Door Opens for Aptera, 3-Wheelers to Grab DOE Green Car Funds

It’s a new world for Aptera in its quest for federal funds today. The startup, which is developing a futuristic-looking, ultra aerodynamic three-wheeled vehicle called the 2e, can now be considered for funding under a highly competitive Department of Energy loan program for green cars.

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That’s thanks to an 80-17 vote in the Senate yesterday in favor of an amendment to expand the scope of qualifying vehicles. It now includes not only four-wheeled “automobiles,” but also an “ultra efficient vehicle,” defined as “a fully closed compartment vehicle designed to carry at least 2 adult passengers” and get at least 75 MPG (or equivalent, for plug-in models). In other words, while Aptera is hardly a shoe-in for funding, three-wheelers like the 2e will be fair game for consideration, at least, once President Obama signs the bill into law.

The loan program in question, called the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, was created as part of the 2007 Energy Bill and provides low-interest direct loans to help companies set up or expand manufacturing for plug-in, hybrid and high-efficiency vehicles (it’s separate from the stimulus package). The amendment, which has been the focus of a lobbying effort by some of Aptera’s deep-pocketed backers, cleared the Senate yesterday as part of an energy and water development spending bill (you can read the full text here).

ATVM has proven to be one of the biggest sources of government funds for auto startups since Secretary Steven Chu took office and made it a priority to disburse funds from the long-delayed program ASAP. Electric car maker Tesla Motors scored $465 million in loans under the program in June, and last month plug-in hybrid car developer Fisker Automotive snagged nearly $528.7 million in ATVM loans.

Aptera has requested $75 million to help accelerate its expansion. Given the limited potential for mass market adoption of the 2e, I’m not convinced those would be tax dollars well spent if they went toward Aptera’s inaugural vehicle. But if the company follows through with plans for “more mainstream” products, then maybe Google.org, Idealab, David Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust and the rest of Aptera’s backers could justifiably be joined by Uncle Sam.

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