Of Front-loading Washing Machines and the Aptera 2e

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Apr 2010

I was on hand for the Aptera press conference at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California earlier this week. The company rolled out its "production design intent' 2e electric car for the media before shipping it to Michigan for the start this summer for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize competition. I got to speak briefly with company president and CEO Paul Wilbur, but spent quite a few minutes talking with one of the company's strategic marketing consultants from Strategic Visions. He didn't have business card with him, so I only recall his name was Alexander.

During the course of our conversation, which began when he stepped in to answer a question I had about the ease of changing the rear tire on the 2e in the event of a blow-out: it's not as hard as it looks, but he'd recommend calling for roadside assistance.

Curiously, the conversation wound its way around to the question of buyer acceptability. Clearly, the 2e represents a dramatic paradigm shift in the mental picture we all have of a "car," which has to have four wheels and a basic box shape. The 2e has three wheels and more closely resembles a dolphin than a automobile as we think of them. I asked Alexander if during Strategic Vision's research, his company had gotten a sense of the market size for a vehicle like the 2e. While he said that information was confidential, he did offer an interesting piece of insight about another study they had done for Maytag, the large U.S. appliance manufacturer.

Prior to introducing front-loading washers and dryers like the Samsung models above, all of their research suggested that there just wasn't a consumer market for them. People told them that Maytag should stick to top-loading machines: that's what families were familiar with; that's what they'd buy. Appliance makers, however, didn't listen to what people were telling them. They introduced them anyway and now front loading models are competing with the older style machines. I couldn't find any sales numbers comparing the two types, but from a walk through at any Sears, Home Depot or Lowes, it would appear front-loaders probably own at least 50 percent of market share or better, especially in the higher-end category.

Why? Two reasons: space and energy savings. While you can buy small, apartment-scale, top-loading washer-dryer combinations, it's impossible to stack the family-size washers and dryers found here in America. They have to sit side-by-side. Front-loaders, by contrast, are designed to be stacked, one on top of the other, as in the above photo, thereby saving space and increasing their functionality in terms of where they can be installed, from dedicated laundry rooms to master bedroom closets.

Front-loading washers, as a general rule, are also more energy efficient, because they use far less hot water. My wife and I own a pair of Kenmore front-loaders and I was amazed at how little water the washer takes to clean our clothes and how effective it is spinning the water out of them, reducing the amount of energy it takes to dry them.

The implications of this, at least from Alexander's perspective, is just because the 2e looks different, doesn't mean it can't be successful with consumers. Certainly in terms of energy savings, the electric three-wheeler is estimated to achieve the equivalent of 200 mpg, according to extensive software modeling. X-Prize testing will confirm that one way or the other. Like the front-loading appliances, it also offers its own space/time-saving conveniences of sorts: the body is made up of just 30-some parts; it likely qualifies for access to HOV lanes; and it has significant storage capacity that is accessible by the large rear hatch, which closes, like its passenger doors, with a solid, reassuring 'thud.'

Of course, washers and dryers are not automobiles, so there's no guarantee consumers will accept it. Alexander also acknowledged that much of its success will depend on its price. If you can buy a Volt or Leaf for the same amount of money, or less, it could be a hard sell. And it will have to fit certain buyer's lifestyle: empty nesters and early adopters who can get by with a two-seater. Then too, it could be the Apple iPhone of the auto industry: its sleek styling and functionality redefining mobility the way the Apple iPhone redefined the telephone.

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