If you look at the way gas prices have trended over the last 40 years, it’s clear: rising prices are here to stay. This extra pressure on drivers’ wallets is one of the reasons that the market has veered towards more energy-efficient vehicles in recent years. However, consumer demand for affordable, fuel-efficient vehicles can be hard to meet: hybrid vehicles are onerous and don’t always perform to standard, electricity can be expensive in certain markets, and 100% electric cars are often more expensive than their traditional counterparts. The return on investment for making the ecological choice is often only an environmental one, and not an economic one.
Forced to think outside the box, some manufacturers – including Toyota – are toying with a return to a type of vehicle seen in the 70s, like the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeled vehicle with a closed cab. The idea behind the design is clear: a smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic chassis allows a vehicle to run on far less energy. But alas, it’s not as simple as it sounds. In every territory where these types of vehicles could be put on the market, they come up against the same sticky problem: their legal definition.
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A few examples
Originally from Louisiana, start-up manufacturer Elio Motors has begun marketing a brand new three-wheeled car. Unique, visionary and sleek, the sales proposition for the car rests on two major points: a fuel economy of 35 kilometres per litre (the Prius gets 20) and a sales price below $7,000. What’s more, the Elio has scored top marks in road safety tests.
Of course, with only two seats and no trunk, it’s not a model that works for everyone. But, for drivers who mainly travel solo and who are looking to lower their fuel consumption, this could be the perfect vehicle.
In Asia, Toyota is developing its own three-wheeled vehicle. Their solution? An electric three-wheeled vehicle called the iROAD. Smaller than the Elio with a cab that accommodates only one person, the driver, the iROAD seriously muddies the waters in terms of its definition: it’s a car that acts like a motorcycle, with a vertical axis that leans into turns.
Even though manufacturers have successfully found ways to overcome the challenges related to higher prices at the pump, they’re still hitting a wall when it comes to bringing their new vehicles to market: the laws governing vehicle registration, and the resulting insurance regulations.
In the case of Elio, for example, the company’s home state of Louisiana classifies the vehicle as a motorcycle, not as a car. Consequently, riders need to have a motorcycle licence and wear a helmet while driving! And, since it’s legally a motorcycle, owners are also required to buy motorcycle insurance!
It’s a monster obstacle to the commercial success of the company, since the decision to purchase of one of these vehicles needs to factor in supplemental training, plus insurance premiums for a motorcycle, which are generally higher than those for a car. The company is currently petitioning the state government to change its laws to allow the Elio to be considered a car for legal purposes, rather than a motorcycle. Unfortunately though, they still wouldn’t be out of the woods: this legislation falls under the state, which means that the manufacturer could be faced with similar legal battles in each state where they intend to market the car. The same holds true in Canada, where provincial legislation rules on these matters. It’s a good way to empty a company’s coffers before they even have a chance to get off the ground.
The debate already happened here, when the provincial government addressed issues related to the T-REX and the Can-Am Spyder, among others. As a result of significant pressure from the manufacturer of the Spyder – Bombardier, a major player in the Québec economy – the SAAQ changed their regulations in order to allow class 5 permit holders to drive a three-wheeled car. This did not, however, equate to lower registration fees, and for insurers the distinction was irrelevant: premiums are comparable to those for a traditional motorcycle.
Bombardier isn’t the only company to have benefitted from the SAAQ’s open-mindedness. For example, as part of the pilot project concerning low-speed vehicles (LSV), it reached agreements with four different companies. This pilot project allowed the crown corporation to get a handle on the issue, and it is currently working on developing safety standards specific to LSV in time for their return to the road in 2014. It’s highly likely that the regulation of three-wheeled vehicles will follow the same path, but until then, current regulations prevail.
One thing is certain - drivers are putting heavy pressure on manufacturers and governments to respond quickly to sharply increased prices at the pump, and to improve the environmental impact of driving a car. Now let’s hope that all involved parties are willing to pull their weight, so we can end up with a situation that’s win-win-win.