Is a three-wheeled vehicle an automobile? That question is at the center of a vigorous lobbying effort in Washington.

The vehicle in question is the Aptera 2e, a machine that looks like a cross between a Cessna plane and a tricycle. It's the brainchild of Aptera Motors Inc., a three-year-old, closely held car company in Vista, Calif.

Aptera wants to borrow $75 million from a Department of Energy program created by Congress in 2007 to speed development of fuel-efficient cars.

Aptera's backers include some big-money donors to the Democratic Party, and its quest for help has received a boost from a group of mostly California lawmakers who want to help a home-state enterprise. Allies of Detroit's big auto makers are lined up against them. ~ ~ ~

The DOE ruled last year that the electric 2e didn't qualify under the $25 billion loan program. A three-wheeled vehicle doesn't meet the definition of an automobile under federal law as being "any 4-wheeled vehicle," according to a letter to Aptera last December from Lachlan Seward, the loan program's director.

"We were dismayed," said Paul Wilbur, Aptera's chief executive. Mr. Wilbur said the absence of a fourth wheel was critical to maximizing the vehicle's aerodynamics.

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