But this time could be different for the West, insists Sandy Munro, a former Ford engineer who runs his own engineering consultancy that helps companies design and launch their vehicles. “I think there’s a big market for three-wheelers,” Munro says. “A lot of people want to get into new vehicles, but the price is a killer.” He rattles off three-wheeler virtues such as low manufacturing costs, unbeatable efficiency (due to less drag and rolling resistance), and, of course, fun.

What about safety? Early three-wheel designs, a triangular “delta” configuration with a single wheel up front, proved particularly treacherous, tipping over on tight corners. Newer designs reverse this precarious configuration, positioning two wheels up front and lowering the center of gravity. The result is a “tadpole” design: two stabilizing wheels in front, and one in the back, as if one had taffy-pulled the car into a teardrop shape. These designs, argues Munro, are safer than a motorcycle, balanced by new anti-roll torque control that keeps the vehicles level (though like motorcycles, these vehicles do not undergo the same crash-testing as four-wheel vehicles).

Drivers wanted, no motorcycle license required

All of this begs the question: Is there really a market for these three-wheeled oddities? Startups are betting it’s just around the corner. Munro, by his count, is now advising five companies developing the vehicles around the world. And this year the public will be inundated with three-wheel options. Aptera Motors, the first mass-produced car capable of running on solar panels alone, is already taking orders. Arcimoto (billed as a “Fun Utility Vehicle”) claims it will achieve the equivalent of 174 miles per gallon. Indigo is releasing two models for under $23,000. And Nobe’s classic 60s styling is there to satisfy retro fans.

The Nobe 100 with “three wheel drive”
The Nobe 100 with “three wheel drive”
Image: Nobe

So far, data on sales is slim. Companies like Aptera have booked more than 7,500 deposits (a refundable $100) and Rivera says the reception for Electra Meccanica has been enthusiastic. The company set up kiosks at malls along the West Coast to sell its concept, and Rivera says there is a “long waitlist” after people plunked down $250 refundable deposits (he declined to release precise numbers). Even if Electra Meccanica’s vehicle fails to take off with the average driver, Rivera argues that corporate fleet owners and shared mobility firms will be its biggest customers once they see the cost savings over conventional vehicles.

But Eric Ibara, an executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says three-wheelers like the Solo will still have a hard time breaking into the mainstream. Pricing is comparable to some traditional four-wheel vehicles, while the small batteries, restrictive seating, and promise of “safer than a motorcycle” (but not a car) will limit potential buyers, although niche applications—campuses, retirement, last-mile deliveries—might prove useful. “In order to make a dent into vehicle sales,” Ibara wrote by email, “they would have to appeal to a compact car or subcompact SUV buyer, and I just don’t see that right now.”

Clarification: Electra Meccanica plans to move its final assembly to the US, while keeping most of its parts and other manufacturing in China.

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