By on January 9, 2016

Elio Motors' display for the 2016 NAIAS

My late father told me that few people are as passionate as converts who’ve become disaffected. Some of the most vocal critics of the Elio Motors startup are former supporters, people who put down money on reservations, only to be disappointed by repeated delays in starting production.

Paul Elio most recently said production is slated to begin sometime late this year — that is if they can get the money to do it.

However, those disaffected folks were abuzz this week over a post at Green Car Congress that said a proposed rule change by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would classify three-wheeled vehicles as automobiles. That would require Elio Motors’ three-wheeler to comply with all the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards of four-wheeled cars.

Trikes like the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Polaris Slingshot are available in the United States precisely because they’re legally classified as motorcycles and don’t have to meet automotive motor vehicle safety standards rules. If the proposed rule went into effect, those vehicles could not be sold in the United States.

Elio has claimed that their trike will meet crash standards for automobiles and that they’ll publish the crash test results. However, Elio is currently taking advantage of the NHTSA’s three-wheeler definitions to get their vehicle to market without having to undergo the testing and approval regime applied to four-wheeled vehicles.

The site has the abstract for the proposed rule online. It states:

This rulemaking would change the regulatory definition of motorcycle to exclude three-wheeled vehicles that are configured like passenger cars. Under the existing regulatory definition of motorcycle in part 571.3, three-wheeled motor vehicles are classified as motorcycles. This is appropriate for motorcycles with sidecars, trikes, and other three-wheeled vehicles that are based on a motorcycle-like configuration. However, other three-wheeled vehicles have passenger-car characteristics such as fully enclosed cabins, hinged doors with roll-up windows, steering wheels, and side-by-side seating. Because these car-like vehicles ride on three wheels instead of four, they are not required to meet federal safety standards for passenger cars (although they are subject to motorcycle safety standards). Various car-like three-wheeled vehicle models have been imported into the U.S. and have been available for sale to the public. NHTSA believes consumers who purchase these vehicles are likely to assume that these vehicles have the same safety features and crash protection as passenger cars certified to Federal safety standards.

Elio critics and skeptics seized on the news for validation of their belief that the Elio trike will never see production. I was already planning on doing a post about Elio, their latest prototype and their crowdsourcing stock offer after their press conference next Tuesday in Detroit at the NAIAS. However, because of the buzz about the proposed change in regulations, I contacted Elio management for comment.

Elio Motors’ public relations firm sent me the response below. In a nutshell: old news, not an issue, wouldn’t apply to them.

Statement on NHTSA rule

Elio Motors remains committed to engineering our vehicle to the industry’s highest safety standards. This particular rule from NHTSA was first published in 2013 and is not something new. NHTSA is required to post this rule at least twice a year, but no new progress has been made since 2013.

This rule includes vehicles with side-by-side seating. The Elio has tandem (front-to-back) seating, so this rule, if enacted, would not apply.

Our goal as a company is to develop legislation that is in the best interest of the consumer and is appropriate for a three-wheeled vehicle. We have worked on several legislative initiatives at the state level and we support Federal legislation called “The Autocycle Safety Act” that creates a new category of vehicles called “autocycles.”

We will continue to engage the help of NHTSA in developing appropriate safety standards, which will be applied consistently to all manufacturers of autocycles.

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49 Comments on “Elio Motors: NHTSA Proposal to Regulate Three-wheelers as Cars ‘Would Not Apply’...”

  • avatar

    Elio’s assumption that the regs will not apply depends on reading the list of car-like characteristics with an “and”, as it was written in the statement, meaning only a vehicle with the whole list would be considered a car.

    “However, other three-wheeled vehicles have passenger-car characteristics such as fully enclosed cabins, hinged doors with roll-up windows, steering wheels, and side-by-side seating.”

    But it’s worth noting that neither the Slingshot nor the Morgan has the entire list. Since it is unlikely the regulators intent to promulgate a rule that applies to no vehicles, I would expect the regulations to be written with an “or” in the list, meaning that any one of the characteristics would classify the vehicle as a car.

    Sloppy communication on the part of the NTSB.

    And a shame. The lower barriers to entry offered through the three wheel loophole offer a potential channel for innovation by new players such as Elio, or in the past, Aptera.

  • avatar

    Reminds me of how the Dodge Tomahawk became vaporware due to having 4 wheels – instead of 2 – which qualified it as a “car” rather than a “motorcycle”.

    Seems to me, this 3-wheeler would be regulated as a tricycle or a “motor bike” like the T-REX.

  • avatar

    Let’s move the goal posts again
    What about all the electric carts that California allows on roads with a speed limit under 35?? They are about as flimsy as they come and I wouldn’t like to hit one with my SUV. They are widely used here in Los Angeles near UCLA. Why are they exempt from 4 wheel safety regs? These changes seem to me to be a bit arbitrary.

    • 0 avatar

      It isn’t about safety. It’s about regulating options and behaviors. Electric deathtraps are electric, so they’re sustainable; just like concentration camps were sustainable.

  • avatar

    You don’t have to be an engineering genius to notice that the Elio will never be able to meet crash impact standards for regular cars. The fact that the three-wheel platform was opted for because of far less strict safety criteria, may not sit well with the public either. It also means that Arcimoto can forget about enclosing its three-wheeler. However, there is a way to have your three-wheeler cake and enjoy it too:

    • 0 avatar

      Actuallly you do have to be an engineering genius to do this and you will be surprised by the Elio (whose designers are engneering geniuses).

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting – the three-wheeled Slingshot has been banned by the State of Connecticut for failing to qualify as a motorcycle, therefore regarded unsafe to be driven as a regular car.

      … then labelled an ‘autocycle’ (a car-like vehicle featuring not more than three wheels) and declared legal again.

  • avatar

    With the ever decreasing price of gas and the amount of accidents being caused by distracted drivers, I don’t see this thing ever taking off at all. Even if they managed to get it built, there won’t be nough takers to keep it afloat

    • 0 avatar

      Motorcycle sales are up. Wouldn’t that logic apply to them as well?

      • 0 avatar

        motorcycle buyers are well aware of the risk and take it anyway, including tasking risks and not wearing a helmet, where permitted

        • 0 avatar

          So, you think the Elio appears to be as safe as a car?

          Most people I know that have seen the Elio and like it, see at as a dryer warmer motorcycle. They don’t see it as safe as a car, but probably a little safer than a motorcycle. No one I know considers fuel prices as a factor, they just see it as a fun vehicle.

          I personally see it as being safer than it actually appears. It’s being sold as a motorcycle, registered as a motorcycle, so as long as it’s not being described as a car, I don’t have a problem with it. If Elio does meet the crash standards, that’s fine. But seriously, looking at one the first thought that pops in your mind is not going to be “that thing looks as safe in a collision as a full-size car”. Its appearance doesn’t exactly exude safety. Then again, if I was going to be in a collision, I’d rather be in this thing than some Chinese cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al From 'Murica

        Very few motorcycle buyers are the “I need transportation but can’t afford a car” type. Most buy motorcycles because they want to ride a bike as a toy. I commuted year round on a bike in North Carolina. It often sucked. The bike was fun when it wasn’t 20 degrees or being run off the road, but the piece of crap Saturn Wagon I got when things got better was a step up for the commute in every way. Little things like hearing traffic reports, heat, and being able to drink coffee made all the difference.

    • 0 avatar

      ” there won’t be nough takers to keep it afloat” The same argument was used when it came to three-wheeled motorcycle-conversions and VW trikes.

      Yet look at all the frail old codgers today trying to relive their youth hopping on those contraptions when they would not be able to otherwise hold a bike upright at a stop sign.

      If Elio builds it, they will come. NHTSA regulations be damned.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    In addition to my serious doubts about Elio ever becoming viable, with regards to safety I just thought of this:

    So much focus has been placed on the Elio 3-wheeler’s safety in a crash, but what about the damage its outrigger wheels could do to another vehicle or a pedestrian?

    • 0 avatar

      I wondered this as well. There’s been an evolution in those wheels between prototypes. I wonder if that’s related – they appear to be fully enclosed in the P5, and they started out open like the Plymouth Prowler.

  • avatar

    Surprising to see so many who blow wet, sloppy kisses at the Ariel Atom, or the Lotus 7 or 700 HP Dodge sedans getting a case of the vapors over the perceived lack of safety of the Elio.

  • avatar

    The exemption of three-wheel vehicles from automotive safety and emissions standards has long been nonsensical, particularly for enclosed vehicles.

    It may be reasonable to say that a motorcycle plus a sidecar is still a motorcycle, and even vehicles like Polaris makes can reasonably be considered a special kind of motorcycle.

    Were I making the rules, I would say that once a vehicle has a roof, it’s a car.

    • 0 avatar

      I think that would exempt the Morgan Three Wheeler, but would include the BMW C1 Scooter.

    • 0 avatar

      How concerned would you be as The Decider about the poor being able to get transportation? Should they be priced out?

      It’s a cheaper mode of transportation. Every regulation has a cost. I’ve known people who couldn’t afford a car, so they drove a motorcycle.

      There’s a trade-off between having a certain level of safety and the cost of ownership which prices various people out of the market.

      Given that there is no second-tier of car safety, that most car safety features quickly become mandated, and the government would strongly prefer we have newer cars, you need a spot in the market for the Wal Mart shopper types – the broke, the skinflint, and the person slumming it. Otherwise, you’d have lots of older and older cars – it would be nice to know: Is an Elio safer or does it have better emissions than an old Corsica?

      The Elio safety remains a question mark, but, as per emissions, I thought they were putting basically a Geo Metro engine in there, so it’s not going to be as extreme as a Harley pouring oil on the ground or coal rolling. Further, it’s easier to fix emissions after the fact instead of safety, which has to be engineered in from the start.

      Edit: I drove a Grand National, I can tell you – that thing was a death trap. I figured a head-on collision, I would be impaled, and a side impact – they would just rip through me. So, compared against an 80s sedan, I would prefer somebody took six grand and bought an Elio – safer for everybody, lower emissions, too.

  • avatar

    Just watched last week’s “Jay Leno’s Garage” on YouTube and the car featured was a three-wheeler with side-by-side seating and a steering wheel. It is built in Culpeper, Virginia and uses a Hayabusa engine. Looks like this would be captured under the proposed rule. It looked pretty fast on the video but I am not sure about the market for a noisy cramped three-wheel vehicle with no doors or side windows that sells for as much as a nicely-equipped new Corvette Z06.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting what’s allowed and what’s not. Some states have exemptions which allow cars similar to Ariel Atoms and BAC Monos to be legally driven on public roads.

    Others allow side by sides, and I believe, during certain conditions snowmobiles.

    These things are done at a state or local level so I wonder how a law such as this would affect other vehicles. After all, Ariels et al. are considered cars and all SXS have four wheels. If they’re allowed it’s tough not making a case for Elio.

  • avatar

    I reckon it would be a good time for the Reliant Robin to go back into production.

  • avatar

    In some communities, like Key Biscayne, Fl. extended electric golf carts are allowed to drive around the village, no doors, barely any safety devices, yet the state allows them and even issues tags.

  • avatar

    ArsTechnica had this article on the front page:

    Basically an electric Elio without (permanent) sides. This may “ruin” the effect of a warmer, dryer motorcycle, but should be at least easier to make and claim “does not appear safer than it is”. The sticker price is a bit more (under $12k) but don’t forget that smaller electric motors (and batteries) are cheaper to make than big motors and batteries, while Elio’s costs won’t be much less than most NA 4 cylinders (other competitors may wimpout and use motorcycle engines that don’t meet all the specs of car engines).

    Curious how the market (and the regulators) react to these ideas. Even if Elio can’t make his car/bike, I suspect that Tata (or Chery) probably can (although probably nobody can hit his price). They would also not have to worry about customers wondering if it was a deathtrap. They would simply *know* it is, and hopefully wear a motorcycle helmet.

  • avatar
    daniel g.

    Again, I admire the work of Elio motors in the development of their own engine but it’s a complete waste of time that maybe cost all the development and never see the light, take a plane to japan, buy daihatsu 660cc engines and put the bike in the market now, otherwise you loose the window in the legislation and never see the street.

    • 0 avatar

      The engine was actually developed by a third party. It’s actually not a bad idea to have their own motor. It has the potential of becoming a good revenue stream if they market it to other companies.

    • 0 avatar

      That would put Elio in a position of dependence on a supplier who may not be interested in accommodating Elio. Daihatsu could stop making the thing or radically change the design.

      • 0 avatar

        Tesla manged to get started and survive the loss of the Tesla roadster platform. The important thing in a startup is to startup (unless you are simply a scam, then you just want more funding. I’ll let the reader decide which Elio is).

        I strongly suspect that the engine *is* a 660cc Daihatsu or similar, with federalization modifications. They might not have been able to federalize their engine, or more likely weren’t interested in building the federalized engine (in Elio’s volumes, anyway) on their assembly lines.

        Have they made one move to put tooling in a factory yet? While I like the idea of the car, I can’t see anyone actually expect the thing to get delivered. I suspect they are watching close at Occulus and waiting to see how the market reacts to a 2-3 year wait with a sudden price doubling at the end.

  • avatar

    Quite frankly Im not surprised to find Elio blocked at each and every turn along the way. This whole ordeal with Elio reminds me of Preston Tucker when he attempted to break into the US automotive business with a vehicle that eventually changed history. I though Elio would not be able to stand alone without some big gun in their corner (assumed it would be one of the established power sports entities).

    Imagine the impact a $6800 two seater vehicle would have upon not only the new but the used vehicle market. I can imagine every interest related to both new and used vehicle sales markets would be concerned if Elio actually entered the market.

    Not to say that Elio does not have the makings of a very profitable and beneficial vehicle paradigm shit, they do. What needs to happen from this point is one of the Vehicle manufacturers (or a consortium) needs to be wise enough to see the future potential of Elio and bring its products into their marketing model. It would be more effective if that support for Elio came from an American automotive Icon.

    Smaller lighter vehicles are going to be the norm for the future, wouldn’t it be great for Americans to support an American effort in moving its automotive industry in that direction.

    • 0 avatar

      I know that it’s popular to say that the Tucker car was advanced, but from a technological standpoint, it was a dead end. I think that even most of its vaunted safety features were mostly hype.

      The idea that Preston Tucker was the target of a conspiracy led by the Big 3 Detroit automakers because they feared his product is a big stretch. Kaiser Frazer was more of a threat to Big 3 market share than Tucker.

      • 0 avatar

        Charismatic car designer starts revolutionary car company. But the car suffers in the marketplace on merit and company quietly folds.

        Ronnie, you’re never going to make it as a big time Hollywood film writer.

        • 0 avatar

          You’re probably correct about my prospects as a screenwriter (though Roger Simon, who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar was the first person to ask me to write about cars). For example, it perplexes me that they’ve never made a movie about the only airliner pilot to stop a hijacking.

          The Tucker car never really made it to the marketplace. They only assembled about 35 before they shut down – the rest of the existing Tucker cars were completed after the company folded. I’m not saying that established automakers didn’t use politicians to harass Tucker, but there were ample reasons for his failure without needing a conspiracy.

          In any case the Tucker car and Preston Tucker make a great story and it doesn’t surprise me that Francis Ford Coppola chose it as the basis for his not quite historically accurate biopic.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      My 90 Miata was a 2500 dollar 2 seat vehicle with more utility and safety then this thing likely has. Add hardtop and it became a real car which is more than can be said for this.

      • 0 avatar

        While that’s a great alternative for a car enthusiast looking for a cheap commuter car, Elio’s aiming the car at people who’d like to have a warranty instead of driving something 20 years old, or older. In that sense, the Miata, because it gets much better fuel economy than the average old get-to-work car, is a bit of an outlier.

        The MPG of old cars is one of Elio’s selling points. They’re telling folks that for the money they’re currently paying for gasoline to drive an old beater they can be driving something new, with a warranty and modern features.

      • 0 avatar

        I drive a ’99 Miata. Good luck finding a hardtop with a headliner and rear window defrost.

  • avatar

    That black Elio sign is pretty classy. It looks identical in format to the one my local Subway uses to advertise their footlongs.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen major automakers and suppliers use similar signs at their SAE World Congress’ vendor displays. The Elio NAIAS display is in the concourse and they need to catch people’s eyes. I can recall another automaker whose first display at the NAIAS was in the concourse. That was Geely, today they own Volvo.

      Caveat: Geely was pretty well established as an automaker when they first came to the Detroit show. Elio’s had five prototypes made.

  • avatar

    Elio’s selling proposition isn’t really any different from the Tata Nano which generated a lot of publicity in India when it came out as a $2500 new car. Even with a low price, it has never sold well. Check out the Nano Wikipedia page to learn how horribly it did in crash tests and the marketplace:

    The vast majority of potential customers either chose a motorcycle or a used larger car instead. Super small, super cheap cars have been tried in the US many, many times over the years. The Nash Metropolitan and the Bantam are two early examples I can think of. None has ever been a real success. The VW Beetle was the smallest, cheapest new car to ever sell in real volumes in the past 50 years, and look what VWs have grown into today.

    Elio is simply barking up the wrong tree. When it fails, they will blame regulations.

  • avatar

    As long as there’s full disclosure to the customer, they should be allowed to sell it under the same rules as a motorcycle.

    We let people drive bicycles, motorcycles and golf carts on public roads, the idea that this is going to be a massive safety hazard is absurd.

    I think the idea will be a massive failure, but I still think the bureaucrats should let them fail on their own without nanny state lawfare.

  • avatar

    see now the tandem seating makes sense

    i always thought it was stupid to have essentially the same width/side footprint as a car but only have motorcycle style seating…its purely to pass regulations, hopefully

    as someone up there said, the tata nano seems like a more reasonable choice even in the west

    or that $10k versa or kia rio or any of the super small stripped out sub compacts

  • avatar

    Sure you can buy a used car for less than the targeted price of an Elio. But, it’s still a used car, and it probably doesn’t come with a 36 month warranty right out of the box, and definitely doesn’t get the targeted MPG of an Elio, which means that the used car will soon cost you more than the Elio, and the used car just keeps getting older and more expensive to drive and maintain.

    Is it as crash safe as a 4 wheeled vehicle? Probably not, but as long as it is safe to drive, meaning it drives and handles well and doesn’t start falling apart simply by driving it, then what does it matter whether or not it’s as crash safe as a normal 4 wheeled vehicle? If you don’t like the safety aspects of it, then don’t buy one. But, if you get hit by one, the repair costs for your car/truck will be much less, that’s for sure. And, the injuries you will receive from colliding with one will surely be less severe, or even non-existent. Oh, by the way, don’t buy a motorcycle either, they are even less crash safe than an Elio.

    Whether it’s ultimately classified as a car, or a motorcycle, or an autocycle, or something else, doesn’t really matter to most folks. It gets you from point A to point B in the same time as a 4 wheeled car, keeps the weather out, beats the heck out of the MPG of any 4 wheel vehicle on the road, and costs the owner less than 4 wheeled vehicle owners are paying for fuel alone, are just some of the reasons that the Elio makes a whole lot of sense.

    Does it cause concern by existing automakers, new car dealers, used car dealers, motor cycle manufacturers and dealers, etc? Well, it certainly should! Is that a bad thing? No, absolutely not! Maybe they will start thinking in different directions, rather than the “get as much money from the buyer as you can” attitude they have now. Or the “who cares about poor people who can’t afford our products” attitude. Or the “force them to buy all the options even if they don’t want all of them” attitude. We can go on and on with this stuff!

    Government regulations should not make it illegal to sell the Elio, simply because it is technically neither a car/truck nor a motorcycle, by classification. The fact is, the Elio is just as viable a means of transportation for the motoring public as a car/truck or a motorcycle. It also helps reduce our oil/gasoline consumption, provides extremely economical mobility for a growing population of poor people, will help rid the roads of the 20-50+ year old, unreliable and frequently unsafe vehicles that many of those poorer people are currently forced to drive, etc., etc..

    Maybe the Elio never becomes a reality, on the roads, but that should be for reasons other than the government killing it via big business/politically biased regulations. If Elio fails it should be of their own doing, not the government’s.

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