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USA: Why electric-car startup Aptera collapsed, a complete chronology

t’s not the best photo, but it means a lot to the 19 people in it.

Posed in front of a mirrored glass office building under a colorful logo, they are the final employees of the now-defunct electric-car startup Aptera Motors on the last day of its existence, Friday, December 2, 2011.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the closing of Aptera, it may be this: Starting a car company takes a huge amount of money — orders of magnitude more than the software startups Silicon Valley venture capitalists like to fund.

And if the cash runs out at any point, the company will die.

Over the last week, we interviewed former CEO Paul Wilbur and former marketing VP Marques McCammon, who were there to the very end. We also spoke at length with company founder Steve Fambro, who resigned his seat on the Aptera board of directors early this year. He had been replaced by Wilbur as CEO in September 2008. From those interviews and other research, we’ve compiled this inside chronology of the events that led to the end of Aptera.

Not just a single car

Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California.

Through several hours of conversations, a few themes emerged from the Aptera story as recounted by Wilbur and McCammon.

The pair speak highly of the entire workforce, all of them now looking for jobs.

It is clear that the car designed by founders Fambro and Wilbur was not the car Aptera ended up developing. In fact, it created a longer, larger version of the Aptera 2e three-wheeler to comply with the 738 separate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering cars that may legally be sold.

After it became clear that funding a three-wheeler wasn’t going to be possible, the company switched gears in January and threw all its design resources into creating the 4e, a four-seat, four-wheeled car using the same plastic composite body shell construction as the original three-wheelers.

Coming very close?

Both Wilbur and McCammon believe the company came very close to surviving — and suggest that years of discussions with the Department of Energy over its advanced technology vehicle manufacturing (ATVM) loan program ultimately took too long, dooming Aptera to run out of cash.

That $25 billion DoE program offered low-interest loans to automakers and parts companies that would use the money to retool existing plants to build advanced-technology vehicles with fuel efficiency at least 25 percent higher than vehicles they replaced.

Here’s the chronology of the startup:
•2006: Founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony start Aptera to build an ultra-efficient three-wheel electric car (to be registered as a motorcycle)
•Sep 2008: Paul Wilbur is hired as CEO, replacing Fambro
•Dec 2008: DoE rejects Aptera’s ATVM loan application within three days because three-wheelers are not defined as cars
•Jun 2009: Tesla receives $365 million of low-interest loans under the Department of Energy’s ATVM program
•Sep 2009: Fisker too is awarded $529 million in loans under the ATVM program
•Oct 2009: Three-wheeled vehicles are defined as cars for the purposes of the ATVM program
•Jan 2010: Aptera resubmits application to DoE for loans to build both the 2e and a new four-wheeled, four-seat vehicle
•Late 2010: DoE assessment of 2e portion of business plan indicates it cannot pay back capital costs under DoE’s sales projections (a fraction of Aptera’s own numbers)
•Jan 2011: Aptera shifts all development efforts to the 4e, a four-door, four-seat electric sedan that it believes has a better shot at getting DoE funding
•Sep 2011: DoE issues a conditional commitment letter for $150 million of loans to loaning Aptera–IF the company raises $80 million privately
•Nov 2011: DoE turns down ATVM loan application submitted by Next Autoworks (nee VVC) for its low-cost plastic-bodied basic economy car design
•Nov-Dec 2011: Investors spooked by the Next Autoworks denial refuse Aptera’s requests for further operating funds
•Dec 2, 2011: Aptera Motors shuts down

So if you believe Wilbur, Aptera simply ran out of time amidst a loss of confidence by its investors
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