We may say otherwise with our Toyota Camrys and Ford F-150s, but we Americans love a good underdog story. We don’t like to identify with the over-achiever, the corporate monolith, or the hubristic bully; we go for the Rocky types, the mavericks, or the long shots of the world. This is why the Elio has been such an intriguing development in the auto sector; it fits this archetype almost too perfectly.
When the first prototype was released in January 2013, it sounded almost too good to be true, and for many, it still is. The three-wheeled AutoCycle could seat two in tandem, and promised to deliver a five-star NHTSA safety rating and 84 miles per gallon from its uniquely-designed three-cylinder engine – all for $6,800. As setbacks and vague numbers were offered instead of concrete facts, it looked like it could be a flash in the pan. But over two years later, the company is still here, and it’s gaining momentum. Today, it has raised $70 million, taken in $18 million in down payments for cars, and has $290 million worth of cars pre-ordered. The company has applied for a $185 million loan from the U.S. government, and if approved, could begin production as early as 2016. Last week, company founder Paul Elio took to Reddit to answer questions in an AMA session.
If anyone today embodies the spirit of Preston Tucker, traveling around the country to sell the public on his non-traditional car, it’s Paul Elio. The development of his car has been unusually transparent for most of the process, but there are still some very big questions left unanswered– most of which won’t be until the first Elios start rolling out of the company’s assembly plant sometime next year. And while the bulk of the questions were relatively light, he did provide some interesting insight into the company’s ethos, and its plans for future models.
It’s been an eventful few weeks for Elio Motors. After a successful supplier summit earlier in the month, the company announced its new, optimistic 2016 release date. On Reddit, Paul Elio shed a little light on the timeline, saying “when we announced this production date we said it was predicated on funding. Now the funding picture is getting clearer and we will be able to give a high-fidelity estimate soon.” On top of a more concrete rollout, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives (With another one introduced in the Senate earlier this year) to nationally regulate AutoCycles. As it stands now, some states would require a helmet and a motorcycle license to drive the Elio, as AutoCycles are considered motorcycles. This hurdle needs to be cleared if Elio can expect any kind of success.
During the AMA, Elio struck a patriotic tone describing the idea behind his car (despite the AutoCycle status, Elio refers to it as a car), saying:
“Our country has had a negative trade deficit every month for the last 20 years, 240 months in a row. We have gotten poorer as a nation because we buy more than what we sell. This has to stop. We have to make things in this country. We have to make and export things from this country. Elio can be produced in America and sold around the globe. That is our long term goal. That’s why I want to make things here.”
For such a patriotic objective, the company couldn’t have done better with its choice of facilities – the company has leased the former Hummer plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Among other details offered, Elio said that there could eventually be a turbocharged model, and even a four-wheeled vehicle much further down the line.
Like any startup, there’s still the potential for a lot to go wrong between now and Elio’s projected release date. Elio said that the company will build 25 more prototypes to work out any problems that may arise before production. Hopefully with each new prototype, more details about the car will emerge as it gets into production shape. And despite the pie-in-the-sky sounding numbers, there’s already a lot of truth to them. Earlier this year, the company released a video of its new engine being tested on a dyno, and according to Elio, “…we are currently about $500 over budget and approx. 81 MPG.” While that’s short of the initial targets, it’s nonetheless impressive. Like Tesla, Elio has a plan to have company-owned stores to sell cars directly to consumers, and a partnership with Pep Boys to do all maintenance.
But today, Elio is still faced with some very big “ifs.” If the company can secure its loan from the government, and if AutoCycle regulation passes in Congress, and if it can achieve its fuel economy goals and price points, then it could be a very, very big deal. It may still be a long shot, but who doesn’t love a good underdog story?