In any conversation about autocycles, one of the first questions to pop up is generally, “What the heck is an autocycle?” For the past several years, it’s been an unofficial classification, but with David Vitter, a senator from Louisiana, recently introducing a bill to make it a federal vehicle classification, they could soon become a lot more important. Doing so would set safety regulations and fuel economy standards on top of creating an official classification.
“Creating this recognition for autocycles will ensure their safety, create jobs, and encourage the same entrepreneurial spirit that created motor vehicles and motor cycles,” said Vitter in a statement, per The Detroit Bureau.
But what exactly is an autocycle? Largely, it’s a three-wheeled, enclosed vehicle that’s essentially part motorcycle and part car. Currently, though, these three-wheelers are classified as motorcycles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and there are all kinds of conflicting laws across the country that regulate them. Vitter’s bill aims to set a single standard for all three-wheeled road vehicles, hopefully making it easier for companies to bring autocycles to mass market.
Actually, that should probably be singular, not plural. It’s no coincidence that a senator from Louisiana introduced this bill. At present, one of the better-known autocycle companies, Elio Motors, has plans to produce its vehicles at a former General Motors plant in Shreveport, La. The three-wheeled Elio is slated to cost just $6,800 and claims to get 84 miles per gallon.
“This update to an outdated law will also help spur job creation in Louisiana, since Elio Motors has selected Shreveport for their manufacturing plant, and it will also ensure that imported vehicles of similar types will be covered by the same safety standards that domestic manufacturers will follow,” said Vitter.
The advantage of an autocycle being part car and part motorcycle is that drivers get more wind and weather protection than they would on a motorcycle, but the compact, light construction allows for small engines that still get motorcycle-like fuel economy. With urban congestion becoming more of a problem and a rise in gas prices inevitable, autocycles have the potential to change the way people use cars in cities.
The last GM vehicles built at the Shreveport plant were Hummers. Looking at the tiny orange Elio prototype, it’s humorous that the little two-seaters will one day roll off the same assembly line. At the company’s first major press event at the New York Auto Show, company founder and CEO Paul Elio was quick to point out that while the Elio would be legally classified as an autocycle, it should be thought of as a car. “This is a disruptive product that won’t disrupt the automotive industry,” said Elio.
Speaking next to his prototype from the borrowed podium in the basement of the Javits Center, Elio sounded like a modern-day Preston Tucker while working to ensure that his car doesn’t share the same fate. With each technical question comes a definitive answer. The Elio has front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, and full roll cage. A five-speed manual and automatic transmissions will be offered. The company has just developed its own 0.9-liter three-cylinder engine — the first American independent car company to build its own engine since the 1950s. It develops 95 horsepower, has 95 pound-feet of torque, and hits zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 10 seconds.
Inside, the Elio feels even more car-like than you’d expect. Despite being a tandem two-seater, the interior is familiar-feeling and spacious, and the rear seat will be certified to hold a child seat by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Whatever wasn’t developed in-house was sourced by the world’s largest automotive suppliers, keeping costs low and reliability high. The car is targeted at single commuters, not families, and priced accordingly. “This is an ‘and’ purchase, not an ‘or’ purchase,” said Elio at the New York Auto Show.
After years of being doubted by skeptics, the company has recently had a few major developments go its way. In April 2014, it partnered with the Pep Boys auto parts chain to provide service on the car, instantly giving it more than 800 service centers across the country. It partnered with Cooper Tires to develop unique low-resistance tires to help achieve its fuel economy goals. And after several delays, it released video of its completed engine being dyno tested in March.
Like any startup, the biggest issue plaguing Elio Motors is money. The company has an impressive 41,481 reservations to date and has raised $65 million in the past few years. Unfortunately, the company needs another $230 million before its three-wheelers can begin streaming out of its massive Shreveport plant, with its capacity of 250,000 cars per year.
The company has applied for the low-interest Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan from the Department of Energy, the same type of loan afforded to Ford, Tesla, Fisker, and Nissan in 2009. Elio has a long way to go before its three-wheelers hit the streets, but many of the important pieces are already in place, and if its successful, the autocycle debate could quickly become a much larger issue.
Elio isn’t the only company trying to change urban driving with autocycles. Toyota has an electric three-wheeler called the i-Road that seats two and has a 31-mile range. Toyota has already launched a trial program in both Japan and France with stations that commuters drive to before switching to an i-Road to complete their commute.
The future of autocycles isn’t just efficiency, commuting, urban driving, and basic transportation. While autocycles are certainly well-suited to all of those things, the three-wheel, motorcycle-like setup is also perfect for some incredibly fun to drive vehicles. While the focus of these vehicles isn’t fuel economy, their lightweight construction provides most of the fun of riding a motorcycle but gives the driver more protection and creature comforts.
Vehicles like the Campagna T-Rex, Polaris Slingshot, Tanom Invader, and Morgan 3 Wheeler all place the emphasis on fun over fuel efficiency. They all definitely drive differently than motorcycles but offer a more visceral driving experience than you can get in a car. Whether it’s the classic British style of the Morgan or the starfighter look of the Polaris, enthusiasts can find an autocycle to get excited about if they’re looking for more speed and tire smoke than you’ll find in an Elio or i-Road.
Currently, though, because these vehicles are technically motorcycles in the U.S., drivers are required to wear a helmet and obtain a motorcycle license. While no one would confuse these autocycles for full cars, the need to go and get a second license is a hassle for a lot of potential owners. Hopefully legislation can be put in place that allows drivers to use a regular drivers license, as well as operate them with without a helmet.
There may also need to be regulations added about where these autocycles can drive, as well. It’s less of a concern with the performance versions — if these new autocycles are optimized for city driving and can’t keep up with highway traffic, letting them drive there would be dangerous for everyone on the road. Similar prohibitions already exist for certain types of motor scooters, so it wouldn’t be unheard of to restrict highway access.
If Vitter’s legislation works as it’s intended, in 20 years, city traffic could look drastically different than it does today. Suburban and rural America will likely hold onto traditional vehicles longer, but congestion, limited parking, and expensive operating costs already make it difficult to own a car in the city. Combined with a better public transportation system, ride sharing programs like Uber, and car sharing programs like Zipcar, autocycles could end up being an important part of the way city transportation changes.
Additional reporting by James Derek Sapienza
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