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Driving Toyota’s Self-Balancing, 3-Wheeled Vehicle Is A Lot Of Fun

Solving the last-mile problem while putting grins on drivers’ faces.

I had already seen videos of Toyota’s three-wheeled electric i-Road in action, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of actually driving the experimental vehicle, which has been in the works for a decade. It’s a little like getting behind the wheel of a motorcycle with doors and a protective top that won’t fall over no matter how steeply you lean into a turn. Anyone who can drive a car can safely drive the i-Road, no motorcycle experience necessary.

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It’s virtually impossible to drive the i-Road without a big grin. It’s also nearly impossible to stop yourself from doing constant figure-eights, just to experience the deep tilt over and over.

The i-Road is tiny, about the width of a large motorcycle. When it tilts–up to a maximum of 26 degrees–the vehicle does initially feel like it might fall over, and there were points when I thought I might be testing its limits. But it always stays upright and the steering wheel vibrates when you’ve hit the top tilt angle. The i-Road balances with the help of an onboard computer that calculates the driver’s tilt based on G force and gravity.

I tested the i-Road in a parking lot in San Jose, California–the site of Toyota’s first public testing in the U.S. The vehicle is currently available for short rentals in Tokyo and as part of a carsharing scheme in Grenoble, France. Prior to my test-drive, Toyota offered test rides over the course of a weekend to members of the public, in an attempt to figure out the vehicle’s target market here.

It’s easy to guess what Toyota is going for. In Grenoble, an environmentally aware city with high public transport usage, the i-Road is used as a form of “last mile” transportation to get people home when they’ve stepped off public transportation. As in many European cities, Grenoble’s streets are also narrow–perfect for the i-Road’s streamlined form. The wide roads through most of the U.S. clearly offer the vehicle less of an advantage.

With a range of just 30 miles, and a three-hour charge time on a 110-volt outlet, the i-Road isn’t meant for long-distance driving. It’s best suited for urban areas, where drivers can weave in between traffic and park in tight spaces (Parking, in my experience, was much easier than in a car).

The biggest issue that could come up, especially in countries like the U.S. that have a lot of large vehicles, is safety. The i-Road is safer than a motorcycle, but doesn’t have quite the same protections as a full-size car. Toyota believes that drivers who spot i-Road will see it as a regular car and act accordingly, but I can imagine that the vehicle would confuse drivers at first.

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No word on a potential release date, but Toyota is preparing for discussions and test drives with the California DMV.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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