On the Mat: The Eco Three-Wheelers

Normally losing a wheel slows a car down, but when it comes to electric vehicles, running on just three might actually speed up their time to market. Two freshly funded vehicle startups — Aptera and Venture Vehicles — want to bring hybrid and electric three-wheeled vehicles to the masses. Their vehicles’ improved aerodynamics and lighter weight allow them to go farther with less energy, which means smaller, simpler batteries and better fuel economy. There’s a U.S. government bonus, too: dropping that wheel allows them to dodge four-wheeled car safety regulations by being classified as motor(tri)cycles.

Both companies offer sleek designs which are driving gearheads crazy even before the goods hit the market. But it remains to be seen whether the mainstream car buyer will be convinced that such small vehicles can serve their needs — for that to happen there will have to be a major reconfiguration of consumer expectations and habits. Whether these eco three-wheelers are mainstream products or niche luxury items, Idealab and NGEN Partners — investors in Aptera and Venture Vehicles, respectively — have placed their bets.

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Company: Aptera
Hometown: Carlsbad, Calif.
Founders: Steve Fambro
Financing: “Under $20 million”
In their corner: Idealab
Product: Typ-1
Commercialization: Late 2008
Pricing: Under $30,000
Engine: Plug-in hybrid or electric
Battery: Lithium-Ion?
MPG: 300

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Company: Venture Vehicles
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Founders: Ian Bruce & Howard Levine
Financing: $6 million
In their corner: NGEN Partners
Product: VentureOne
Commercialization: 2009
Pricing: About $20,000
Engine: Plug-in hybrid or petrol/electric
Battery: A123 Systems’ Li-Ion Batteries
MPG: 100

Word is out that Aptera is now taking pre-orders, so we’ll introduce them first. Not much is known about their product, the Typ-1, although just the pictures of it stimulated plenty of interest from electric vehicle, gadget, and automobile enthusiasts. Its design puts two wheels in front and one wheel in back. The company plans to have about 10 a month rolling off its Carlsbad production line by October 2008.

Venture Vehicles, on the other hand, has chosen to base its product on the Carver three-wheeled vehicle, which has been available with a standard engine in Europe since 2005. The design allows the vehicle to drive like a motorcycle, with the passenger compartment tilting left and right as the car corners. Venture has moved the motors directly to the wheels, and added a heavy dose of software, which it claims eliminates unnecessary mechanical parts and provides a variety of performance benefits.

No one is quite sure what the market for hybrid and electric three-wheeled vehicles is in the United States. The closest corollary is the decidedly square Toyota Prius, of which 125,000 have been sold so far this year. A report by JD Power referenced in a Department of Commerce report projects the market for hybrid vehicles to increase to 780,000 vehicles by 2012. Last year, 16.5 million total cars and light trucks were sold in the US.

Other three-wheeled vehicles are also in this market, including Zap and Myers Motors, but neither has the momentum or singular focus on the three-wheeler market as Aptera and Venture Vehicles.

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