Lifestyle

The Ultimate Economy Ride


Inventor Steve Fambro says his three-wheel car, built from plastic, will cost under $20,000 -- and get 330 MPG

A born tinkerer, Steve Fambro has built everything from go-carts to automotive racing parts. After four years in the U.S. Army working on testing equipment, he got an electrical-engineering degree and snared a good job designing robots used for research at San Diego biotech Illumina (ILMN). But it wasn't long before he was growing restless. "I wasn't challenged at work," recalls the 37-year-old Fambro.

He considered building a kit airplane in his spare time to indulge his interest in aviation, but his wife, Patricia, quickly squashed that idea as too dangerous. So Fambro turned to another passion of his -- cars. He bought books on car design at Amazon.com (AMZN) and, with gasoline prices soaring, began to consider ways to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. Fabro read up on Volkswagen's abandoned prototype for a "1-liter" car before abandoning it in 2002. His discovery: "70% of a car's energy goes to pushing air out of the way."

With help from a couple of colleagues from Illumina, Fambro has designed an entirely new vehicle that he thinks will revolutionize the automotive industry. It's an aerodynamic two-seater, built entirely from parts made of ultra-strong composite materials. Fambro says it will cost under $20,000 and get an incredible 330 miles to the gallon (see BW Online, 1/19/06, "Startup Plans 330-MPG Hybrid").

TRI-WHEEL TREND.

They've named it the Aptera -- Fambro says it comes from the Greek word for wingless flight. "For 50 years, cars have been designed as a styling aesthetic," Fambro says. "They start out with a shape without any regard for weight or aerodynamics. Then they try to make it more efficient."

The Aptera will derive its fuel economy from several sources. Its light-weight components give it an overall weight of just 850 pounds, a third that of a typical small car. The vehicle will run an off-the-shelf one-cylinder engine that Fambro is buying from a German company he declines to name. The car's design is also crucial. With the engine in the back, Fambro eliminated the traditional hood and fender, designing a swooping front end instead.

To further slim down the Aptera, Fambro outfitted the vehicle with just three wheels -- two in the front and one in the back -- part of an emerging trend among major carmakers such as Toyota (TM), Mercedes-Benz (DCX), and Peugeot (PEUGY). Volkwagen, for example, generated a flurry of positive news clippings when it unveiled its three-wheeled concept car, the GX-3, at the Los Angeles auto show in January (see BW Online, 1/6/06, "VW's Three-Wheeler: For Real?").

"HALO EFFECT."

But Anthony Pratt, an automotive researcher at J.D. Power & Assoc., says these types of vehicles do more for a manufacturer's overall fuel-efficient image than they do for the bottom line. In other words, VW isn't setting its heart on moving a lot of GX-3s. In California, notes Pratt, you would need a motorcycle license and a helmet to drive one. "They are designed to create a halo effect for the company producing them," he says. "They will never realize high volumes."

The question confronting Fambro is whether horsepower-hungry Americans will really go for a one-cylinder car? Its creator says the horsepower focus misses the point. Most cars are way overpowered for their everyday use. The Aptera will be sluggish on the get-go, he concedes, taking 11 seconds to get to 60 miles per hour. But once it gets going, it will be capable of traveling 90 miles per hour. "This car is plenty fast enough for getting on the highway and passing people," he says.

The other hurdle Fambro faces is safety. Will an all-plastic car survive crash tests? Fambro says he has already tested some of the parts, putting them on the curb and driving over them to show how durable they are. "People are surprised -- they don't even bend," he says. The Aptera will have safety features just an insulation made of crushable foam and air bags built into the seat belts that will absorb much of the impact in a crash.

DETROIT CALLING?

Fambro and his two collaborators formed a new company in January called Accelerated Composites, and will soon move into offices in an airplane hangar in Oceanside, Calif. The partners have already lined up $400,000 in financing from an investor group and have contracted with Katana Industries of British Columbia to build the first Altana prototype, which they hope will be ready be the end of May.

There are signs that Detroit is prepared to take Fambro's venture seriously. He says he received a call from a representative from one of the Big Three's composites divisions (Fabro prefers not to name the company), who peppered him with questions about his car. "I'm on their radar," he says.

For Fambro, the road ahead is a long one, of course, but he has the power of a good idea behind him. "His concept is genius," says Chris Anthony, chief executive of San Diego boat designer Epic Boats, who recently signed on to become the CFO for Accelerated Composites. "All the theory and mechanics of it work." And with a new concern for green machines, the market just might be ready for him.

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau.

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