As I got out of my car in Aptera’s parking lot, I heard the roar of a fighter jet taking off to the east. It was a slightly strange roar, a little lower pitched than the ones I’ve heard elsewhere. The fighter quickly swept down the little canyon, and off toward the ocean, followed by several others. As the last ones flew off, I managed to get a good enough look and see that it was a flight of F-35 Lightning IIs. Made with advanced lightweight composites, the plane is not only hard to see with radar, but is also a fairly capable plane, despite some shortcomings. Some versions can even land vertically, like the Harrier jet that Pepsi once got sued for not giving away.
Next to me was a garage where similar work was going on, but for us civilians to enjoy. Advanced lightweight composites, careful design for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and even an airplane-like appearance are coming together to make an electric vehicle that many people will almost never have to plug in, at least for their daily drive. I walked into the garage door and saw two alpha prototypes, called Luna (the grey one) and Sol (the white one) in a garage. I had seen many pictures and videos, but seeing them in person was a completely different experience.
Inside the Aptera Development Facility
Unlike the military aircraft development process, it’s apparently possible to accidentally walk into the back door of Aptera’s facility without anyone noticing. Given the amazing weather in San Diego, the company can hardly be blamed for leaving the big garage door open and enjoying it while the team is at work, right?
Once I flagged someone down, the lady who was waiting for me near the front door came around and gave me a tour of the building.
Photos were not allowed, as the company is pioneering many new technologies to build a mass-produced solar-powered car and it doesn’t want competitors to copy its homework. One big thing the company is pioneering is creating durable solar panels for cars. Not only must the panels be able to handle all of the vibration, shocks, and temperature swings, but they must also be able to handle 200 MPH winds (the car’s top speed of 110 MPH, plus hurricane-force winds going the opposite way — the worst case scenario), and they must also be able to handle water droplets and even hailstones striking them at highway speeds.
And, they must do all of this without losing efficiency over time, plus it must be possible to upgrade them when better technology emerges. Not only is Aptera experimenting with different materials and bonding methods to accomplish this, but it also has a big airgun that can fire small chunks of ice into test panels to see if different designs can take that kind of a pounding. They didn’t fire it while I was there, but from my adolescent potato gun days (before I got into real guns), I could see that it was a fairly potent airgun. I’ve also run into some fairly potent hail over the years, so I’m glad to see that Aptera is planning on making it hail-resistant.
Another thing I got a glimpse of was the skin-integrated cooling system that’s under development. Instead of having an aerodynamically inefficient radiator, Apteras are going to pump coolant through channels in the car’s outer skin to shed heat as the air passes by it. I won’t describe exactly what I saw, but it did appear to be a very early version of the cooling system built into a belly pan. It does seem like it will be able to move the volumes of coolant needed to keep the battery pack cool.
Either way, this may be one of the most critical technologies the company develops. People who would get the most good from the solar panels tend to live in hotter climates, where the cooling systems will be tested to the max. Having the equivalent of a radiator in the car’s belly did concern me, as striking the bottom of the car on something could give it a critical wound. The tech I talked to told me that yes, this could be a problem, but you’d have to go over something pretty big (think Jeep or Bronco territory) and come down fairly hard. Even then, a cracked coolant system wouldn’t mean that it would quickly overheat like an ICE vehicle. You could drive it around for a while like this and get it in for repairs. It would just be like my Nissan LEAF until you repaired the cooling system (driveable, but not great for long highway drives).
In other words, you wouldn’t be stranded if something happened.
Next, I saw some booths where some kind of light testing could happen. This probably has something to do with the solar development, but details on this were not shared. This isn’t surprising, because once again Aptera is developing new vehicle technologies that its competitors would love to get a peek at.
Finally, I walked around the office part of the facility. I saw stations for engineers, designers, and other people working to make sure the vehicle gets developed. There were also the offices for the co-CEOs (whom I met later) as well as the marketing department. If you’re looking for a job in social media promotion, keep Aptera in mind, as it is going to be hiring more people soon.
The facility was smaller than I had imagined, and apparently Aptera is starting to feel the same way. It has been a great place for the company to get started with development, but as it moves toward building the Beta vehicles (the next step in the development process) and then to production, Aptera will need a lot more space. Fortunately, it recently signed on a much bigger space up the coast in Carlsbad.
By the time we walked around the facility, the cars that were in the garage were gone. Daniel Morris, who I talked about in this article previously, had taken them out to the parking lot without a sound. He’s a vehicle integration engineer who has also become the company’s designated test driver, and he was waiting outside to give us a demonstration.
In Part 2, I’ll continue this story and share what I learned about the vehicles themselves during my visit.
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Featured image and all images by Jennifer Sensiba.