Thursday, March 20, 2008

How the Aptera Hybrid Works

How the Aptera Hybrid Works
by John Fuller

What if you could drive across the entire United States -- from East coast to West coast -- on just one tank of gas? Sounds like a crazy idea, right? Ever since Nicholas August Otto developed the gasoline engine in the 1870s and Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine in the 1890s, people have improved upon vehicle efficiency in fits and starts.

Holy hybrid/electric car, Batman! Is a 330-mpg car really possible?

As concerns continue to grow over the possible consequences of global warming, nations and governments are beginning to react. The European Union continues to revise its strict emission standards, and ultracompact cars like the Smart Car, the MINI Cooper and the iQ Car catch lots of attention for their space- and energy-saving qualities. In the U.S., meanwhile, President George W. Bush signed an energy bill on Dec. 19, 2007, that encourages automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles and increase the industry average to at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

While these are small steps toward a respectable goal, Accelerated Composites (AC), a private company of only 15 employees based in San Diego, Calif., may be taking a big leap with the Aptera, a three-wheel, two-passenger prototype that aims for an astounding 330 miles per gallon. AC was founded in 2006 by Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony, two independent entrepreneurs with experience in everything from composites and biotechnology to aerodynamics and finance.

This combination of expertise led to the Aptera, a truly unique vehicle that looks like a cross between a dolphin and a helicopter. Technically classified as a motorcycle, the vehicle will only be available to residents of California when it's initially produced. If the Aptera sells well, AC hopes to offer its vehicle to national and international markets.

The initial prototype of the Aptera achieved 230 mpg, a number that is 195 mpg over the projected standard outlined in President Bush's recent energy bill. As of now, the developers still have more time to work out the kinks and improve its efficiency -- AC expects the Aptera to be ready for Californians in late 2008.

­How fast will the Aptera go? Since it's technically a motorcycle, what are its safety features? Read on to learn more about the Aptera.

Aptera Specs

So how can the Aptera get such great gas mileage? Several aspects of the vehicle's design give it high fuel-efficiency, but Accelerated Composites' area of expertise is right in its name -- composites. You may hear the word sometimes when people talk about construction, but what exactly is a composite, and how does it help the Aptera?

The Aptera will be available as an all-electric or a plug-in hybrid for under $30,000.

A composite is a material that is made up of two or more different properties. Although these properties are easy to tell apart when combined and don't fuse together completely, they work together to form a substance that is strong, light and easy to shape. Composites can occur naturally in nature, or they can be man-made. A natural composite, for instance, is something as simple as wood, which is made of strong fibers of cellulose bound together by a light, weak substance called lignin. Concrete, on the other hand, is made by combining aggregate -- small stones and gravel -- and cement.

Sports car manufacturers use carbon fiber composites to build light, speedy yet powerful cars like the Aston Martin Rapide and the Lamborghini Reventon. Airplanes, cars, boats and insulation for buildings are made with fiberglass because of its great strength. The Aptera uses its own patented process called "Panelized Automated Composite Construction (PAC2)" for its body design, which gives the vehicle its unique, aerodynamic shape.

The Aptera was intended to operate on a diesel engine, but it became too difficult to build a small enough engine that would pass California's emissions testing. Instead, it will be available as either a pure electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid. Top speed for the Aptera will exceed 85 mph and will most likely be limited electronically at 95 mph -- smaller, lightweight cars can't go too fast, especially on highways, because air resistance makes them unstable. If you throw a light paper airplane through the air with a bit too much force, you might get an idea of how easily air can alter its course. The same goes for a lightweight car traveling too fast down the road.

But the speed limitation isn't the only safety precaution AC has taken with the Aptera.

Aptera Safety

The folks at Accelerated Composites take safety seriously -- a good decision, since the Aptera classified as a three-wheel motorcycle. Many people have reservations about these types of motorcycles because of their dangerous tendency to roll over.

When automakers experimented with this design in the past, they usually worked with a delta formation -- one wheel in the front and two wheels in the back. The problem with the delta formation has to do with what's called a velocity vector. Every moving object has its own velocity vector. The velocity vector of a car driving north on a highway can simply be described as north -- think of an imaginary line pointing straight from the front of the vehicle. If you turn to the left, however, the vector velocity shifts, and shifting too far outside of the wheelbase when turning can flip a delta configuration. A tadpole formation like the Aptera's -- two wheels in front and one wheel in back -- will keep a vehicle’s velocity vector between those two front wheels and significantly decrease chances of rolling over.

Two wheels in front and one in back help eliminate any tendency for the Aptera to roll over.

In addition to the wheel placement, the Aptera's been given a low center of gravity and traction control to greatly reduce the risk of rolling over. Race cars, for instance, also have low centers of gravity, because the weight of the car needs to overcome the force it experiences from turning corners at high speeds. SUVs, on the other hand, typically have higher centers of gravity and tend to roll over more easily.

Crash tests have also proven successful, as the Aptera exceeded strength requirements for rollover and frontal impact requirements. The safety cage in the front of the vehicle gets its inspiration from Formula One race cars, which can easily reach speeds of up to 200 mph.

The Aptera's "Eyes Forward" system gives drivers a 180-degree rear view sight.

The outside structure isn't the only part of the Aptera that provides safety. As part of what Accelerated Composites calls the "Eyes Forward" vision system, a video display is located in front of the driver, offering a 180-degree view behind the vehicle. As you can see from the pictures above, rear view sight is limited because of the Aptera's body design. The video display is necessary for safe driving conditions. A GPS system located on the center console provides further assurance, letting you know that you're at least heading in the right direction.

The Aptera is a "two plus one" concept -- two adults can fit comfortably in the driver and passenger seat, and a removable third seat is located in the back for infants. Removing that back seat allows enough room for 15 bags of groceries. If "two plus one" want to cruise around the California coast, though, do they have to wear helmets? Even though the Aptera is classified as a motorcycle, you don't need to wear a motorcycle helmet -- or obtain a motorcycle license, for that matter -- because the vehicle is enclosed. The Aptera's classification only makes things easier for California residents, actually, as drivers are permitted to use HOV lanes, even if there's only one person inside.

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