Alternative Designs & Safety Considerations

The Arcimoto is like a motorcycle growing in size, while the SOLO is like a car shrinking in size.

When I entered Art Center College of Design 35 years ago as a student, the graduating transportation design class was working on the coolest new vehicles I had ever seen. They were futuristic tiny three-wheel commuter vehicles that would lean into a curve – inspired by General Motors’ Lean Machine concept vehicle. Fast forward to today; several three-wheel commuter vehicles are finally coming to market, and instead of being excited, I find myself somewhat troubled.

The two new vehicles I am referring to are the Arcimoto Fun Utility Vehicle (FUV), and the Electra Meccanica SOLO. These vehicles take a very different approach to creating lightweight vehicles. The Arcimoto is like a motorcycle growing in size, while the SOLO is like a car shrinking in size.

I have never seen the Meccanica in person, but I have been fortunate to drive the Arcimoto recently in Oregon. I loved it. The center seat driving position is awesome. The performance was great as well.

The reason I have some troubles with these new vehicles is that they both are currently being marketed as a means to improve the environment, but a concern that I have is how safe they are compared to typical passenger cars in a serious crash. I think we as a society are addressing climate change to make the future more healthy. I’m all for people buying and using these types of vehicles, as long as they understand their potential exposure to harm.

On the Arcimoto intro video on their website (archimoto.com), you can clearly see they are positioning the vehicle for someone that cares about the environment. The voiceover talks about a late-night run to a store like Whole Foods, but “without burning down the planet.” There is no mention of what might happen if you get hit by a big SUV on that trip.

Both of these vehicles will be licensed as motorcycles. In the state of California for example, the operator of one of these three-wheelers will not have to wear a motorcycle helmet.

Meccanica (electrameccanica.com) does mention their vehicle meets “global motor vehicle standards,” but doesn’t clearly state that is referring to motorcycle standards. They then mention disc brakes and other minor safety features, along with saying their vehicle has a roll cage and side impact rails. But this is not an FMVSS-compliant vehicle, and the initial vehicles will not offer any air bags. And while the California users are told they don’t need a helmet, I don’t think either company can currently show users what will happen to them in a crash.

I know something about putting micro vehicles on the streets with larger cars and SUVs. My partners and I created the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) category. But our NEVs go much slower, with a top speed of only 25 mph (while some have been souped-up to go 35 mph). I always saw our NEV as a safer Vespa motor scooter. Their safety record has been very good, and over two-million NEVs are expected to be made and sold across the globe next year.

We know NHTSA clearly has their eye on these emerging three-wheel vehicles coming to market. But to be clear, I am not proposing to outlaw them, I just want potential consumers of these vehicles to clearly understand the risks. If we allow motorcycles, then any of these three-wheelers should be allowed. (I expect all of them to be safer than riding a motorcycle).

There are other three-wheelers in the market today that are not being sold on their eco-benefits. The Bombardier Can-Am Spyder and the Polaris Slingshot are both presented as alternatives to motorcycles, and fun vehicles to drive/ride. They are not asking consumers to make the world safer by using a more dangerous vehicle.

This brings me to a super important attribute of any top car designer or mobility innovator: the ability to recalibrate our visions.  For example, after World War II, the basic mobility Vespa scooter was what most everyone rode in Italy to get around. Fast forward to today, new microtransit, Uber/Lyft services are offering basic mobility, but in a safer form than those old scooters.

I expect we will see millions of very small personal vehicles still in the future, but they will be autonomous, and the technology will eliminate the exposure to crashing with other vehicles.

Personally, I would love to have an Arcimoto. I think it’s a terrific vehicle, and its developers are doing a great job commercializing it. But I’m a car designer and I know what the vehicle is and is not. I would accept the added risk as my daily vehicle. I just want other consumers to consider the risks.