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Congress Approves Funding for Three-Wheeled Cars

by Jeffrey N. Ross
October 17, 2009

It may take time getting used to, but some key aspects of modern cars will be changing as the automotive industry continues its fuel-efficient renaissance. The internal combustion engine, once a given in passenger cars, is being replaced with battery and electric power, while automakers are getting creative with their designs to offer vehicles that are more aerodynamic. If the U.S. Congress has anything to say about the matter, future cars could be changing the simplest design element that dates back to the very first car: four wheels.

A new movement toward sleek, three-wheeled vehicles is making a modest push toward reality, and the allocation of funds under the Energy Department's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program might help bring these fuel-efficient three wheelers to fruition. The funding is currently limited to vehicles with four wheels that meet certain emissions and fuel-economy requirements, but the new bill opens up the funding to any fully enclosed vehicle that can carry at least two passengers and averages at least 75 miles per gallon.

Although the market (and availability) for such cars isn't big right now, one of the companies that will benefit from this funding is California-based Aptera Motors. Aptera has been showing off two versions of its three-wheeled 2 Series including the all-electric Aptera 2e and the Aptera 2h with plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) technology. According to its Web site, Aptera says that the 2e will be available this year while the 2h will come out next year with prices ranging between $25,000 and $40,000. Aptera's current plan for selling the vehicle will be limited to California and electronics superstore Best Buy is rumored to be the proposed retailer. Aptera is currently taking refundable $500 deposits for either one of its models.

Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur plans on applying for a $75 million loan under this funding to start the production of both Aptera models. The specifics about both vehicles are largely unknown, but Aptera says that the 2e will have a range of more than 100 miles and a recharge time of less than eight hours from a standard (110 volt) household power outlet. As for the 2h, it too will be able to receive a charge from a home outlet, but it will have a gasoline engine to extend its range (it's not clear if the Aptera 2h will use a parallel or series hybrid system). Both models are front-wheel drive.

The Aptera 2 Series features composite body panels that help to reduce the overall weight and make it possible to create the vehicle's unique shape. Both cars sport a sleek shape giving it the look of a wingless airplane which affords it one of the best aerodynamics of a passenger car with a drag coefficient of 0.15. If produced, the Aptera 2 Series would have better aerodynamics than the GM EV1 - currently the record holder for the most aerodynamic production vehicle. Safety is also a concern for the Aptera 2 Series with front airbags and an energy-absorbing safety cell.

Select photos via Aptera Motors


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