It sounds too good to be true: designed and made in America, gets around 85mpg, and costs under $7,000.
That’s the promise of the Elio E-Series, a super fuel efficient vehicle Paul Elio and his backers plan to start rolling off the assembly line of a former GM plant in Shreeveport, La., later this year. (That’s him behind the wheel of a prototype, above).
I chatted with the company founder recently, who told me the idea for his innovative three-wheeler was born in 2008, when he scrawled a basic design on a dinner napkin.
Even while the economy – and the auto industry – was tanking, he continued to pursue the dream of producing an affordable urban car.
Paul Elio is not a brash Silicon Valley billionaire like Elon Musk, adapting computer software into the game-changing, but expensive, Tesla.
Elio is a shy but passionate engineer who has spent a lifetime in the auto industry. His goal is to produce a zero-emission vehicle at a price affordable to nearly everybody, just as Henry Ford’s world-changing Model T did a century ago.
Mobility helps eliminate poverty
Elio told me that a recent Harvard study shows that the biggest indicator of whether people can get out of poverty is mobility, even more than education.
If you can’t get to work, you can’t earn a paycheck. He hopes his vehicle will be used in low-income areas as personal transportation, as a taxi, and by home health workers and others to serve their communities.
This is a two-seater, with the passenger sitting behind, not next to, the driver. The tandem design also adds to maneuverability.
“It’s fun to drive,” Elio says, partly because the driver sits low and between the two front wheels, making it feel a bit like you are driving a Formula One racecar. Except for the speed, of course.
Elio controls costs and risk by using existing products. “Everything is already in production,” and adapted to the E-Series, he tells me. Elio Motors lucked into the GM plant. They literally walked away, he says, in the recent bankruptcy and re-organization most of us have forgotten about, leaving all the equipment behind.
The three wheels – two in the front and one in the rear – make it a snap to park, since two wheels are always already properly parked, so the car literally swivels in to a space. Since it has the same wheelbase as a Honda Accord, it will fit into most spaces, an advantage for any vehicle designed for city driving.
The E-Series body is the same strong and light SMC composite as the Chevy Corvette, but no real info-tainment system. Elio expects buyers to plug in their own mobile phones or tablets, or the modular system he’s working with MTX to develop.
Like the three-wheel Toyota i-Road EV concept, the Elio E-Series falls into a new category that’s half car, half motorcycle.
Half car, half motorcycle
Under the current classification, it’s a motorcycle, so insurance is a fraction of what automobile insurance costs.
But that creates ownership issues in states where a special motorcycle license is required to own and drive one. Elio is working with regulators, as is Toyota, to modernize those rules for this new category he calls “autocycles”.
Like Tesla, Elio hopes to sell his autocycle directly, not through dealers, like Tesla is doing. And, like any vehicle, it can be customized and upgraded with such options as leather seats and blind-spot detection mirrors. Service would be at one of 800 authorized PepBoys locations nationwide, he told me.
Elio Motors began raising money via the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act (JOBS). It’s now a publicly traded company, on the small OTCQX exchange, where it’s raised $17 million. That’s to help pay for buidling a couple of dozen vehicles for crash testing, wind tunnel testing and other safety and durability tests that all vehicles must undergo.
We wish him luck.