New Rules Could Make Three-Wheeled Cars Actually Safe
Three-wheeled cars NEVER QUITE CAUGHT on , even if automakers have been building them as long as they’ve been building cars. Every once in awhile, though, someone thinks they’ve figured out how to make them work.
The latest attempt comes from Elio Motors, which has a wee little thing that costs $6,800 and gets 84 mpg. The Phoenix, Arizona-based company plans to begin manufacturing the vehicle in Louisiana next year and has taken more than 40,000 reservations so far. Elio doesn’t have a lot to say about its car, focusing instead on marketing the projected fuel economy ratings and the number of reservations it’s taken.
The Elio will likely have a tiny engine, and sticking with three wheels will make it cheaper and lighter … theoretically. Another advantage to three-wheelers is that they’re exempt from many state and federal rules that dictate safety and emissions standards that apply to cars, because they’re basically considered motorcycles. That’s one reason young companies like producing three-wheelers: fewer hurdles on the way to market.
That could all change, though, if a bill to make autocycles—defined as a three-wheeled vehicle with an enclosed occupant compartment and a steering wheel—follow the same safety and fuel economy rules as four-wheeled cars becomes law.
Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, says his Autocycle Safety Act would guarantee the safety of autocycles (it’s right there in the name!), “create jobs, and encourage the same entrepreneurial spirit that created motor vehicles and motorcycles.” (Of course, when cars and motorcycles were first being developed, there was very little in the way of government regulation.) He also says the law would “ensure that imported vehicles of similar types will be covered by the same safety standards that domestic manufacturers will follow.”
That means complying with existing vehicle safety regulations applied to passenger cars weighing less than 10,000 pounds (that’s all passenger cars), so the Elio will need a steering wheel air bag, curtain side impact air bags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control. Hitting the fuel economy standards that apply to four-wheeled vehicles shouldn’t be a problem, considering the advertised 84 mpg. Autocycles would need to comply with motorcycle standards relating to headlights, rearview mirrors, tires, braking, and more. Basically, motorcycle standards are applied to the motorcycle bits of the vehicle, with car safety standards applied to the car-related parts.
But instead of balking at the idea of more rules, Elio supports the legislation. Its CEO, Paul Elio, is quoted in Vitter’s press release, saying the bill would not only “provide consistency across all jurisdictions, but it strongly supports [Vitter’s] efforts to bring jobs back to the Shreveport area” where Elio plans to build its cars. Maybe that’s because the company is going after federal funding to build its vehicles, and working with a senator helps. Maybe they think they can convince people to buy their product if it meets more stringent rules. And maybe they’re confident the Elio will already meet those standards, so it’s not a big deal for them, but it will make things harder for the competition, like the Toyota i-ROAD.
It’s hard to argue with safer and more efficient vehicles, but we suspect that, because this would add to development costs, it will do more to inhibit low-cost trike production than to encourage it. Which is a bummer, because they’re awesome.