Bill would define new kind of vehicle

Elio Motors, based in Phoenix, Ariz., says its three-wheel autocycle will get 84 mpg and sell for $6,800.
Elio Motors, based in Phoenix, Ariz., says its three-wheel autocycle will get 84 mpg and sell for $6,800. Elio Motors

A legislative committee has set aside time Tuesday to address an almost hypothetical question: What is an autocycle?

The answer provided in House Bill 6 is: A three-wheeled thing that might exist one day.

North Carolina law treats motor vehicles alike for most purposes – drive on the right, don’t speed – and adds separate definitions where special consideration makes good sense.

Unlike automobiles, motorcycles can travel two abreast. Motorcyclists don’t use seat belts, but they wear safety helmets.

Now Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who drives a motorcycle and has pushed efforts in the past to relax helmet requirements, has blended cars and motorcycles into a legislative dream machine. His bill introduces “autocycle” into the statutory lexicon and defines it this way:

“A three-wheeled motorcycle that has a steering wheel, pedals, seat safety belts for each occupant, antilock brakes, air bag protection, completely enclosed seating that does not require the operator to straddle or sit astride, and is otherwise manufactured to comply with federal safety requirements for motorcycles.”

So an autocycle would be fitted with safety gear not found on motorcycles. But it would not be built to meet crash-worthiness and other safety standards applied to automobiles. And perhaps most importantly: Torbett’s bill drops requirements for a separate motorcycle license and safety helmet.

Just as the unicorn merges real-life qualities of horse and narwhal, this autocycle creature is not entirely imaginary.

There are three-wheeled motorcycles on the road now – including “reverse trikes” with two wheels placed in front. Some have roofs, steering wheels and side-by-side bucket seats for two. There are high-performance machines – check out the Campagna T-Rex, for example – that can cost $60,000 or more.

Virginia-based Tanom Motors packs a 197-hp Suzuki motorcycle engine into its pricey reverse trike, the Invader. The company helped persuade Virginia’s legislature to create a new autocycle definition that took effect last year – with relaxed standards to match the Invader’s limited safety specs: no air bags, no enclosed seats.

Torbett’s legislation more closely describes a budget-priced ($6,800), fuel-efficient (84 mpg) vehicle that has been heavily promoted by Phoenix-based Elio Motors – but has not gone into production.

“It almost sounds like the law that North Carolina is considering is designed more around that particular vehicle than anything that’s actually on the market,” said Lucretia Wolfcale, co-owner of Action Motor Sports in Unionville, Va., Tanom’s sole retail outlet.

Torbett is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which will consider his autocycle bill Tuesday. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Elio reports it has 40,000 “pre-sold reservations” and hopes to start manufacturing in 2016. The Associated Press reports that CEO Paul Elio has raised $65 million in capital and needs $230 million more to begin producing his vehicles.

The company also needs autocycle-friendly laws so customers in North Carolina won’t be scared away by ill-fitting regulation, a spokesman said. Autocycle laws are on the books in six states and pending in at least a dozen more.

“Obsolete bureaucratic definitions shouldn’t be allowed to create roadblocks and stifle innovation,” said Joel Sheltrown, Elio’s government relations vice president.

Elio riders won’t want helmets as they sit inside locked doors and a roll cage, protected with air bags and three-point safety restraints, he said. And to drive this three-wheeler, they won’t need motorcycle skills.

“We have automobile controls, not motorcycle controls,” Sheltrown said. “And it doesn’t do anybody any good to tell one of our operators to lean into a curve.”