A Tale of Two Trikes: Arcimoto and Elio Do New York
It looks like the makers of three-wheelers are trying hard to get the attention of car and light-truck consumers.
Last month, at the Chicago Auto Show, Polaris had a couple of trikes on display. Immediately adjacent to the Slingshot display, Campagna was showing its T-Rex and newly introduced Harley-Davidson-powered VR13R. The Polaris starts at just under $20,000 and the T-Rex is about three times that price.
Interestingly, the New York International Auto Show, often chosen by high-priced car manufacturers for reveals, also featured two reverse trikes, but at the lower end of the price spectrum: the electric Arcimoto SRK (target price of $11,000) and the gasoline powered Elio (targeted at $6,800).
Both Arcimoto and Elio rented display space for the public days of the show and both of them had press conferences late on the second day of the NYIAS media preview.
Elio has attended at the New York and Detroit shows before, but it was an introduction to the big time for Arcimoto, and it showed very little. Arcimoto founder and CEO Mark Frohnmayer was surprisingly absent. Instead, the press conference was handled by the company’s head of business development, Jesse Fittipaldi, who seemed a little too earnest and too hip about the next new thing as he bounced from one topic to the text. There’s a reason why most automakers use prepared remarks.
In any case, Fittipaldi is far more credible than Kevin Lyons from at last year’s NY show.
Considering that Arcimoto was at an auto show, I thought it somewhat ironic that it was promoting the SRK as the “safest motorcycle” on the road. The low center of gravity means it won’t fall over and dump rider and passenger. Fittipaldi told me that it does have front and rear crush zones, but the framework bolted to the floor that surrounds the riders doesn’t strike me as robust as an actual roll cage. Remember, the Arcimoto SRK is not a low-speed neighborhood EV and is meant for highway use.
At the presser, there wasn’t much said about the Arcimoto project that wasn’t covered in our post about the company last November except for its plans to sell vehicles directly to consumers. It’s also following Elio’s lead in that Arcimoto will be contracting with an existing chain of service centers to provide maintenance and repairs, and explore crowdfunding via a Reg A+ stock offering. The folks from Arcimoto, by the way, attended Elio’s press conference, and there seems to be good will between the two enterprises.
Unlike Elio, Arcimoto actually demonstrated its vehicle by driving it around the atrium of the Javits Center. Being gasoline powered, though, I’m not sure that the Elio would be permitted to run around the hall like the Arcimoto EV.
Speaking of the Elio running, the community of Elio critics on Facebook seem convinced that Elio’s latest prototype — its fifth produced — is mostly a pushmobile. That’s an issue because P5, as it’s called, is the first Elio prototype that uses the company’s own proprietary engine and supposedly production-ready transmission. Back in January, I was told that it had undergone just preliminary shakedown testing, more or less around the block a couple of times. After the press conference in New York, Elio lifted the embargo on the b-roll video of the P5 being driven around Hines Park, in Dearborn, at speeds of up to 45 mph.
You may have noticed that high-end companies like Ferrari and Bentley will now whore themselves out allow their customers an almost endless choice of customization. At the New York press conference, Paul Elio introduced Elio Motors’ own personalization program, which they are calling ePlus: My Elio My Way.
To begin with, Elio Motors is unbundling options. Paul Elio is personally peeved that he had to pay for a lighted sun visor vanity mirror to get some other feature that he actually wanted the last time he bought a new car. The Elio trikes will come out of the factory identically except for automatic or manual transmissions and colors. All cars will come with air conditioning, a basic stereo, power windows and a power door lock. All optional features will be à la carte, installed by Elio’s regional fulfillment centers, which in turn will ship the cars to local Elio stores for customer delivery.
Every manufacturer these days wants to be like the cellphone industry and Elio is no exception. Comparing the process to third-party apps, Elio says that it’ll be making all sorts of consumer data available to its suppliers so they can, in turn, develop their own Elio specific accessories.
Paul Elio says that this will help consumers and automotive suppliers, both large and small. As Elio tells it, in the current system, vendors pitch car companies on a new technology or feature. Typically one or two luxury car makers introduce the new feature a year or three after it’s been developed and then it trickles down via democratization of luxury to mass market cars after five or ten years. As for similar products from competing vendors, car companies typically don’t offer you a choice of, for example, a Meridian or Revel audio system. Once one vendor is chosen for a platform, the other vendors are typically locked out.
Elio believes that its system will allow owners to have access to modern features sooner than with conventional automakers’ option systems. They’ll also have a choice of brands to choose from since choices aren’t baked in at the factory.
If more than one company wants to make optional features for the Elio trike, Elio is just fine with that, and will be happy to sell the products to Elio customers for a slight markup. Elio plans on adding 20 percent on top of the cost of those accessories and an additional 10-percent “infrastructure toll fee.” That “toll fee” is to cover the cost of connections and other supporting hardware that must be built into the car to accommodate some options, like a wiring harness pigtail for a potential power seat. When you’re aiming for a sub $7,000 MSRP, $4 pigtails can add up. Elio estimates it will cost them about $300 per vehicle for option infrastructure. The “toll fee” is a means of recouping those costs from the people buying options.
Today companies use venues like Kickstarter to promote products before they are even greenlit for production, and Elio is going to borrow from that concept by allowing vendors to display potential features on the myelio.me website to gauge consumer interest. Elio is also leaving pricing in the hands of vendors. The suppliers can choose between high volumes and high margins.
Elio claimed that vendors are excited about the potential to get their wares (and brand names) to the public sooner in their product cycles. So far, both Bosch and Continental have signed on to the program, and at least two graphics companies will be offering a variety of custom vinyl wraps for the Elio trike.
All along I’ve said that the key issue in whether or not Elio actually produces and sells its trike is a $200 million question. The Reg A+ stock that Elio sold, which is now being traded publicly, has apparently changed that picture somewhat. Those shares briefly soared in value, at least temporarily giving the company a billion dollar market cap. The stock price has come back closer to earth to about $17.50 at the time of this post, but it’s still trading higher than the initial price.
I don’t know if it’s significant or not, but the company hasn’t mentioned its pending loan application for $200 million from the U.S. Dept. of Energy Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program in months.
More to the point, Paul Elio told me that potential investors (he didn’t say whether they were individuals or institutions) who wouldn’t speak to them before are now approaching them. When I asked him whether the value of the publicly traded shares gave them the option of selling older existing shares held by company insiders, Mr. Elio said that the Securities and Exchange Commission won’t let them sell those shares to the public, but they could conceivably be sold to private or institutional investors.
All of Elio’s prototypes so far have been fabricated by TechnoSports, a Detroit-area vendor, but Elio recently announced that 100 validation prototypes will be built by the end of this year at the former General Motors plant in Shreveport, LA.
The build of those validation prototypes is an important benchmark, but I’ve maintained that the only real benchmark for Elio as it approaches production will be when it starts hiring the 1,500 people it says it will employ at the Shreveport facility. At the New York show, I asked Paul Elio if employees will build the validation trikes and he told me no; prototypes will likely be assembled by suppliers. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say those suppliers are likely Comau, which is providing manufacturing engineering to Elio, and IAV, which has developed Elio’s proprietary 0.9-liter three cylinder gasoline engine.
Both companies have my best wishes, but I’m a little bit confounded by the people online who find Arcimoto more believable than Elio. Arcimoto has actually been around a year longer than Elio and they don’t appear to be any closer to going to production. While vehicle development is an iterative process, Elio’s five prototypes so far have proceeded along a continuous line of design. In contrast, Arcimoto completely changed the direction of its design, moving away from a steering wheel and pedals to motorcycle style handlebars and hand controls. To gain credibility, Elio has trumpeted the names of its supplier “partners.” Arcimoto said that it’s still evaluating battery vendors.
I’m not saying that as a way of denigrating Arcimoto, but of giving some needed context and perspective. Bringing any kind of vehicle, particularly of the on-road passenger type, is not an easy thing to do, and both companies still have long rows to hoe.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.
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