Three-wheeled vehicles have never been remotely popular in North America, but some new makers of these unusual vehicles are hoping for a resurgence of interest.
Falling into a gray area between cars and motorcycles, production-ready electric and gasoline 3-wheeled vehicles have been wheeled out by several companies promising deliveries in the near future.
One of those companies—Elio Motors—has also mounted a largely successful state-by state campaign to explicitly legalize 3-wheelers under the term “auto-cycle.”
That, along with the presence of multiple new manufacturers peddling these vehicles, recently led Autoblog to declare that 2017 will be the “year of the autocycle.” But Elio and its compatriots still face an uphill battle for what is, most likely, a very small market.
Traditionally, motorcycles have two wheels, and passenger cars and light trucks have four. That puts 3-wheelers into grey area in most states, since Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards apply only to those with four wheels.
In some states, these vehicles are considered motorcycles, meaning drivers must wear helmets and obtain special motorcycle licenses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also considered altering the regulatory definition of motorcycle to exclude 3-wheeled vehicles.
This would require 3-wheelers to meet the stricter safety and emissions standards that apply to conventional cars. The NHTSA began discussing this about a year ago, with officials saying they were concerned that consumers would mistakenly believe the 3-wheelers would offer similar crash protection to four-wheeled cars.
At the same time, Elio has been using its definition of “auto-cycle” to try to create a new regulatory vehicle class, and to eliminate the helmet and motorcycle-license provisions for these vehicles.
Rather than approach the federal government, Elio has targeted individual state regulators—many of whom have indeed altered state vehicle codes to acknowledge auto-cycles.
Elio released a prototype of its 3-wheeled vehicle last year, and claims to have over 60,000 reservations.
But the company has had trouble securing funding to start production, despite running a novel “crowdfunding” campaign aimed at small investors. After the campaign closed in 2015, Elio said it would need a further $130 million to start production at its ex-General Motors plant in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Besides Elio, Canadian firm Electra Meccanica Vehicles Corporation plans to market its own 3-wheeled vehicle. Called the Solo, it features an all-electric power-train, and seating for one person.
Electra Meccanica doesn’t envision the Solo as a car replacement, but rather as a more-efficient alternative for short trips. The company began taking fully-refundable deposits in September of last year, and has said it plans to start production sometime this year.
Arcimoto is another company with an all-electric 3-wheeler, although its SRK seats two people, in a tandem configuration. All three companies have at least progressed to the stage of building prototype vehicles, which is more than can be said for many startup vehicle manufacturers.
But that doesn’t mean they have achieved a permanent place in the market, something that is exceedingly difficult even for manufacturers of more conventional cars and motorcycles.