Aptera, the company that designed a radical, wildly efficient three-wheeler and then died (but only after making into a Star Trek movie) was reborn a few years back and is now ready to officially announce their all-new, reborn car, which it seems like it is just calling the Aptera solar electric vehicle (sEV). It’s a remarkable-looking thing, wildly advanced, and Aptera claims it can have a fully charged range of “up to 1,000 miles” and can use its solar cells to allow for “charging for most daily use.” These are pretty revolutionary claims, so let’s look at them and the car in a bit more detail.
First, I want to be clear that while I’m inclined to treat any numbers or claims like these with a lot of skepticism, the engineering and design I can see in the Aptera is extremely impressive, and while I feel that the way a lot of this information is being presented has a bit of marketing-firm obfuscation, the way the Aptera is designed and engineered should suggest that the sorts of claims it is making are at least within a decent degree of plausibility.
This is a radical vehicle design, no question. It’s an extremely streamlined three-wheel design (which helps make it exempt from many federal automotive standards) and has a drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.13. Just to compare, a Tesla Model 3 has a Cd of 0.23, a Porsche Taycan is 0.22, a Cd that’s shared with the Mercedes-Benz CLA , and the very limited production Volkswagen XL1 efficiency experiment has a Cd of 0.186.
This thing beats all of those. That’s a big deal.
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Of course, to pull that off means a lot of compromises in the car’s shape, which is very unusual, but, I think, very appealing in that it feels wildly futuristic. It’s only a two-seater (well, Aptera specifies two people, plus a pet) and the forms and proportions are quite different than what we’re used to.
That said, I kind of love it. Look at that side shot of what I think is their main finished prototype up there — it looks like nothing else on the road. It feels more like an exotic high-heeled shoe than a car in profile, and the separated skirted front wheels are like nothing else around.
That long, tapered rear isn’t really suitable for seating, but it’s still a good amount of volume — Aptera says there is 25 cubic feet of room in the trunk, which is about 10 cubic feet more than a Tesla Model 3 and more than the roughly 21 cubic feet found in a crossover like the Ford EcoSport.
The materials used are interesting as well — carbon, kevlar, and hemp. It’s all composites, not steel, and as a result is very light, between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds, depending on battery configuration.
Speaking of batteries, Aptera is going to have four options:
~1000 mile range, 100 kWh
~600 mile range, 60 kWh
~400 mile range, 40 kWh
~250 mile range, 25 kWh
So, when Aptera says “up to 1,000 miles of range” that’s what it is predicting it’ll get from the 100 kWh battery, though this has yet to be officially verified by the EPA or anything like that.
Still, given the weight and aerodynamics of the car, I bet it’s possible.
Performance seems good, too, with two options: a FWD setup with a 100kW motor, which is said to do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, and an AWD setup (an additional motor at the rear wheel) making 150 kW (suggesting each wheel has a 50 kW/68 HP motor?) will go from a dead stop to a mile-a-minute in 3.5 seconds, which should be enough for most of us.
Now, let’s talk about the charging of those batteries and the whole “never charge” thing. Plugged into a normal, 110V wall outlet, you can add 13 miles per hour of charging; with a DC fast-charger, that jumps to 500 miles/hour, so at the bottom end, the 250-mile car can be completely charged in 30 mins, and at the top a 1,000-mile charge would take two hours.
Here’s what Aptera says about solar charging:
“With Aptera’s Never Charge technology, you are driven by the power of the sun. Our built-in solar array keeps your battery pack topped off and anywhere you want to go, you just go,” says Co-Founder Chris Anthony. Never Charge is built into every Aptera and is designed to harvest enough sunlight to travel over 11,000 miles per year in most regions.
Now, we’ve seen claims of solar charging before, and those claims are almost always bullshit. Every carmaker that has claimed to have a solar-powered car has neglected to mention that in order to drive just using the sun, you’d have to drive very little and leave the car parked in direct sunlight for really long periods of time.
For example, when we did the math on Karma’s claim that their Revero’s solar roof could “power the car” we found that it would take an entire month of the car sitting in bright, direct sunlight in order to fully charge the battery.
Is the Aptera any better?
The good news is that I think it is. Where the Revero had a 200W solar roof, the Aptera’s is 700W, and the car itself is much more efficient. When I asked some folks at Aptera about the realistic expectations of the solar charging system, they sent me this chart:
So, if you look at one of the sun-coverage areas in the middle, like where I live, they’re claiming I could expect a maximum of 36.4 miles per day, a minimum of 12.6 miles, and an average of 26.15 miles per day of solar charging.
Now, what’s not specified is what a “day” is — are we talking 12 straight hours of full sunlight on a perfectly clean solar panel? My guess is yes, this chart is about ideal conditions, and reality will likely be much less.
You’d have to move the car multiple times to keep it in full sun all day, for example, assuming you find a parking place that’s not shaded to start.
Personally, I think I’d look at a number just below the minimum for a more realistic number, something that factors in the messy entropy of the real world. That’s why I’d expect maybe 10 miles a day of range from the solar setup where I am, maybe 15 to 20 in a California summer?
Even with my deeply pessimistic estimates, even getting 10 miles a day from your car just being parked is no joke at all, and, for a good number of people living in the right places, I bet solar charging could cover a daily commute. But I think the “never charge” claims are too much right now, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
So, while I’m pretty sure the “Never Charge” claim is mostly bullshit, the Aptera is still an extremely impressive machine, and most of its other claims, including a potential 1,000-mile range with the biggest battery, I’m inclined to believe.
The fools over at Elio may not have managed to make any cars, but they did change a lot of laws in most U.S. states to make three-wheeled vehicles easier to register and own, and got rid of most laws that would have required helmets in three-wheelers.
Based on this picture of Aptera’s prototype, it looks like these will run with motorcycle tags:
Also interesting: Are the rear indicators the amber LED strips that wrap around the front fenders?
A Level 2 semi-autonomous driver-assist system is planned for the car (it is calling it “Level 2 Autonomous” but I’m already bitching to them about saying “semi-autonomous” because, remember, no one makes an autonomous car yet), and it looks like that will be an optional feature.
Safety is likely to be a big question for people looking to buy something so unconventional, and while Aptera’s goals are stated as “Aptera will be tested to exceed all applicable FMVSS and NHTSA standards,” nothing’s been fully tested yet, which it freely admits on its’ FAQ:
We will not know Aptera’s actual rating until we pass a production vehicle through the full safety test. But we are designing to exceed all passenger car standards and the previous version had the highest roof crush strength of all passenger cars on the road, and it performed exceedingly well in actual side and frontal crash tests. Aptera features a Formula One-inspired safety cell with advanced composites and metal structures for impact strength. Similar to aerospace and racing, these energy-absorbing methods are a core part of our safety strategy and have proven effective time and time again in high speed impacts. Aptera also makes use of today’s best forward and side airbag systems in case of an accident.
Based on what I can tell, I would guess it’ll prove to be safer than you’d expect from a three-wheeler.
Aptera says it’ll have deliveries of the car by 2021, and the pricing will range from $25,900 to “$46,000+ depending on range and options” which I guess means that they can cost more than $46,000.
If it can get a $25,900 car to market with a 250-mile range, I think that itself will be a hell of an achievement. I also think the sleek, very futuristic looks of the Aptera are dramatic enough that it will have a chance of pulling away some Tesla buyers and other people who really revel in the whole high-techness of it all, which is, I think, a good chunk of the EV market.
While I’m very skeptical about some of the claims, I’m excited about the new Aptera, and hope we’ll actually see these things on the road. They’re novel and clever and pleasingly strange, and I think any roads anywhere would benefit from more of that.