In 2007 Congress enacted legislation approving up to $25 billion in loans to establish an incentive program of grants and direct loans to support the development of advanced technology vehicles and associated components in the United States. Today the Wall Street Journal is reporting on a debate over whether Aptera should qualify for the loan program and some apparent political strings-pulling being done to enact legislation that would qualify vehicles like the Aptera under the program.
The program in question, Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM), has a laudible goal of jump-starting a clean vehicle industry in the U.S. The program was created in Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In June 2009 an award was made to Ford, Nissan and Tesla for manufacturing of their respective electric vehicles.
The WSJ article reports that in a December letter from the program’s administrator Aptera was told the program is only for automobiles, and that the definition of an automobile is that it has four wheels. Because of that their $75 million loan application was denied. Just because it looks like a car doesn’t mean it is a car. A reading of vehicle codes around the country will quickly demonstrate that three wheeled vehicles are motorcycles, not automobiles. H.R.1382, The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing
Incentive Act, would opens the DoE’s loan program to closed cabin two- and three-wheeled vehicles that are capable of more than 75 mpg.
Aptera is only one of several makers of three wheeled electric vehicles that look like cars. While Aptera is obviously the most well known of them, the others include Arcimoto, Green Vehicles, Myers Motors and ZAP. One reason to develop a three wheeler rather than four wheeler is that because three wheelers are classified as motorcycles the regulatory requirements are smaller. Motorcycles have very few safety requirements, do not require crash testing, etc, and a startup vehicle manufacturer can get to market with less cost through bypassing all that testing. However in the case of Aptera they claim it is aerodynamics and efficiency, not lesser safety testing, which is behind their decision to have only three wheels. Aptera’s website also stresses the “composite body structures provide an impact-resistant exterior that is lighter than steel but three times as strong”, driver and passenger air bags, impact zones, and other safety features of their vehicle.
This situation offers an interesting conundrum. Is continuing the reign of automobiles (four wheels) the best route to greening the transportation system? Perhaps there is as Aptera suggests a true aerodynamic reason based in physics for using only three wheels. And so long as we’re looking outside the mold of a box with four wheels, what of other hyper-efficient light-weight vehicles? Government programs like these are meant to incentivize production of desirable technologies. But by reaffirming the current prevailing paradigm of four wheeled highway capable vehicles it could be saddling us with inefficiencies that could be resolved if other sorts of vehicles were more prevalent.
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