Steve Fambro used to make robots that made DNA for a living. On weekends, he puttered around in his garage, scheming of ways to boost the gas mileage of his Ford F150 pickup. He also experimented with advanced compost materials.
"I built composite ramps and bridges in my garage, such as a one-inch bridge that supported an F150 truck," Fambro told a panel audience at the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards last week. Discouraged by the truck's boxy design and high drag profile, Fambro decided he wanted to build a vehicle from the ground up.
"I wanted to do a car or a plane, and my wife voted for the car," quipped Fambro. "So I wanted to understand where every ounce of energy went, from air resistance to rolling resistance."
Fambro tinkered and designed for two years, then wrote a business plan that led to the founding of Aptera Motors and a far-out-looking car of the future that is sure to turn heads and wow engineers. According to Fambro the drag coefficient of his two-seater Typ-1e is a mere 0.15, about the same as the sideview mirror on his F150. Compare to 0.26 for the Toyota Prius or more than 0.40 for today's SUVs.
What does that mean to you? Much higher fuel economy, a boon to whatever energy source may be used. Fambro designed the Typ-1e to be electric cars (120-mile range after an eight-hour charge), although he noted that a plug-in hybrid version is planned, as well as a larger four-seater. He said the body is "powertrain agnostic," meaning it could accept a number of different engines.
Fambro's invention comes at a time of great uncertainty for Detroit and the auto industry not to mention on top of a poor track record of automotive startups over the past half century or so, from Tucker to DeLorean. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Fambro told the audience. "It's easy to beat up on Detroit, but we should applaud the things they do do for their workers, like healthcare and pensions. Detroit can make a highly reliable car, and do it hundreds of thousands of times. A lot of times Silicon Valley startups think they can show Detroit how to do it, but that's not the approach we took."
Fambro explained that the Aptera borrowed heavily from all the things car designers had figured out over the years, from ergonomics to controls and more. The car body is a skin of super lightweight composites over a metal safety frame. The 1,500-pound car has met or exceeded U.S. government safety standards, according to the company. The Typ-1e is expected to be available by the end of this year at a retail price around $30,000.
Other Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award winners include Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger and Jack D. Newman of Amyris, who developed the equation: sugar cane + yeast + gene splicing = climate-friendly, renewable fuel that is chemically identical to petroleum-based diesel. Super Soaker inventor Lonnie Johnson of Johnson ElectroMechanical Systems came up with a revolutionary way to generate electricity out of any form of heat. And Chuck Andraka and Bruce Osborn were recognized for their record-breaking efficiency in solar thermal power soon to be deployed as massive power-generating arrays in southern California.
Popular Mechanics and The Daily Green are both owned by Hearst Corporation.
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