Sitting unassumingly behind a pillar at the Toyota stand that this year’s New York Auto Show sat the i-Road concept, a strange three-wheeled citycar that makes Renault’s Twizy look like a Cadillac Escalade. And while the company set up a huge display for the hydrogen-powered Mirai to draw the bulk of attention from the green car set, the little i-Road seemed to be the other side of the same coin: a progressive, electric vision of an attainable city car, and a fitting project considering Toyota’s relationship with hybrids and EVs.
The i-Road, which Toyota refers to as a “new concept in urban mobility” has been on the auto show circuit since 2013, but unlike most concept cars, it’s fully functional. In fact, Toyota has built over 70 of the trikes, and after doing a test run in Grenoble, France, the company has its eyes set on an even more high-profile area, namely, Silicon Valley.
On November 13, the company will host the Toyota Onramp conference, where it hopes to attract the best and brightest to work with the company on the future of urban mobility. But at the heart of all this forward thinking is the existing i-Road. The conference will be held at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and while participants will be able to test drive both the i-Road and the Mirai, and listen to a “a lineup of speakers that are experts on smart mobility finance, engineering and urban planning,” the centerpiece of the event is “The Smart Mobility Challenge,” an open call for visionaries to “craft a plan on how the Toyota i-Road could enhance life in the Bay Area and address local sustainability and urban planning needs.”
While the i-Road is nearly ancient by concept car standards, there’s a lot going on in the trike that could make its way to future city cars. Building on an idea first explored by Mercedes-Benz in its 1997 F-300 Life Jet, the i-Road has a suspension that allows it to lean into corners like a bicycle, allowing for sharper turns without the risk of tipping over, something that three-wheelers have long had a tendency to do. Toyota calls its system “Active Lean,” and uses a system of gyroscopes to keep the car’s turns smooth and graceful, patterning its turning angles after downhill skiers.
Unlike the Life Jet, which sat two and had a gas-powered engine, the was i-Road was designed as a single-seater (though the Grenoble trikes were modified to hold two), and is powered by two electric motors. Top speed is roughly 28 miles per hour, and it has an electric range of about 31 miles on a charge – perfect for short jaunts around a city.
You’re not likely to win any drag races with the i-Road, but if the price was right, it could potentially become a competitor to the mopeds that crowd city streets around the world. But the key word here is potential, and that’s something Toyota still isn’t sure the i-Road has yet. Even if its latest attempt at a city car doesn’t catch on now, don’t be surprised if a future city car from Toyota borrows heavily from the i-Road. And if a radical, technologically-advanced electric three-wheeler could catch on anywhere, it would be San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
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