The Curious Case for Three-Wheeled Vehicles Is Made at the New York Auto Show

Three concepts trying to convince people three wheels are better than four.

When it comes to buying a personal vehicle, choices are generally limited to two or four wheels. But three companies at the New York International Auto Show are peddling an idea of a third viable option: three wheelers.

Aside from the novelty aspect, the main question is why? Why would anyone break from the even-numbered wheel tradition? Has tradition been wrong all along?

Economics are at the root of the three-wheeled vehicle. Like everything else, the concept of a flashy, offbeat method of transportation revolves around money. As one Auto Show participant succinctly put it — as I eavesdropped on other people’s lunchtime conversations — “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell can delay sadness.”

Mass-market three-wheelers would have a lower base market price, and either use less gas than four-wheeled vehicles, or allow people to skip the pump altogether by being fully electric.

Aside from economics, the companies at this year’s Auto Show had a few more reasons why they believe you should consider an odd number of wheels for your next vehicular purchase.

Elio Motors

Elio is the closest of the three trikes at the NYIAS to actual production. It answers the economic questions on both the base price (at $6,800 it is half the price of the cheapest car), and the gas prices (Elios max out at 84 mpg).

But the three wheel concept is so much more than just economical, it’s inherent to the very design and concept, Neil Patterson, Elio product specialist, tells Inverse.

Elios are inherently lighter and more aerodynamic than their four-wheeled brethren. It seats two — one person in front, one person in back — and has a surprising amount of room inside. It’s fully enclosed, and it markets itself as a car, not a motorcycle.

It is front wheel drive, with the two forward-facing wheels pulling the car instead of pushing it. Having two wheels up front makes the Elio inherently stable, Patterson says, and 70 percent of the vehicle’s weight lies up front. The engine, and most of the technology, is all based in the front. Smart technology called SkyzMatic makes each Elio an internet hotspot, as well as puts the Internet of Things right there on the dashboard.

Interest in fuel efficiency usually goes hand in hand with interest in electric vehicles. This is one area that Elio skirts, but Patterson says it is a great “bridge vehicle” between gas and electric because of its fuel efficiency. Electric engines and batteries are more expensive than combustion engines, and would bump that base price up.

Elio expects to roll out next year. The company is using a former General Motors plant in Louisiana, and will be able to make 250,000 units. More than 50,000 people have committed to Elio’s three-wheel concept with a $1,000 reservation.


Arcimoto has one goal: “Basically to make the safest electric motorcycle,” John Friess, Arcimoto sales lead, tells Inverse.

Unlike Elio, Arcimoto will be fully electric. It also comes either open like a motorcycle, or closed like a car, and is designed as a daily commuter vehicle. It’s dual front-wheel drive like the Elio, with a similar one in front, one in back seating arrangement.

Arcimoto hopes to go into production later this year, and claims 750 preorders. The company is aiming for an $11,900 starting price and a range of up to 130 miles per charge. Each time I walked by the small corner the Arcimoto both holds down at the NYIAS, a small crowd was gathered, trying it out for size. One guy even committed $500,000 after seeing the concept himself and hearing the specs over lunch, Friess said.

The world will eventually convert to sustainable transportation, and Friess believes the Smart Car did a good job in getting people close, but three wheels are the future of the daily sustainable commute.

The Toyota FV 2 concept car

Not made by aliens.

Nickolaus Hines

The FV 2 is a three-wheeled vehicle, but to be fair, it isn’t actually going into production (at least in the foreseeable future). Still, this three-wheeler is designed and constructed to induce an emotional connection between car and car owner. It’s also arguably the most futuristic looking vehicle in New York City right now.

The concept is for one person to sit or stand. Yes, stand. As in having a hypothetical opening top that allows a person to ride the FV 2 like a non-exploding hoverboard. It points to the viability of a three-wheeled vehicle that the designers at Toyota chose a trike for their concept car focusing on emotional connection.

Sure, Elio and Arcimoto will have an actual three-wheeled product to offer soon, but when it comes to imaging far, far into the future, the Toyota FV 2 takes the cake.

Correction 3/26/16: In the original version of this article, it was stated that Arcimoto gets 230 miles per charge, when, in fact, Arcimoto gets up to 130 miles per charge. The article has been edited to reflect that fact.

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