Aptera Founders Ousted in Showdown With Auto Vets: Report

The co-founders of Aptera Motors, Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony, did not leave the three-wheeled electric car startup by choice, according to a report this morning over at Wired’s Autopia. Rather, unnamed sources tell the blog that Fambro and Anthony were pushed out in “a boardroom confrontation between the original founders and the auto industry veterans” brought onto the Aptera executive team last year.

Darryl Siry, former marketing chief for electric car startup Tesla Motors, writes that “the first sign of a rift” at the company may have been the design shift Aptera announced shortly after hiring Paul Wilbur as president and CEO in September 2008: Instead of bringing the futuristic-looking 2e (then called the Typ-1) to market by the end of that year, as previously planned, the startup said it would revise the design — and delay production as a result — in the interest of “satisfying the needs of real-world consumers,” according to a company statement at the time.

Among cleantech startups, of course, and certainly among electric car developers, delays are not unusual. And satisfying consumer needs might seem like a rational business choice. But according to Siry, sources at Aptera say the decision, to outfit the car with windows that roll down, instead of the earlier fixed-window design, “compromised the structural rigidity of the car’s composite shell,” and required a slew of other changes to maintain side-impact safety.

Siry sees these changes as an illustration of the contrast between Silicon Valley’s iterative approach to software development — launch quickly, solicit user feedback and then refine the product or service accordingly (repeat) — and Detroit’s more risk-averse approach, ensuring a car is market-ready before launching into production. “A small dose of this perspective may prove valuable for EV startups,” according to Siry, “but too much can be problematic.”

Did Aptera take too big a dose? Autopia’s sources seem to think so, drawing a connection between the design changes, and increased capital requirements, continued delays, recent layoffs — and the sidelining of Fambro and Anthony (although Siry notes insiders at a startup can often recall things differently). According to this telling of events, however, Fambro (still listed as chief technology officer on Aptera’s site) and Anthony (a multi-tasking entrepreneur who’s still listed as chief of Composite Operations for Aptera and also heads up startups Epic Boats and Flux Power) had developed a plan for “reversing the new engineering direction and delivering cars to customers ASAP.”

The board of directors ultimately rejected that road map (which also “may have included returning executive control to the founders”) in favor of the new CEO Wilbur’s strategy.

How many potential buyers of the swoopy 2e would have been scared off by fixed windows and other elements in the original design? Hard to say. At this point, we can’t know what consequences would have followed the launch of a 2e a year ago with the original design — whether the company would have proceeded on schedule and found enough customers, revenue and valuable data for a second-gen model to make it worth the risk, or found itself in a big hole to dig itself out of. A bad design move can be a lot more devastating in the auto world: Siry recalls Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard commenting, “it isn’t so easy to recover from a car crash” as from buggy software.

The competitive landscape for green cars has shifted considerably in the year or so since Aptera shifted gears, with the Department of Energy awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, low-interest loans and loan guarantees for companies including Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive to accelerate plug-in vehicle commercialization plans. Aptera marketing chief Marques McCammon tells Siry that Aptera now finds itself “at a strategic disadvantage to some of the other companies in this space that have received funds, like Tesla.” But a door to government funds has just opened for for high-efficiency three-wheeled vehicles like the 2e. (Until last month, only four-wheeled vehicles could qualify for funding under the program that has awarded loans to Tesla and Fisker.) In the long run, Aptera’s decision to pull back the reins and edge slightly closer to the mainstream may aid the startup in its quest for DOE dollars and compete in a market being shaped in part by government funds. For now, we’ll have to wait and see what happens when the 2e finally rolls out.