– The Aptera could be the future of US motoring

Transportation News

Electric car gets 851 MPG (EPA comparison)

By this time next year, they could be millionaires — or so say the makers of the Aptera 2e, the space-age American successor to the three-wheeled Reliant Regal driven by Derek “Del Boy” Trotter in Only Fools and Horses.

Technology has moved on a long way since the Reliant made its debut in Britain amid the fuel crisis of 1973. For a start, the $25,000 (£15,300) Aptera 2e runs on batteries, not petrol, although the 4,000 or so customers who have already put down deposits will be offered a hybrid version.

Also, the third wheel is at the back of the vehicle, not the front, making the Aptera 2e look more like a UFO than a tricycle.

As if to emphasise its extraterrestrial looks, it comes only in a gleaming white. The dirty yellow colour of Del Boy’s Reliant (not forgetting the Trotters Independent Trading Co logo: “New York, Paris, Peckham”) is not likely to be an option.

“It might look crazy, but it’s crazy for a purpose,” said Marques McCammon, Aptera’s chief marketing officer, as he stood next to a row of half-built prototypes inside a vast production facility at Vista, California.

“By designing a car without a fourth wheel you basically cut the weight of the rear chassis in half, not to mention losing the rolling resistance of the tyre. If this vehicle was given an official EPA rating [the fuel-efficiency figure assigned to all cars by the US Government], it would be 851mpg.”

Not bad, given that even a greener-than-green Toyota Prius hybrid can manage only 48mpg on a good day.

However, a better measure of the Aptera 2e’s efficiency is that it can go 100 miles on a single overnight charge, giving it a running cost of just 1.6 cents (less than 1p) per mile; less than a sixth of the cost of running a conventional saloon.

But just as Del Boy’s get-rich-quick schemes never seemed to go quite according to plan, Aptera Motors is facing some difficulties of its own; in particular, the Government’s refusal to accept that a three-wheeled vehicle qualifies as an automobile.

This is a big problem, because it is preventing Aptera from being able to collect a $75 million loan from the Department of Energy, under a scheme created by Congress in 2007 to speed up the development of hyper-efficient cars.

The company, whose investors include Google, is now lobbying to change the law.

Reaction has been mixed, with one Democratic congressman saying that Aptera should not be held back by “obsolete bureaucratic definitions” but a General Motors spokesman deriding the three-wheeler as a “novelty vehicle” that will not help the US to reduce oil consumption.

Having test-driven the Aptera 2e, The Times can confirm that it goes and handles more like a sports car than a Reliant — but it has its drawbacks. For one thing, it is extremely wide but there is room for only two people.

The boot, at least, is big enough for an enormous supermarket shop.

One burning question remains: can you inadvertently flip the Aptera 2e on your way home from the pub? “No, even on your best day,” said Mr McCammon, laughing. “Our test drivers throw them into corners at 90mph and nothing happens.”

The power of three

• The 1975 Reliant Robin had a top speed of 85mph and cost £1,500

• In 2006 a British backpacker imported 122 tuk-tuks, converted to run on low-emission natural gas, from Poona, India, to start a rickshaw taxi service in Brighton

• New York and Los Angeles poilice use three-wheel T3 electric vehicles that can enter alleyways too narrow for squad cars

• In January, ZAP, the American carmaker, unveiled an electric three-wheeler with a top speed of 156mph — faster than a Porsche

Source: Times database

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