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Aptera: A California original

From the outside it looks more like a small airplane than an automobile, but from the inside it's more like a spacious, comfortable two-passenger sports car. It's the Aptera, a new commuter vehicle being developed by Aptera Motors of Vista. It's the brainchild of engineer Steve Fambro, who co-founded the company with Chris Anthony, an expert boat-builder, four years ago. Initial seed money came from Idealab, a Pasadena incubator of new companies.

I visited its facility in Vista, a spacious building with the office area in the front and a large area in the back where the assembly will take place. Currently there are half a dozen prototypes, from early designs to a fully working model.

Fambro explained that he approached the design in a totally unconventional way. While most cars are designed around a defined shape to house the occupants, the Aptera was designed first as a form to be as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible. Only after that was the interior designed to seat two people. How effective was this approach? He attributes half the fuel savings over a conventional vehicle to its shape and weight alone.

What has emerged is something that looks unlike any other vehicle. It has a swoopy teardrop-shape with its two front wheels mounted outboard on struts, much like a plane. The teardrop tapers to a narrow rear end supported with a single wheel.

The 3-wheel vehicle is constructed of a proprietary resin-infused laminate that combines light weight with the strength to meet the government crash requirements. Unlike steel or fiberglass, the material can withstand blows from a sledgehammer and is several times more resistant than conventional materials to being crushed in a rollover accident. It has a full complement of air bags; the company claims it to be a very safe car.

Aptera Motors plans to bring out several different models, initially an all-electric battery version, the model 2e, later this year. In 2010 a hybrid model 2h will be introduced powered by a combination of a gasoline engine and batteries.

The electric version travels 100 miles on a single charge. Charging is done from a standard 110-volt outlet and takes less than eight hours to recharge from empty. That calculates to a cost of about 2 cents per mile based on today's electric rates. The hybrid version is expected to get 300 mpg. Expected retail price will range from $25,000 for the all-electric to $40,000 for the hybrid. Refundable deposits are now being taken.

The president and CEO, Paul Wilbur, is an auto industry executive with stints at Ford, Chrysler and Saleen, a custom auto producer. He was part of the Ford Taurus team and general manager of the Jeep division at Chrysler. He told me it would be impossible to develop a car such as the Aptera inside any of the Detroit big three. In fact, the company takes an approach that's diametrically opposite. It has no walled offices, just large open areas and conference rooms. Employees work in small cross-functional teams that encourage open communications. In fact, Wilbur's desk is in one of the open areas alongside others, arranged much like a school classroom. There are currently 100 employees, including consultants.

I had a chance to take a short test ride, unfortunately, only as a passenger and not as the driver. The passenger compartment proved to be very comfortable and roomy. You sit erect with an ample amount of room for your legs and plenty of clearance to the windshield and doors. Entering and exiting is through the two large doors that open upwards, much like a DeLorean. The car is equipped with a large LCD display and a 3G data connection that's used for a GPS, rear view camera and data services. There's a flat area behind the seats, with enough room to carry a small amount of luggage or groceries.

We zipped around the business park and the car was quiet, accelerated quickly and seemed easily maneuverable. There was some jostling like a sports car, but it remains to be seen how the ride will be tuned on the final product.

What was most impressive was how a few smart people have been able to develop a vehicle that will have a significant reduction in the use of fossil fuel, more significant in this regard than anything from the Detroit automakers. In fact, Aptera Motors claims to be the world's most efficient vehicle company. It still has a huge job ahead, moving from building a few prototypes to full production, and dealing with the challenges of scaling up. But it's come a long way in such a short time, from just an idea in one engineer's mind.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Phil's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com.

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