrid version which as almost identical in appearance to its all-electric stablemate) screams one word – AERODYNAMICS. This is no coincidence as the futuristic design was evolved entirely on the premise of finding the optimum shape for a two passenger vehicle.
“Initially I was looking for a small kit car, something that I could build myself”, said Steve Fambro. “Around the same time I became obsessed with the fuel mileage, I wanted to know why these small cars still achieved poor gas mileage at around 25 mpg. At highway speeds aerodynamics eat up half of the energy required just to drive the vehicle and with this realization I then asked myself as an engineer - 'What if I make that part of the equation go to zero? How would I find the lowest drag shape to surround two people?'”
Realizing he couldn't buy the vehicle he envisioned, Fambro decided to turn it into a business venture. A turning point in this process came after witnessing the record breaking flight of the world's first private space ship – SpaceShipOne. “I was amazed that twenty people in three years could develop a spacecraft, the aircraft to carry it up at altitude, test it and put it on the edge of space. If twenty people can do that then surely three or four people can build this car and take it to some form of completion ready for manufacture”.
After a period of networking, in early 2006 Fambro formed a team and found investors – with Bill Gross from Idealab being the first – and the project snowballed from there. The first hand fabricated vehicle was completed six months later, achieving 230 mpg in October, and the program grew quickly into 2007 with the new generation Typ-1 vehicles developed in nine months, culminating in this week's official launch.
The building of the Typ-1 was a very different process from the original hand-fabricated vehicle. Using parts and a part numbering system were designed from scratch (with the numbering based on the Audi system) the process was streamlined with design, stress analysis and aerodynamic testing all done on computer and all parts made separately before assembly.
The Typ-1e and the Typ-1h
Underneath the sweeping lines of the aerodynamic shell, the Typ-1 hides some very well thought-out technology to make the driving experience comfortable and safe as well as being incredibly fuel efficient.
The all-electric model has a range of 120 miles with a regenerative braking system operational through the rear wheel in addition to full dual system hydraulic brakes front and rear. Despite the prevailing attitudes towards the performance of electric vehicles the Typ-1e is by no means sluggish – it achieves a top speed of 90mph and accelerates from 0-60 in around 10 seconds. The Typ-1h hybrid version significantly steps up the range covering more than 600 miles with fuel economy at a staggering 300 miles per gallon.
The Type-1 uses a current one-speed transmission at a one-sixth gear ratio (with the electric motor delivering full torque from zero RPM) and work has already begun on a “quick-change” two speed transmission that will provide greater acceleration and a higher top speed.
The two models are expected to carry different battery packs to cater for their needs (a 10 KWh pack for the electric model and a smaller pack for the hybrid). Both will use a “safe” Lithium system though details on the exact type of batteries to feature in the production models are yet to be released.
Everything else about the two models is identical with air vents to cool the gasoline engine already included in the shell. The only exception is an oval hole under bottom of nosecone to accommodate the exhaust on the hybrid.
A diesel engine was considered for the hybrid model but dropped due to emissions considerations (it's not possible to get a small Diesel engine certified for emissions in California) in favor of a small, water-cooled EFI Gasoline engine with closed loop oxygen feedback and catalytic converter, married to a lightweight 12KW starter/generator.
So how does it handle? “Very well”, said Fambro, “it has a low center of gravity because the batteries, as the most massive element of the vehicle, are mounted between the two front wheels and at the very bottom of the vehicle. The geometry of the control arms and all of the suspension components including the rear swing-arm were designed and tested in house and verified externally to a high-safety margin”. Video of the first prototype in action can be viewed at the Aptera site.
Emphasis has been placed on safety as a key element to the design with the goal of exceeding the specs set out for passenger vehicles wherever possible. A steel, aluminum and composite safety cage surrounds the vehicle occupants with air bags built-in to the seatbelts and a nose cone designed to compact against the angled firewall which is bolted to the front subframe, collapsing under the vehicle on impact and redirecting energy around the occupants. “The Typ-1 has just passed first phase of development for crash testing – frontal offset impact at 45mph - with promising results anticipated for the next phase,” said Fambro. “Because the H-point, the part where your hip rests in the vehicle is actually just slightly above the bumper line of an opposing car, so the bumper begins to travel underneath the vehicle”.
The Typ-1 has a “two plus one” seating configuration that allows an infant seat to be located behind and in between the driver and passenger. Rear storage room provides enough space to fit 15 bags of groceries or two full-size golf club bags and longer items like surf boards can also be carried if the infant seat is removed. The three wheels design also has the added bonus of making the vehicle eligible for most carpool lanes but despite this the Typ-1 has around the same footprint as a car like a Corvette and at 57 inches (1.45 meters) high – it's roughly equivalent to the Toyota Prius.
On the inside the high-tech credentials of the Typ-1 are just as apparent. Side mirrors are dropped in favor of embedded cameras that display a 180-degree rear view in the front of the instrument panel, assisting the aerodynamics and giving the driver complete “eyes-forward” situational awareness.
The innovative, “always-on” climate control system is powered via solar cells embedded under the roof. The energy generated by the cells is stored in the main batteries and the same amount (or less) is taken out to run the air conditioning. The system has a two-fold benefit as Fambro explains: “By keeping the car always cool we are able to use a much smaller airconditioner, it weighs less, costs less and takes much less energy. While you are parked or while you are driving the same heat from the solar gain is collected before it actually gets to the cabin and piped out the rear of the vehicle. Because the system runs while you are parked as well, the advantage is that you never get into a car that's more than one or two degrees above ambient temperature, it's always relatively cool.”
Interestingly, as an unintended side effect the process of taking the heat from the olar gain and the electronics and piping it out the back (via two vents positioned beside the license plates) was also found to lower drag as the car moves along the highway.
Other features include an advanced drive computer with GPS navigation, CD/MP3/DVD player, XM satellite radio, complete vehicle diagnostic system, a USB port for powering electronic devices, LED interior and exterior lighting and an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) system that recognizes the driver so you never have to pull out your keys to enter or start their vehicle.
Into the future
Both models of the Aptera Typ-1 will be available for less than USD$30,000 - the electric version is set for delivery in 2008 with the hybrid model to follow. Reservation deposits of $500 are now being accepted from California residents on the Aptera website (http://www.aptera.com) and more than 400 pre-sale deposits have already been made.
According to Fambro the immediate manufacturing goal is to achieve volumes goal of 10,000 a year within 3 years, although internally there are even more aggressive predictions. This is not a large number by automotive industry standards but without the capitalization costs of the big players, Fambro says that the volumes will be more than enough to make the company profitable with plans afoot to extend the Aptera brand beyond U.S. shores. Other markets deemed suitable for the Typ-1 include Canada, Australia and New Zealand where the relatively spacious roads would suit the footprint of the design. In Europe and elsewhere variations are that could include four-wheel, four- seater models but as Fambro explains, future versions will strive to retain the Aptera's distinctive look: “You'll know its an Aptera”.
Into the future, Steve Fambro believes that people and companies will eventually begin changing their habits to take into account the importance of energy consumption, and Aptera intends to remain at the forefront by adhering to its focus on efficiency and safety. "By changing the fundamental design constraint of the company from the very beginning - making it all about energy and safety - that design ethos is in every design element that we do. Towards the future it's about energy in all forms, lithium is not easy to get either and we don't want to leave one drug for another drug - oil for lithium - we are rethinking how we use the energy radically differently and will continue to make that a core part of the product. All companies in transportation of any kind will eventually have to make that conscious decision".