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Aptera Motors Runs Out of Gas

Another sci-fi dream deferred: Funding gave out before the six-year-old start-up could perfect its futuristic three-wheeler.

Its funding exhausted, the Carlsbad, California startup car maker pulled the plug on its electric three wheeler.

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Electric car start-up Aptera's futuristic three-wheeled two-seater won't be rolling off production lines anytime soon – the company has run out of gas.

The company has failed to come up with enough money to produce the cars, reportedly raising only around $40 million of the $150 million it needed for a federal matching grant to keep operating.The grant would have let the company produce an all-electric four-wheel, five-passenger sedan that would have retailed for less than $30,000 – and employed some 1,400 workers in the manufacturing process.

Aptera had taken preorders for the three-wheeled two seater, called the Aptera 2e, and promised delivery at some point in 2011 – but the company stopped accepting preorders in July 2011. In August, it began returning all deposits placed for the Jetsons-esque vehicle, citing credit-card transaction problems. As recently as three weeks ago, the company said the car was coming, but removed mention of it from its website, according to Green Car Reports.

A spokesperson then said the web site would soon showcase "a better reflection of how our business is developing."

But Friday the company sent out an e-mail confirming it would shut down.

"After years of focused effort to bring our products to the market, Aptera Motors is closing its doors, effective today," wrote CEO Paul Wilbur. "This is a difficult time for everyone connected with our company because we have never been closer to realizing our vision.  Unfortunately, though, we are out of resources."

Wilbur wrote of "exhaustive" due diligence with the Department of Energy over an ATVM (Advance Technology Vehicle Manufacturing) loan, which has helped Ford, Nissan, and Elon Musk's startup Tesla Motors.

"We remain confident, even as this chapter closes, that Aptera has contributed tech new technologies to build a future for more efficient driving," Wilbur wrote. "Through the dedicated staff at Aptera, our board and suppliers we have touched this future. All that remains is for someone to grab it. We still believe it will happen."

There have been a number of potholes in the road for the nearly six-year-old company. Founders Steven Fambro and Chris Anthony were ousted in November 2009 in what Wired described as a boardroom confrontation between them and the auto industry veterans brought in the year before. (Read a post from Fambro here on an unofficial Aptera forum.) 

Wilbur, a veteran of both Ford and Chrysler, was brought in in September 2008, a month after the company closed a $24 million round of funding. Investors included Idealab and Google.

"These new funds will be instrumental as we pursue our goal of bringing the Type-1 [the original name for the three-wheeler] to market," then-CEO Fambro said at the time. (He also said of Wilbur's hiring: “We have searched long and hard for exactly the right leader to help us fulfill the promise of this vehicle. Paul Wilbur is that leader.”)

In what was painted as a clash between California technology startup enthusiasm and the more conservative auto industry, Wilbur promptly delayed production of the three-wheeler by nearly a year to make major design changes. It claimed this was driven by customer feedback, though as Wired observed: "The tech industry is more apt to ship a product early and make improvements down the line....  The auto business historically is much more methodical and risk averse, preferring to make every effort to ensure a car is completely ready for the market before starting production."

Wilbur's decision to delay production ultimately may have been fatal: It led to continued production delays, layoffs – and a huge need for capital in a tough fundraising environment, since the decision delayed the revenues the company would have received shipping cars to more than 3,000 customers.

As for the founders, Fambro is the founder and CEO of a biotech called Famgro, which is aiming to change the way organic produce is grown. Anthony, a serial entrepreneur, is the founder and CEO of Flux Power, a battery systems startup.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Dec 5, 2011

Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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