A couple of pieces of uninteresting and unsurprising tech fluff crossed my screen in the past few days. The only thing that made me pay the slightest attention was the coincidental timing. I’m referring, of course to Arcimoto suspending operations and heading for bankruptcy, and Aptera releasing yet another rendering of a three-wheeled vehicle it will never deliver, with more promises about what will be in it.
For the people who hack out a bottom-feeder living turning press releases and news wire material into click bait, that’s fine. Someone has to fill the internet up with drivel for pennies, although ChatGPT is going to eat their paychecks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not like any of these people are writing the next great American novel, although I’m sure some believe they are. They are just feeding an advertising eyeball content vortex. For those people, a clickbait headline like “Seven cars you can’t imagine exist!” followed by seven bizarre failures like Aptera with some pictures stolen from the internet is a perfect way to catch eyeballs that aren’t stuck to TikTok.
But if you actually want to do more than just spew words for pocket change, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind. I’ll use the three-wheeled, electric, road-vehicle space, full of nonsense as it is, to illustrate the points.
Write About A Future Failure Once
There’s an enormous amount of absurd stuff out there. Seriously, it’s an inexhaustible well, and there are hilarious variations on stuff that are interesting to poke at to explore whether the people behind them are deluded, pulling everyone’s legs, or outright con artists.
For example, when I was assessing silly wind innovations, the Sheerwind Invelox received exactly one article’s attention. (Per CleanTechnica owner Scott Cooney, they used to think of me as their public enemy number one. They surrounded him at an event in California and demanded that the article be yanked.) They, of course, have gone bankrupt, leaving a few rotting examples of their nonsense wind concentrator in a couple of places, and a bunch of empty wallets where investors used to have money. Similarly, I wrote one assessment of the airborne wind energy failure Makani, long before Alphabet finally yanked the plug out of the life support machine it was on.
Aptera deserves exactly one article from any writer if they aren’t being paid by Aptera. This is mine. It actually has a hook and uses Aptera as an example to provide something of value.
To be clear, I broke this rule with Carbon Engineering, but that’s because there was so much to unpack from so many perspectives. That’s why the entire set was packaged up into a lengthy CleanTechnica report with a foreword by Mark Z. Jacobson. And I tried to abide by CleanTechnica editorial preferences to break longer pieces into shorter pieces for a while, hence the two-parters on Heliogen and Energy Vault. However, those are exceptions. If you break the rule, be clear and honest with yourself why you are doing it. Ensure that there’s actually something worth reporting on, such as Energy Vault’s quite deserved lawsuit from investors (article 3).
Be Clear About Conflicts Of Interest
Writing more than one article about these clear failures, or dozens as is the case of some writers in the case of Aptera, is deeply odd. The only reason to write more than one article about something like Aptera, especially under your own name, is if they are paying you decent money to do so, like a dollar a word, you have a fiscal vested interest, or you are a deluded tech enthusiast publishing extended comments in an r/aptera reddit thread (I’m sure there must be one) for other Aptera enthusiasts. And if vested, you had better be honest that you are writing sponsored content. If, for example, you have given them a bunch of money as an investor or a downpayment on a vehicle, and you aren’t transparent about that in every single piece you desperately write to try to will breath into the lungs of the dying firm, then there are some basic ethics you should brush up on.
I have written about Agora Energy Technologies in one article and mentioned it in a couple of others. And that was after contextualizing the entire grid management space and redox flow batteries. It’s actually a deeply interesting firm with the potential to deliver both a great grid battery and an industrial component of the future that manufactures carbonates, both key wedges in climate action. I’ve been a strategic advisor and Board observer for the firm for a couple of years, and make that clear every time I mention it. Ditto ELECTRON Aviation, which I haven’t written an article about as the primary subject, just mentioned in a couple of contextually appropriate pieces. When I mention it, I ensure that my role on its Advisory Board is noted.
On that note, I don’t short stocks. I have zero fiscal interest in Aptera, Arcimoto, or Solo. I make zero money if they succeed or fail because I’m a buy and hold investor of useful companies with good management and futures. Aka not these firms, although firm isn’t a useful adjective for these failing companies.
Check The Histories Of The Founders
It’s always useful to provide context on the founders. Sometimes it becomes very clear what is going on after doing that. For example, when publishing on perpetual motion hydrogen scam Joi Scientific after the wheels fell off that con (but not before New Brunswick Power blew $23 million on it), the histories of the two ‘inventors’ and executives whose names were on the patents was interesting. Music and software sales respectively, not hydrogen or energy. Or STEM of any kind, really. Similarly, for a west coast ‘solar’ perpetual motion long con firm, finding out that the principal had seven aliases and was the son and nephew of a couple of the biggest fiscal con artists in American history was enlightening.
For Aptera, while the co-CEOs, Fambry and Anthony, now have more experience wasting money on a three-wheeled insurable road vehicle than pretty much anyone else in history, absolutely none of their experience is in delivering anything in the automotive, trucking, or motorcycle manufacturing sector. The only quasi-relevant experience is Anthony’s, and that was in boats prior to Aptera and airport ground equipment batteries afterward. Absolutely nothing in their backgrounds before the original version of the Aptera was used to raise and burn through $30 million suggested that either of them were remotely credible to deliver an insurable road vehicle. Nothing since indicates that either of them are remotely credible to deliver an insurable road vehicle.
At that, they are more credible than the inventors of the oscillating wind stalk, whose previous firm manufactured artificial noses.
Provide Basic Data & History For The Firm
Reporting on a firm like Aptera is not particularly difficult in 2023. Its existence is shorter than the lifespan of the internet. It has a Wikipedia page (also a waste of internet space, but sure, why not, internet space is cheaper than dirt). The history of its investments and failures is easy to find. When I wanted to know how long it had been peddling this nonsense (18 years), how much money was blown the first time ($30 million), how much money was raised this time ($85 million) and how much it claimed they still needed to raise just to get to start of production ($50 million), it was trivial to find it. Its first bankruptcy was easily available to anyone who glanced at them.
18 years to deliver nothing, go through bankruptcy, and burn through at least $115 million of other people’s money is a pretty clear track record.
Assess The History Of The Product Category
It’s useful to look back with the help of Google at examples of the type of thing in question. For example, when I looked at ducted wind turbines like the Sheerwind Invelox a decade ago, it was trivial to find the first attempted commercial one was from 1930, and every decade or so one or two would pop up, fail, and disappear. If there’s a history like that, it’s worth asking if anything is remotely different for the product in question.
To the example of Aptera, people have been inventing three-wheeled cars since about 1900 in the west. Every decade or two a new crop of road three-wheelers shows up. The only ones that kind of succeed are crappy motorcycle substitutes for people who can’t ride two-wheelers for some reason, and the majority of those come from Quebec, which has a regulatory loophole that allows them to be insured like motorcycles while driving like cars. The other places in the world where crappy motorized three-wheelers are a big thing is a province of India and Thailand which have the same regulatory loophole. Quebec ended up with the loophole because Bombardier is a very well connected regular corporate welfare case based in the province, and so was able to lobby successfully for the provision.
Other than that, the entire space is littered with failures. There’s an emergent crop of low-speed, urban, electric delivery trikes that’s fit for purpose, but Aptera is not going to be the exception to the road vehicle rule.
Assess The Capital Requirements For The Product
When I looked at urban air mobility’s electric vertical landing and takeoff vehicles (EVTOL), I gathered outside view data on the cost to get aerospace products to market. Very conventional rotorcraft with no novel technologies cost $100 million per ton of dry weight aircraft solely for certification. FAA and EASA certification costs more and takes longer if you have more complexity and novel technologies, and EVTOLs were complex with lots of novelty. The consensus is $1-$1.5 billion per EVTOL firm for certification alone for its initial product. There is no demand sufficient to pay just the costs of certification, never mind make any money on the products.
Aptera is a deeply undercapitalized firm and everyone involved with it is clearly lost in the wilds of the sunk cost fallacy. It doesn’t have sufficient money to get an insurable vehicle onto public roads — far from it. To build 5,000 of the Founder’s edition as it claims it’s going to do, it likely needs well over $100 million after the $50 million it doesn’t have. Remember, Tesla took $10 billion to get stability with delivery of the Model S.
Assess Other Current Products In The Category
It’s always worth comparing a gadgety product to other products claiming to do the same thing, often with the same nonsensical projections. That’s why when I looked at airborne wind energy, I looked at every current and several moribund examples to gain context on the space and its challenges. That helped me determine that airborne wind energy was all platypuses, not cheetahs, and compare the approaches’ viability to basic mast-and-blades turbines.
In the case of Aptera, there are two extant, equally deluded or deluding entrants, Arcimoto with its ‘fun utility vehicle’ and Electrameccanica with its Solo. Arcimoto just closed up its shop and is entering bankruptcy, so bye bye investors’ money and any donations … er … down payments anyone gave to them. Solo, which promised to be delivering thousands of vehicles a year, has managed to deliver under 600 in well over a year of production and sales, mostly to businesses that want quirky mobile billboards.
There is next to no demand for three-wheeled, motorized road vehicles. People think they want them, but they actually don’t. The space has most or all of the inconveniences of motorcycles with none of the advantages. People with inner-ear disorders and too much money who want motorcycles get Can-Ams or Harley-Davidson trikes.
Be Harsh On Complete Nonsense
Bikeshedding or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, is a term that came from nuclear power plant planning and construction. In one case, more time was spent on the location, size, and attributes of the shed for employees’ bicycles than on much more important economic and engineering issues. When BMW announced that its i3 and i8 were manufactured with a novel resin body, that screamed bikeshedding to me. When it turned out that the i8 had fake engine noises piped into the cabin through the stereo? Bikeshedding. When Harley Davidson’s Livewire was set up to scream like a demented banshee instead of a relatively quiet electric motorcycle? Bikeshedding.
Get the basic product right with the correct features. Ruthlessly remove unnecessary items because manufacturing is expensive.
And so, Aptera. Solar panels? On a car? This is so stupid that it’s remarkable it gets favorable coverage from anyone. Cloudy day? Garage for the toy? Park under a tree? Live in a multi-unit residential building? Work has a parkade?
The panels will never be aligned with sunlight, completely fail to work in completely normal circumstances for vehicles people actually drive, add weight, add complexity, and add cost. How credulous do people have to be to believe that this is a useful feature? The recent announcement made it clear that Aptera left out actually useful stuff for electric road vehicles in 2023, most notably the ability to charge more quickly than a snail, but still have the inane solar panels.
Don’t Breathlessly Reword Press Releases
Seriously, how hard is this to understand? Bad products and good products want people to pay attention to them. Leave press release journalism to ChatGPT and content mills in India. If you do want to do something with a press release, get press releases from all the related companies and compare and contrast them. Or use the press release to trigger you into some actual investigation.
But press releases are PR fluff designed to get lazy journalists to write lazy nonsense that lazy editors don’t kill, or that clickbait sites use to grab eyeballs. Go deep instead.
It should be clear by now that when a firm like Aptera sends out a press release or makes an announcement, deep skepticism should be the basis of the day. Ignore the press release or write something useful. Otherwise, I hope you are getting paid well by the word or are pushing stuff into your personal blog/diary, and not getting stuff published in a site that intends to be taken seriously.
Want To Write Remotely Seriously About Tech?
These are the basics for doing that. There’s more of course. One day Aptera will be an interesting case study in some course or other. It might be worth writing lengthier articles about each of the points above for that reason. Maybe there will be an interesting book about Aptera after it inevitably fails. More likely it would be a moderately interesting chapter in a book about really bad ideas that kept returning to life and taking more money from investors and the faithful. Maybe a book with Carbon Engineering, Joi Scientific, Sheerwind, Lightsail (carbon fiber compressed air storage tanks), and Theranos as other chapters.
But if you are just blogging about firms like Aptera because you are credulous enthusiast, a hopeful investor, or writing click bait fluff for eyeballs, don’t expect to be taken remotely seriously.
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