Looking for an Affordable Electric Car?

Dave Johnson

In early 2008, fully electric cars were all but unheard of. Then came a withering fuel crisis, with the pump price of gasoline hitting a national average of $4.11 that summer. Though gas prices would eventually come down, that historic high helped motivate both auto designers and consumers alike to search for more energy efficient transport. Also in early 2008, Tesla rolled out its Roadster, the first street-legal, mass-produced, all-electric car sporting lithium ion batteries. And it didn’t compromise performance, either; it had a range of about 200 miles on a single charge, and the high-end styling of a Lotus Elise. Of course, being on the bleeding edge came at a cost; Roadster pricing started at $80,000 and topped out around $120,000 with options. It was clearly not a car for the masses.

Consumers without the ability to write a six-figure check would need to wait several years for an affordable electric car. Nissan came close with the introduction of the all-electric Leaf in 2010. With a total range of about 150 miles and a price tag of about $35,000, the Leaf proved it was possible to sell an electric car that had a practical range at a price that was, if not inexpensive, at least competitive with mainstream internal combustion cars. The Leaf has evolved since that first iteration and now costs $30,000.

A decade after the first Tesla and eight years after the Leaf’s debut, there’s nothing truly revolutionary about owning an electric car anymore. Indeed, there’s a tidal wave of EVs arriving on the scene. Bloomberg reports that major auto manufacturers have plans for more than 100 electric cars in the next five years. Ford has 10 electric models planned all on its own. Yet few automakers seem to be trumpeting electric options economy models priced below $30,000. Take Tesla’s “affordable” Model 3 sedan, for example, which starts at $35,000. Or Chevrolet’s Bolt, a similarly priced entry into the all-electric market. What is taking so long for affordable EVs? The reality is that the road to economy electric cars is littered with concepts that have run out of battery power long before coming to market.

Notable Electric Failures

If you broaden your horizons outside of Detroit and international Big Auto, you can pick up a few early examples of affordable EV concepts. The original conceit that launched Southern California’s Aptera Motors was a three-wheeled tricycle design. As envisioned, the Aptera 2 Series would have offered approximately a 100-mile range for the small, all-electric, two-seater and cost about $20,000. The car’s unusual appearance and proposed features – all strikingly futuristic – excited potential customers. Years before Tesla’s Model 3 offered sci-fi like options, Aptera talked about a dashboard touch screen, cameras instead of rearview mirrors, roof-mounted, solar-powered climate control, and keyless operation.

Unfortunately, the company was distracted by trying to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from the Department of Energy. With companies like Tesla and Fisker getting huge loans, Aptera tried as well—but initially, the company’s application was rejected because three-wheeled vehicles didn’t qualify for the program. After Aptera successfully lobbied to get the program expanded to include the trike configuration, the startup then found that the government’s sales estimates for the Aptera were too low, so the company refocused efforts midstream on a four-wheeled electric that had more promising sales potential. In the end, red tape and bureaucracy ate up the company’s capital before any of the DOE loans could materialize, and Aptera became a footnote in 2011, after about six years of development and with little more than a prototype to show for all that effort.

A more recent electric startup, Lit Motors, has a somewhat more optimistic story – its ending hasn’t been written yet—but it, too, isn’t on city streets in large part due to financial roadblocks.

If the three-wheeled Aptera was an innovative electric design, then Lit Motors’ C-1 is positively mind-blowing. It’s a two-wheeled, gyroscopically stabilized electric vehicle—think of a motorcycle with an auto’s shell around it, with traditional steering wheel and brakes. The gyro keeps it upright, so you don’t need to be a skilled bike rider to operate it. As long as the electric motor is running, it is designed to be unable to fall over. That’s impressive, and it’s not just a paper design; the company has built two prototypes. When it eventually enters production, Lit estimates the C-1 will have a 200 mile range and, like the Aptera, cost in the neighborhood of $20,000.

But the C-1 hasn’t moved beyond those prototypes. Though Lit Motors got its start in 2010 and originally proposed a timeline to enter production by 2013 to early investors, the company has slid its plan forward continuously ever since, seemingly always about two years from production. And that has a fair bit to do with having enough capital to enter the production phase. In 2016, Lit CEO Danny Kim explained, “I know that if we put $20 million into our bank account today, we’ll be able to deliver it in two years.” Perhaps aware that the C-1’s commercial prospects are fading, the company has actually stopped accepting pre-order deposits.

Promising Three Wheelers on the Way

Thankfully, not all affordable EVs are in development limbo. Indeed, 2018 is a good year for two indirect descendants of the three-wheeled Aptera.

Electra Meccanica is an electric spin-off of Canadian car manufacturer Intermeccanica with its own tri-wheeled design called the Solo. The name is appropriate; with only a single seat, it’s an ultra-small and lightweight entry that the company bills as “the smartest commuter car on the planet.” Unfortunately, the Solo offers just a 100-mile range, so between the seating capacity and driving range, it might feel like a bit of a compromise—until you realize it costs just $15,000. That means Electra Meccanica is developing an astonishingly inexpensive vehicle (with initial deliveries scheduled for later this year). “We see the Solo as being an ideal supplemental commuter car,” says Jeff Holland, chief communications officer at Electra Meccanica. “You can’t drive it from Vancouver to LA, but it’s ideal for getting around town without spending any money on gas.” Electra Meccanica also envisions the Solo as a fleet vehicle for large companies, as well as a delivery vehicle for urban restaurants. “It perfectly fits the bill for any application where you need to get around town,” says Holland.

Sondors Electric Car Company

When it comes to affordable, city-driving electrics, Electra Meccanica isn’t alone. The Sondors is an EV from the successful electric bike company of the same name. Sonders has released several iterations of its bike and is now deep in pre-production for a three-wheeled EV. Compared to the Electra Meccanica Solo, the Sondors is feature-laden and downright spacious, offering three seats and a handful of creature comforts. The company is planning three models with a range of 75, 150, and 200 miles, though the first one to hit the streets will be the 75-mile version for a cool $10,000.

Both of these companies are developing vehicles that look like the long-defunct Aptera, but at the same time, both contemporary companies have avoided the problems that Aptera had with funding – both are established companies that don’t need to spend money building the business – investment dollars and pre-orders can theoretically go directly into developing the vehicle itself. Says Sondors CEO Storm Sonders, “We have a very successful bike company. We didn’t have to build a company with pre-order money. We built this company with proper investments, and can spend the money people are giving us for the Sondors on actually making the car.”

The Future is Electric

It’s curious that the race for affordable electric cars keeps turning up vehicles with fewer than four wheels, but there’s a logical reason for this approach: “Three-wheel designs are much lighter than traditional four-wheeled cars, so that increases the possible range. Also, it can qualify your car as an autocycle so there are fewer restrictions bringing it to market,” explains Sondors. Specifically, many states now define three-wheeled vehicles that feature a steering wheel and interior seating as an autocycle, and that definition means the vehicle doesn’t have to include airbags or meet some of the more stringent safety rules governing cars. At the same time, since it’s not a motorcycle either, there’s no need for riders to wear a helmet.

This space, occupied by affordable electrics, is going to get increasingly crowded, especially if companies like Electra Mechanica and Sondors actually deliver on their promise of affordable electric cars in the next year—and in both cases, it’s quite promising since neither company is building a business from scratch with pre-order and investment dollars, like Lit Motors and Aptera.

And while the focus of mainstream car companies thus far has been on mid-priced electric options, like Hyundai’s upcoming electric SUV with a 250-mile range, or luxury entrants like Jaguar’s similar I-Pace, surely a few of those 100 EV models rolling out over the next five years will be in the economy section.

Does the increased competition bother the affordable electric innovators? Apparently not. Says Holland, “We’re rooting for everybody. We want to be there when the last gas station goes out of business. We’ve seen the future and the future is now.”