How Things Work: Aptera

The Aptera, a new car set for production later in 2008, unites cutting-edge ideas of automotive aerodynamics with advanced composite manufacturing technology (combining materials to improve their strengths). A white-painted, teardrop-shaped vehicle, this two-person car is likely to turn heads — and alter the landscape for the future of personal transportation.

Featuring a lightweight, carefully shaped composite shell to reduce drag, or wind resistance that slows the car down, the Aptera is at the forefront of fuel-efficient design. According to the Aptera Motors website Aptera, the car’s designers used software programs such as Computational Fluid Dynamics to analyze shape and to “maximize efficiency,” as well as Finite Element Analysis to ensure that the car’s body is “lightweight, robust, and manufacturable.”

Formerly Accelerated Composites, Aptera Motors is based in San Diego. The Aptera vehicle, once manufacturing begins later this year, will at first only be available in California. This is largely due to the need for consumers to be able to have their cars maintained and serviced. Until the vehicle is produced on a larger scale, such service must stay regional.

Technically classified as a motorcycle in California for its three-wheeled system (with two front wheels and one in the rear), the Aptera can be driven in HOV lanes, but its drivers do not need to acquire a motorcycle license — a regular driver’s license will do — or wear helmets due to the enclosed shape.

The novel product does feature such safety systems as airbag-in-seatbelt technology and a firewall that will redirect energy around the outside shape of the car body and away from the occupants. Moreover, it features a frontal crumple distance of 45 inches, which is large proportionally in relation to the size of the vehicle.

All three wheels will have dual hydraulic brakes in addition to the rear regenerative brake.

To reduce the chance of rollover, which is a general fear with three-wheeled vehicles, the Aptera has traction control and a low center of gravity. Furthermore, in addition to performing physical crash tests, Aptera Motors is performing visual crash test simulations using software analysis programs to predict the impact of front and side crashes to the vehicle.

While performing these safety exercises, meeting and even exceeding certain California standards, the Aptera is rather progressive in its automotive capabilities. The Mk-0 proof-of-concept model has a drag coefficient of 0.11, which, while higher than initially desired, gets about 230 miles per gallon at 55 miles per hour on a fully charged battery. That is, the Aptera is an electric and gasoline hybrid: It is a series hybrid with direct belt drive, available in an all-electric version (which is estimated to cost $26,900) and a plug-in hybrid version (which is estimated to cost $29,900).

Designed as an extended range electric vehicle, the Typ-1e Aptera is electric and designed to use a 10–kilowatt battery pack, while the Typ-1h plug-in hybrid Aptera is designed to use a smaller pack.

The battery will have a two to four hour charge time, which will only cost approximately $1–$2, according to California electricity prices. The expected mileage range for both models is about 120 miles on a fully charged battery, which helps present Aptera Motors as the current front-runner in the recently announced Automotive X PRIZE, a venture of the X PRIZE foundation sponsored by Progressive.

The first Aptera prototype, the Mk-0, was a parallel hybrid diesel vehicle with no electric assist and averaged 230 miles per gallon at 55 miles per hour. However, Diesel fuel is notorious for containing “lots of unburned hydrocarbons and NOX compounds,” according to Aptera Motors’ website, and as such, it is difficult to get a small diesel engine certified for California emissions.
As such, the makers of the Aptera are using a small, efficient, water-cooled gasoline engine with a closed-loop oxygen feedback for the Typ-1h model. The result is a clean, quiet engine that contributes to the vehicle’s overall efficient design and construction. The top speed of the Aptera is projected to exceed 85 miles per hour, and it will go from zero to 60 miles per hour in under 10 seconds.

In terms of unique features in the car, a rear camera and GPS are likely to be standard — the former of which is to counter difficulties in rear visibility due to the rounded shape of the vehicle. Windshield wipers are tucked away at the base of the large windshield so as to not interrupt air flow over the rest of the car body.

In terms of driver comfort, heat and air conditioning will be available, the windows can be opened, and the vehicle comes with cup holders and a car charger socket for cell phones. Also, the small car can fit people up to 6'1" in height, or even up to 6'5" with accommodating seat adjustments.

The Aptera can be reserved for purchase in California on the company’s website at Aptera.