Growing up is nothing if not a series of incremental disappointments. For those of us whose coming of age happened to coincide with the dawn of video games, that’s particularly true when it comes to driving an automobile, the experience of which is a far cry from what years playing Mario Kart led us to believe. After hundreds of thousands of miles on the road, I can scarcely remember doing a fishtail turn around a sharp curve, or dropping a single banana peel on the track behind me for that matter.
A project from Toyota may just change that — maybe not the banana part, per se, but close enough — in the form of a prototype known as the i-Road. The car manufacturer had a pair of the three-wheeled electronic vehicle on display last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. While it may have simply been because it was such a stark contrast to sitting in on earnest lectures about “disruption”, driving the i-Road was one of the most stupidly enjoyable experiences I had all week, and some of the most fun I’ve had driving in years.
Never mind that I must have only been going about 10 miles an hour on diddling around cones set up in the parking lot of a school, the difference in the driving experience here comes in the design of the car, with two wheels in front, and one in back, giving the driver the feeling of slaloming on a race track with every turn.
“It steers from the back, just like a boat, but it's front wheel drive, with two motors, one on each wheel,” Toyota’s Steve Coates explained before my test drive.
At 7.5 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 5 feet tall, the i-Road is almost comically compact. A larger person might have trouble climbing in, but once inside there was more than enough room to operate. The 600 pound vehicle is powered by a lithium cell battery, and has a top speed of about 35 mph, with a range of around 30 miles, and a charging time of 3 hours.
What had been most people’s reaction to driving it, I asked?
“Most people have been saying when is it available cause I want to buy one now,” Coates laughed. It was a question typically followed by, “Is it possible to tip over?”
I wondered the same thing myself, but, Toyota has been ensuring people that it’s nearly impossible to tip. Feedback through the steering wheel from the front wheels tells the driver when he’s going too fast. It’s also equipped with the ability to apply its brakes when it senses a dangerous turn.
“It leans as you go around the corners,” Coates explained. “It leans itself in to keep its center of gravity, and it runs on gyros so it knows what speed it wants to be at. If the vehicle doesn’t like the speed or angle the stability control system will shut the vehicle down, the vehicle will beep, and the steering wheel will vibrate like a Play Station controller.”
While I never had the chance to open it up and see for myself if that was true, it was exceptionally tempting to peel out of the course and blaze off onto the open road. Then again, considering its high speed, it probably wouldn’t have been too hard to catch up with me. This isn’t exactly a high octane street bike.
What it actually is however is somewhere in the vehicle limbo, Toyota business development manager Jason Schulz explained after my spin around the course.
“From a classification standpoint, that’s an interesting question, what does the federal government consider it to be?” he said. “We’ve been working with the federal government and a number of state governments to find out how they view it, and currently it’s viewed as a motorcycle. The question often comes up, 'do I have to wear a helmet?' so those are the things we’re carefully studying.”
Tests have been going on for a while in Grenoble, France, and Toyota City, Japan where i-Roads are being used under a car-sharing model. In Tokyo they also recently began a combination ride sharing and ownership model. In the near decade that the prototype has been in the works, they’ve been trying to figure out how exactly people will end up using them.
“What we’re really trying to do is understand the future potential for cars like i-Road,” Schulz said. “What is sort of driving us to do that is, if you look at population studies, we’re going to add another 2 billion people in the short term, so what does that mean for urban density, and what does that mean for parking and congestion and things like that? So studying a platform like i-Road can give us a glimpse for how people might use small electronic vehicles like this.”
One thing that’s for certain is that they won’t be meant for long distance traveling. An ideal situation might be for someone who commutes from home to a public transportation hub, Schulz said, or for a city-dweller in a dense city like Tokyo driving back and forth from work.
I wondered had people reported being intimidated while driving on the road with other full sized automobiles. An accident in one of these doesn’t seem like it would be all that thrilling.
Not so much, he said.
“At first my impression was that traffic was too dense, and it’s going to be scary,” he said of a friend who drives one in Tokyo. “But even in his own mind he said after the first week he was totally fine, you get used to it, you learn to adapt. The top speed is about 35 mph, and quite frankly I thought that wasn’t going to be enough in that sort of environment, but it’s almost too much because it’s stop and go. It’s more than adequate to get around and do you work that way.”
Whether or not it will work in U.S. markets remain to be seen. At the moment there are only about 100 hand-built models in circulation, some of which have been tested out in short studies in Silicon Valley, and the Dallas Fort Worth areas.
Practical concerns aside, the number one thing he says he’s heard at every stop along the way is just how much fun they are to use. “What we’re hearing from a lot of customers, the key benefit of the car is that it’s just an absolute kick to drive.”
They’re right. Maybe the promise of shooting turtle shells at your rivals on a rainbow-colored track is still a few years off, but this is a good step in the right direction.