For as long as they've existed in the vehicular landscape, three-wheelers have occupied a sort of nebulous space between motorcycles and cars, and not just because of their wheel count. They're usually legally classified as with motorcycles, which has meant a few headaches for Elio Motors, the startup automaker that aims to produce a three-wheel vehicle that they claim will be "the next big thing in transportation."
So over the past few months, Elio Motors has been pushing legislation at the state and federal level to create a new classification of certain three-wheel vehicles called "autocycles" that gets some safety standards and driving requirements from cars while keeping others from motorcycles.
If passed, and they have already in several states, these bills would eliminate some of the requirements for driving a three-wheeler, like a motorcycle license or a helmet. At the federal level, one bill would also create the framework for safety standards that govern the enclosed, more car-like three-wheelers Elio Motors wants to build.
"The laws that have existed until now mostly liken three-wheelers to motorcycles," CEO and founder Paul Elio told Jalopnik. "The Elio is not a motorcycle. We're creating a new segment."
And unlike the cantankerous, uphill battle Tesla Motors has fought to sell its cars direct to customers, Elio autocycle legislation has largely cruised through the states unfettered, creating new rules that apply to their three-wheelers and any similar vehicle that might come out.
Get used to hearing the term "autocycle." If Elio's legislation has its way, and so far it has, it could pave the way for more consumer-friendly three-wheel vehicles than dedicated, bike-like recreational machines like the Polaris Slingshot or Campagna T-Rex.
"The best analogy is that we're a Walkman," Elio said. "The Walkman didn't make home stereos obsolete. The Elio won't make cars obsolete, but be its own unique thing."
With production slated at a former General Motors truck plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, Elio Motors hopes to build an enclosed three-wheel autocycle with two wheels up front and one in the back, seating for two, and car-like controls such as a steering wheel and pedals.
Powered by a new and re-engineered version of the old Geo Metro's 993 cc three-cylinder motor, the company says their vehicle will cost just $6,800 and get up to 84 miles per gallon on the highway.
However, the idea that Elio Motors will be able to even deliver on these promises has been met with considerable skepticism, and they still need about $240 million to start production. They're currently courting high-net-worth investors with the goal of building cars sometime in 2016.
Elio calls his creation "an AND vehicle," meaning that you own an Elio and your minivan or Honda Accord or Ford truck. He says it's a new experiment in mobility for people who need a larger vehicle in their lives, but also want something smaller, cheap and hyper-efficient for times when they don't need to drive something that big. This, along with weight and aerodynamics to reach the targeted fuel economy, is why the three-wheel setup was chosen.
But even though it's much closer to a car than a motorcycle in how it's designed, built and operated, it is currently classified as a motorcycle by the federal government. This is true in most states, too, which means drivers will need a motorcycle license, motorcycle insurance and also a helmet in California, Oregon and New York.
Elio (the man) says these laws could be an impediment to Elio (the vehicle) ownership — far fewer drivers have motorcycle licenses than automobile licenses, and how many buyers will really want to wear a helmet in one?
Elio said it's not necessary for drivers to have a helmet anyway, since the vehicle has a reinforced roll cage, three-point seat belts, crumple zones and airbags. So he's trying to get the law changed to classify the Elio as an autocycle, which would have its own set of regulations. The company successfully started their push in the plant's home state of Louisiana, where helmets are required for motorcycles, but not for autocycles.
“Obsolete bureaucratic definitions shouldn’t be allowed to create roadblocks and stifle innovation,” Joel Sheltrown, Elio’s government relations vice president, told the Raleigh News & Observer regarding an autocycle a bill in North Carolina.
According to a federal bill introduced just this month by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, it means "a motor vehicle with three wheels, an enclosed occupant compartment, and a steering wheel" that meets certain car-like safety standards. Those include airbags, anti-lock brakes, roof crush resistance and stability control. But the legislation would also add some motorcycle safety standards, such as those governing mirrors, lamps and tires.
In a statement, Vitter said he put the legislation forth not just to ensure safety but to create jobs — he has a vested interest in helping Elio Motors become successful. Shreveport was hit hard when GM closed the truck plant in 2012 in the wake of the bankruptcy. The region needs the jobs a flourishing Elio Motors could potentially provide.
Elio said that if Vitter's legislation becomes federal law, it will create the framework for some safety standards, but that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, America's auto safety regulator, will have to develop it further. One example is side impact crash testing, where the extended wheels will be a factor in wrecks.
Meanwhile, Elio Motors is addressing their issues at the state level as well. Currently 26 states have enacted or are developing legislation related to autocycles.
While the bills seem narrowly tailored to the Elio autocycle in particular, Elio says that legislation to create this category won't affect recreational three-wheelers like the Polaris Slingshot.
"If it's not enclosed, it's not an autocycle," he said.
Paul Vitrano, Polaris Vice President of Global Government Relations, said in an email statement that he agreed his company's low, wide, high-performance "reverse trike" won't be affected by this legislation.
"Polaris believes Slingshot should continue to be classified federally as a “motorcycle,” along with most other three-wheel vehicles, and be excluded from the proposed federal “autocycle” classification," he said. (The Slingshot has also had its share of trouble for being caught between motorcycle and car regulations.)
Elio said that it will have the effect of forcing foreign-built three-wheel autocycles to adhere to our safety standards if they are imported, such as ones that come from China and may not be up to snuff safety-wise. That will also include more ambitious three-wheel experiments like the Toyota i-Road, should it become available in America.
Elio Motors has a long way to go before they start delivering on the promises that have earned them both gushing praise and tremendous scrutiny. When and if they do, Elio insists his company won't be alone in the "AND vehicle" segment for long. As new ideas for mobility roll out all the time, and the rise of electric vehicles make engineers re-think how a vehicle is supposed to look, he may be right.
But before they've even put a single autocycle on the road, they've had a tremendous effect on the laws that govern the three-wheelers of the future.
Photos credit Shutterstock, Elio Motors