Aptera Founder Steve Fambro: Mainstream Vehicles in the Pipeline

Steve Fambro, founder and CEO of the three-wheeled electric vehicle startup Aptera, started building the first designs for what he envisioned as an electric highway-ready vehicle “with zero drag” in his garage five years ago. He reasoned: “Cars are not designed to be aerodynamic, they are designed largely as furniture.”

Fambro, who ended up proving his three-wheeler’s low-drag design in a NASA analysis last year, is now in the throes of entrepreneurialism, raising a Series C round, aiming to get his first vehicle to market by the fourth of quarter of next year, and working on the next generation of more mainstream electric vehicles that the company hopes to offer down the road.

Even if Aptera’s quirky, space-age-looking shape isn’t your idea of a pimped-out ride, you can’t help but root for the startup’s almost friendly, outsider’s market position. Three-wheelers aren’t usually thought of as game-changing cars that could disrupt Detroit, or even compete with Prius sales. Even Fambro says, “We’re not trying to emulate GM. We shouldn’t even be thought of as a car company.”
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But the approach from left field could be the key to finding a sleeper hit for Aptera. The company is keeping costs low (“To do something like this you need under $20 million dollars,” says Fambro). Compare the modest finances of Aptera, which has been backed by Bill Gross’ Idealab and Esenjay Investments, to Tesla’s $100 million-plus from high profile VCs. And Fambro says the company is set to be profitable once it has sold 2,000 vehicles, forecast to take place in the second years of sales.

The company’s plan is to use the three-wheeler to help establish the Aptera brand and generate revenues while it works on other “more mainstream” products. Fambro won’t offer much detail on the company’s plans for other products, but concedes that Apetra could one day fall into the category of a disruptive car industry upstart several years down the road.

For now, Aptera just needs to get its first product to market, which they plan to do in the fourth quarter of 2008. There are two versions — the electric and the hybrid — both selling for under $30,000. The hybrid can get 300 miles per gallon for the first 100 or so miles.

While there are a flurry of new electric car startups beginning to offer products, Aptera’s three-wheeler is the only one with that moon-landing-style shape. Fambro says the shape of the vehicle will appeal to drivers that want a car that is not only good for the planet, but also connotes that value to the world through its design. The Prius attracted customers because its looked different than a standard car, and Aptera’s vehicle is, well, really different. Maybe too different. But as Fambro notes, cars are our avatars, and there’s likely enough new quirky eco-vehicle enthusiasts out there that can identify.

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