Not quite a car, not quite a motorcycle: A vehicle built for one

  • >> Susan Carpenter, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-11 17:06:25 BdST

For decades, the country’s bestselling vehicles have been pickup trucks. Hulking, gas-powered models from Ford, Ram and Chevy have had a grip on the market that seems unbreakable.

But there will always be companies that try to upend the status quo, powered by idealistic thinking and, ideally, deep pockets. One such company is set to take its shot this summer with a single-seat car called the Solo. A tiny, three-wheeled electric, it will be available in Los Angeles later this year.

“So many vehicles are being driven by one person,” said Paul Rivera, chief executive of the Solo’s manufacturer, ElectraMeccanica, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Why does everybody think they need to drive around and leave three or four empty seats?”

Nearly 90% of Americans who commute by car, truck, van or motorcycle drive alone, according to the Census Bureau. Positioning itself as a right-size alternative to hauling around all of that excess automotive tonnage, the Solo takes up about a quarter of the space of a typical SUV. It also looks like a car — at least from the front — with the usual hood, grille and headlights. Take a peek from behind, however, and it tapers down to just one wheel.

Technically, the Solo is a motorcycle, though it’s fully enclosed and drives like a car with a steering wheel and foot pedals. It has only one seat, but it’s accessible with doors on both sides. It also has a trunk, and amenities common to a full-size passenger vehicle, including Bluetooth stereo, air conditioning and a backup camera.

Having three wheels, it is not subject to the sorts of crash-testing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires for street-legal, four-wheeled vehicles, but it does have a seatbelt and an integrated roll bar.

The Solo isn’t the first small, three-wheeled car to squeeze into the crowded automotive market. The Bond Bug, an angular British three-wheeler in pumpkin orange, went out of production in 1974, after four short years. Carver, based in the Netherlands, has been making different iterations of its leaning, three-wheeled “man-wide” vehicles since the 1990s. And the Corbin Sparrow, with its striking resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s shoe, failed to take off in any meaningful way after going into production in 1999.

“There’s been so many of these,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “A lot of people want to solve the problem of clean, space-efficient, inexpensive personal transportation.”

Microcars have tended to sell in microscopic numbers in a new-car market with millions in annual sales. Fiat sold just 6,556 of its Fiat 500s in 2019, despite their seeming ubiquity. Mercedes pulled its Smart car from the US market after selling just 680 units last year. Toyota yanked its Scion iQ after selling just 482 of them in 2015.

“It’s not to say a group of people won’t buy these,” Brauer said of the Solos, “but that group is in the hundreds, not the thousands, and something that sells in the hundreds is not saving anything: not the planet or our congestion problems.”

He added, “If you can’t get tens or hundreds of thousands of these to sell, it’s not having any sort of meaningful impact on any of these problems it’s supposed to be solving.”

Rivera, ElectraMeccanica’s chief executive, declined to reveal initial production or order figures for the Solo. While its Chinese factory is capable of making 20,000 vehicles a year, “we won’t do that right out of the gate,” he said. “We will launch very slowly and methodically.”

ElectraMeccanica has its roots in a decades-old Italian company that built replica Porsches in the 1960s. That company relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s and created the ElectraMeccanica subsidiary in 2015, from which the Solo was born. Two batches of earlier generation vehicles have been manufactured so far, in limited quantities, some of which are still being driven in Canada.

The new production version of the Solo will be manufactured in Chongqing, China, in partnership with the Chinese motorcycle manufacturer Zongshen Industrial Group, a company that already makes about 3 million motorcycles annually. ElectraMeccanica plans to set up a North American assembly facility within the next two years.

After launching in Los Angeles later this year, ElectraMeccanica will expand sales to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland — early-adopter cities in states that also have generous incentives for electric vehicles. California provides a $750 rebate for the Solo; Oregon, $2,500. Rivera said the Solo would expand to the rest of the country over the next 18 months to two years, then globally.

Taking a page from Tesla, which sells its cars through retail stores rather than dealerships, ElectraMeccanica is offering the Solo through shopping mall kiosks, starting with two in the Los Angeles area — Westfield Fashion Square in the San Fernando Valley and Westfield Century City. Together, the malls have 24 million visitors a year, according to a Westfield official.

In a handout photo provided by ElectraMeccanica, the Solo isn’t the first small, three-wheeled car to squeeze into the crowded automotive market. The New York Times

In a handout photo provided by ElectraMeccanica, the Solo isn’t the first small, three-wheeled car to squeeze into the crowded automotive market. The New York Times

Malls in California are closed now because of the coronavirus outbreak, but the Solo kiosks will be up and running when the state’s stay-at-home orders are lifted, possibly this month.

The coronavirus is changing the transportation landscape in ways that seemed unthinkable even two months ago. Public transportation ridership is plummeting throughout the country. Cars are suddenly unaffordable to millions who have lost jobs. And the threat of climate change remains very real.

So maybe — just maybe — the Solo has a chance. Arriving on the market when travelers are hesitant to touch what others have touched, it provides for social distancing. Priced at $18,500, it also costs about half as much as the current average sales price for a new passenger vehicle ($35,667 as of March 2020). And it has zero emissions, allowing for up to 100 miles of travel per charge at a top speed of 80 mph. It recharges with Level 1 or 2 chargers.

“Conceptually, it makes sense,” said Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But what’s socially desirable and environmentally beneficial isn’t necessarily personally optimal.”

American drivers tend to buy “the most capable or largest vehicle that they need,” Matute said, even if they need that capability for only 5% of their trips. Thus the popularity of pickup trucks and SUVs. While the Solo’s price is far less than an average car, it may still be a stretch for many during a downturn. And even though 50% of electric vehicles sold in the United States are sold in California, installing the infrastructure to charge them is an additional hurdle, Matute said.

Regardless of whether the Solo finds a market in Los Angeles or elsewhere in the United States, it already has an unequivocal fan in Leona Green. The owner of the Greens and Beans deli in New Westminster, British Columbia, Green has driven a first-generation Solo every day for three years.

“It’s adorable,” she said. Driving her little green Solo with a custom “Han” license plate, Green uses the car to deliver sandwich trays, four of which fit in the trunk. It is small enough for motorcycle parking, and she spends about $15 a month on electricity to recharge it.

“Not a day goes by that people aren’t stopping and taking pictures of the car, even after all this time,” she said. “I love it.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service