Aptera Alive!: Interview With Designer Jason Hill

Aptera Alive!: Interview With Designer Jason Hill

Feb 27, 2009

Unplggd recently sat down for some Japanese food with Jason Hill, Principal of Eleven, LLC and Designer of the revolutionary Aptera electric and plug-in hybrid/electric vehicle coming out this year. We basically just hit record and talked about his involvement with the project. Listen in after the jump...

So what is Aptera looking like now?

They've got an excellent team- I think they've got 50+ employees now up from 3 two years ago. They are all key people who know what's going on.

Well, that sounds pretty healthy, considering that the car isn't even out yet.

For me, the car speaks for itself. I mean, it's not a car, it's not a motorcycle, it's a personal mobility device that carries two people. It's going to be put in its own category. Your average responder on a blog will try to compare it to something and often will come away frustrated because it ISN'T so many things that are familiar.

Yeah- I have seen those comments on Youtube or wherever and people ask "Oh, what happens when a Hummer runs into it?"

Exactly- same thing… same thing as if you are on a bike or on a motorcycle or in a civic. It's just physics- It's a small vehicle and that is just what category it's in.

And the thing is, I mean first of all; aerodynamics and safety wise, the shape is such that any air hitting it, doesn't affect it. So a van passing by is trying to move a ton of air and because of its shape, it has a hard time, but the Aptera won't even notice it passing because the air just slides over it. Secondly, we put a lot into the structural rigidity- it is much stronger than any vehicle in its class. Much stronger than it legally needs to be.

Now I know Geoff Wardle at Art Center had a hand in getting you and Aptera together, how did that happen, exactly?

Yeah, he was consulting for Idealab and all their companies, and one of them was Aptera. He told them "you know, you really have something here but you really need the benefit of a traditional automotive designer to look at this and develop the product to the next level." Steve said "Ok, sounds like a good idea" and so he Googled "Car Designers" and he got a friend of mine. My friend didn't feel like there was a fit so he passed it on to me!

So I got this email out of the blue from Steve Fambro and he said he'd like to talk with me about designing this vehicle. Now the irony is that I had seen it a couple weeks earlier on the web and I remember saying "Oh no, not again" like, this story of the 3 wheeler that doesn't make it is getting a little old. You know, the execution has just never been done correctly. So I talk back and forth with him over the next couple of weeks and every time I come at him with how this isn't going to work, he has an answer that makes me change my mind. It got to the point where I realized that if I gave them a good plan, they would execute it properly. They wouldn't say "Well, just make it look pretty", it was a complete design exercise without style.

And as it turns out, it looks fantastic too:

Well, thanks. It's funny, because in the end, we came up with a much better aerodynamic profile. I got a body engineer, Nathan Armstrong… we changed the shape to fit two people, we made it larger, we cleaned up all the surfaces- which were a mess- and yeah, we ended up with a better aerodynamic number.

Then, instead of a skin, we went into the whole structure- how does it fit together, the composites… everything. Nine months later we had the prototype that you saw.

Yeah, the one that sold me. I had actually put an order in already, but when I saw it, I knew I would keep my order.

Yeah, you want the client to understand Design, even if he doesn't. Steve told me "You know, I don't know what design is, but I know that I need it." He said "whatever it takes". As a designer, you dream of having that kind of freedom, but also that kind of reality because this isn't a show car, it's a real product.

It was the way it was supposed to be. I mean, as a designer, it's great because, instead of leaving design to the last, what is great is that Design was there from the beginning. Right there with the engineering and aerodynamics. It's how you end up with an iPhone instead of a Blackberry.

The other thing is that if it were a 4 wheeled vehicle, you have just complicated the process… where your inherent cost-to-market goes up by an order of magnitude. You take any of the other companies coming on the market right now with 4 wheeled platforms and you are talking about 10 times the money to get started. There is nothing wrong with that but you notice that there are only a few start up car companies out there… Fisker, Tesla. Whereas, if you just forget the automotive part of it, I mean, your consumer with still think of it as an automobile, its really not by definition, but if you don't HAVE to follow the automotive standards, which are set up by lobbyists anyway, we then go back in and meet/exceed some of the safety related structural requirements. The body on the Aptera is so incredibly strong, so well put together, By the time you get the metallic elements and the composite elements tied together, you are looking at much better safety than your average car.

There are a lot of three wheeled vehicles out there, either failed or marginalized. I mean there is a car called the Raptor- 3 wheeled motorcycle, you can still buy it, but it's kind of a geek car. I might love it, but it's for people like me, of which there are few in the buying market. Maybe it will be around forever but the market is so small for it. How does the Aptera get past that?

If you don't have the appeal, you don't have a chance. This is actually as practical as a car. You can go to these conventions where they show all kinds of alternative vehicles but…

They'll sell 50 of them over the course of 7-15 years.

Yeah, that's not a revolution.

The only reason Aptera is being taken seriously is because of the product. Not because of the idea, but what it is on its own.

Well, you guys took the interior seriously too, which is something that none of these other companies are doing out there and something that our readers pay a lot of attention to.

Yes, a lot of companies take OEM parts and mix and match them for an interior. Take some vents off a Ford Mustang and some off-the-shelf steering wheel, throw them all together and right there you lose all credibility.

You know, no other product in the transportation segment has the level of green thinking, and truth to it, that our product does. We look at all the materials, where they come from, how we will use them… Our entire flooring, plus the fabric on the doors is made from 100% post consumer soda bottles, essentially. We are taking up to 500 soda bottles out of the waste stream to make our interiors.

If you think about it, the automobile industry is kind of the last industry to take the green movement as the norm. Building and architecture industry, they have LEED certification and all of that stuff, it's the norm for them. You have the auto industry and they are wedded to steel, and wedded to the internal combustion engine- rightly so with the infrastructure there.

So [the term] "Green" is just going to go away. It's going to be the norm, whatever you call it, environmental sensibility and awareness will be a part of everything.

Our philosophy [at Eleven, LLC], and the philosophy of Aptera is to be efficient with everything you do. It is a plastic body, but the body can't be grown.

Weight, aerodynamics, rolling resistance it's really an energy performance product.

There are some recent changes to the car, why don't you go over those. I mean, the body looks like it's been lowered, new rear quarter windows…

Yeah, the body has been lowered, that is just for dynamic handling, the rear quarter windows, well it's twofold- you have a slight need for a little bit better side visibility and a need for more ambient light being let in so you don't feel confined.

Any other projects that we might be interested in?

I recently started work on a boat. Same idea as the car, but on the water. One of the Aptera customers, like yourself, contacted me and says- I want you to design this boat, using the same attributes, ie: it's going to be solar, electric… it wants to look different, be different, so we're not just doing the same old boat. So Nathan Armstrong and I are working on that right now. It's a day boat-I mean, you can run on pure solar if you need to. By the way, a lot of lakes across the country are going "electric only"- you can imagine why, but this is a great project.

I look forward to seeing that one. Sounds like it could be pretty exciting.

Well, I appreciate your taking the time to talk with Unplggd today. I can't wait to get into this car to see how the story continues. Thanks!

No problem, thank you.

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