Sunday, February 15, 2009

Biomimicry and the electric plug-in vehicle meet Bucky

Buckminster Fuller introduced the concept of a 3-wheeled passenger vehicle back in 1933 in the guise of his Dymaxion Car. It was met with considerable excitement by the general public but with equal resistance from leaders of the established automobile industry. It was a radical design that made sense and threatened conventional wisdom.

Biomimcry is
a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Bucky Fuller's concept of Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science discovers the generalized principles embedded in Nature's designs and applies them (not always as literal as biomimicry designs) to problems of human life support.

To say that Bucky was ahead of his time is a profound understatement. But the times seem to be catching up. I'm not sure that the Aptera 2e will be a major player in the future of the automotive industry, but it is certainly heading in the right direction -- on three wheels no less. (GW)

Exclusive: Aptera 2e

An exclusive drive of an aerodynamically slick electric vehicle that looks to change the world, three wheels at a time.

By Douglas Kott

Road and Track

February 15, 2009

I'm accelerating and cornering — hard — on three wheels, little wisps of tire smoke curling out of the slender front wheel pants as steering is cranked in and "throttle" applied. And no, I'm not in an early Volkswagen GTI that hikes up its inside rear tire. Rather, I've been given a drive in the Aptera 2e, a soon-to-be-produced electric vehicle whose shape is slipperier than a Teflon-coated salmon on glare ice, and whose composite construction offers both light weight and impressive structural integrity. Better yet, the 2e is scheduled to begin rolling off the Vista, California, assembly line this October for an as-yet-to-be-determined price between $25,000 and $40,000. Charge it overnight from your 110-volt home outlet, and it's claimed to have a range of 100 the carpool lane, if you wish.

Pie in the sky? Nope. The business model looks sound; nearly 4000 deposits have been placed (Robin Williams among the clientele), enthusiastic investors are locked in, and co-founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony have assembled a team that balances Detroit low-volume niche-production experience with California "anything is possible" attitude. Chief engineer Tom Reichenbach was formerly vehicle engineering manager for both Ford GT and Shelby GT500 programs; and CEO Paul Wilbur has a storied history at Ford, Chrysler and ASC. And Fambro, a biotech engineer and private pilot intrigued by his aircraft's composite construction, and Anthony, a composites specialist with a background in boat design and fluid dynamics, seemed predestined for this partnership.

But back to the Aptera itself. I'm in the pre-production prototype called Punch, so named for upholstery whose color matches that oft-spiked party drink. But the fabric's long gone, as Punch gets lots of track-testing duty and is tuned now with suspension settings and an a/c motor/controller that are nearing final production specs. With the rotary "shifter" clicked to D3, the most aggressive setting, it's responsive, easily modulated and reasonably quick: Reichenbach says 0–60 mph in under 10 seconds with a 90-mph top speed with its pack of lithium-phosphate-ion-"pixie dust" cells — that last part suggesting that their exact composition is a secret.

But flinging it around the streets near Aptera's headquarters, it seems quicker still, partly due to a go-kart-like agility that's carried off with a surprisingly civil ride. Adding to the feel is a view of the road rushing up at you (the base of the aircraft-evocative windshield plunges toward the pavement) and those wheel pants articulating with the inboard rocker-type front suspension, visible out of the dramatically forward-raked side windows. Steering and brakes are unassisted, but efforts are reasonable as the curb weight is only 1700 lb., about half the weight of a base Honda Accord.
 Aptera 2e
Aptera 2e

Earlier, I rode with Reichenbach in another near-production prototype whose interior and exterior detailing is nearing final spec. Entering gracefully through the quasi-gullwing doors takes a few tries, but the door openings are large and once seated, the cabin width seems to split the difference between a Lotus Elise and a Toyota Corolla. There's a large hooded digital speedometer and bar-graph battery state-of-charge indicator, along with a central infotainment screen that offers mind- boggling possibilities. Leg- and head room were surprisingly generous for even my 6- foot-3 frame. And safety is preeminent in the Aptera's design — the final version will have both frontal and side airbags. And if there was any doubt about the strength of the composite construction, it was quelled as eight Aptera employees stood on the roof of a development shell. And that was after the shell had gone through government roof -crush testing!

It seems as if the future is here today...or at least come this October.


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