What may be the next big thing in the global ride-sharing movement is already tooling around on the streets of Grenoble, France.
There, you’ll find a curious-looking three-wheeled vehicle (two in the front, one in the back) that looks part bumper car, part Tron Lightcycle. Meet Toyota’s electric I-Road.
Grenoble is one of several cities around the globe where the Japanese auto maker is experimenting with newfangled urban mobility vehicles designed for short rides around crowded streets. There are pickup points around Grenoble to rent the I-Roads, similar to what Zipcar or Maven offer in the U.S. The vehicles are dutifully lined up at charging kiosks much the way Citibikes are in New York City.
The one-person I-Road, showcased at the Los Angeles Auto Show this past November, is about 7.5 feet long and 3 feet wide, and reaches speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. It has a roof, meaning it can be used comfortably in rainy weather.
Drivers use the single rear tire to steer—an experience that Toyota says is closer to boating than conventional auto driving. One of the more fascinating things about the I-Road, as shown in company videos, is that drivers lean into turns, similar to riding a motorcycle. But because the I-Road self-balances and shifts the vehicle’s weight automatically, the experience is much closer to that of riding a car.
Toyota isn’t saying what the I-Road will cost or when or if it will be available in the U.S., although further events in the U.S. to show it off are planned.
Jana Hartline, Toyota’s environmental communications manager, said it is intended for urban settings where traffic moves at slower speeds, and parking is at a premium. The I-Road parking footprint is similar to that of a motorcycle or a Vespa-style scooter, making it easy to navigate through tight spaces.
The I-Road shares characteristics with other experimental transport efforts, notably the three-wheeled cars produced by Arizona’s Elio Motors. Elio (which was also at the L.A. Auto Show) doesn’t have their $7,300 three-wheeled car on the market yet, but it follows a similar template.
Although Elio’s car looks a bit more “carlike” than the I-Road, they share DNA: Both are tiny, three-wheeled vehicles designed for city driving and custom-made for navigating a crammed Target parking lot or finding street parking.
As this video shows, the I-Road does pretty well in dense urban environments like Paris:
For Toyota, the I-Road is still one experiment among a sea of projects designed to get market share in the coming years. Convincing drivers to take a chance on something that is so radically different from what’s now on the motor vehicle market will take liberal amounts of both word-of-mouth marketing and conventional advertising.
Hartline, however, adds that there is one important place Toyota sees the I-Road fitting in: Car-sharing fleets. Toyota dipped its toes into car sharing in the U.S. earlier this year, thanks to a partnership with startup Getaround.
According to EV Obsession, an industry blog, testing of the I-Road in Grenoble began two years ago and will conclude in August 2017. The average trip in the I-Road is approximately 3.1 miles, and they are primarily picked up at train stations by commuters looking for quick rides home. In 2014, Grenoble began an electric car-share program that allows the quick rental of I-Roads and more conventional electric cars at 27 stations scattered around the city.
Further tests, Toyota says, are planned.