The Limits of Cleantech Utopianism
I always hate to see forward-looking cleantech companies go bankrupt; especially during such a tense critical moment in the sector. Even before Solyndra, naysayers were jumping on every evident cleantech failure to cast aspersions on the disruptive kind of technologies that threaten the status quo. So it's with great displeasure that I bring you news of Aptera's bankruptcy.
Southern California electric vehicle startup Aptera Motors is out of time, out of money and out of luck. It announced today that it is shutting its doors, liquidating its assets and laying off its staff.They almost landed that loan, but were unable to raise enough private capital to match it, and so, the futuristic-looking electric car has died a quiet death.
The company, which first showed off its three-wheeler in 2007 and was working on a more conventional sedan, has long been struggling. Even as it unveiled the production model of the super-aerodynamic 2e electric car (shown above) in April 2010, CEO Paul Wilbur all but pinned his company’s future on receiving a federal loan
Unlike many of its peers, Aptera's problem was that it looked too far into the future. (Solyndra, meanwhile, didn't look far enough to see that heavy Chinese investment was bringing down the cost of solar manufacturing) Who, I wonder, did Aptera's marketing department imagine would purchase a car that would look extraordinarily out of place on any American roadway that didn't run through the set of Blade Runner?
And I don't mean to simply be snarky; it's a point that cleantech and EV product designers should bear in mind. Let's anchor our innovate products and clean vehicles in current cultural paradigms. Some futurism is great; more people are inspired by a shiny new solar array or a field of wind turbines or a sharp-looking EV than not. But every year, auto shows are loaded up with uber-futuristic conceptual electric cars. And that's fine--the point of these things is for automakers to display how capable they are of imagining the cutting edge, even if they never plan to sell the vehicles they imagine lie on it.
But for anyone who's serious about moving EVs into the mainstream, pushing a three-wheeled almost-hovercraft probably isn't the way to go. Sure, you'll win over the sci-fi geeks and cleantech diehards. But everyone else will probably regard the contraption as a novelty--and that's likely a part of why the company had trouble landing more private capital. It was certainly why Aptera was perennially trying to make the 2e's design 'more mainstream' to appease the investors it had.
Wired sums its woes up thusly: "The truth is, Aptera always faced long odds and has been in trouble for at least two years. The audience for a sperm-shaped, three-wheeled, electric two-seater was never anything but small."
I don't think there's anything wrong with aiming high, or including some radically futuristic design elements in your product. Hell, I write a blog called the Utopianist. But when a car--not just a product, but a vehicle that we inevitably forge a strong emotional investment in--is so far removed from cultural norms, it's unlikely to be taken seriously for long. And that does a disservice to EVs in general--upon hearing of this news, more people (and investors) will likely perceive of electric cars as infeasible and risky. If anything, Aptera has taught us an important lesson about the limits of cleantech utopianism.