At the 2014 Tokyo Motor Show, Japanese manufacturers revealed a number of alternate vehicles and personal transport devices designed to provide consumers with a choice in terms of around-town transportation. All battery-powered, they ranged from the absurd and virtually un-rideable Honda Uni-cub to the Segway-like Winglet to the three-wheeled Toyota i-Road. Of the various contraptions on display at the show, the i-Road seemed to be the most practical and likeliest to see the light of day. I actually got to ride/drive it and it was one of the most entertaining vehicles I’ve ever been in.
Clearly, others agree. Toyota took its i-Road to the Geneva Motor Show, which just wrapped up, and it was a huge hit. As well, the company recently announced that they will be conducting consumer trials of the i-Road in Tokyo from late March till mid-June. The company will provide ten vehicles to approximately 20 test participants, ranging from members of the general public to trend and industry experts. To quote Toyota: “feedback will be collected concerning driving feel, user satisfaction, ease-of-use in urban areas, and impact on destination choices.”
Part motorcycle and part automobile, the i-Road is unique in that it has an active front suspension set-up that allows the occupants to “tilt” the vehicle through corners like a motorcycle while being fully enclosed and weather-tight. A lithium-ion battery pack feeds an electric motor that drives the rear wheel and range is about 50 kilometres. The i-Road has a top speed of some 45 – 50 km/h and features surprisingly nimble performance.
But what really distinguishes it is the front suspension. In a nutshell, a “central turning point” located in the front of the vehicle connects to a rotary gear and linkage that runs across the front of the i-Road, and when the driver turns the steering wheel, a computer control unit calculates how much force is needed to move the vehicle forward and what kind of lean angle is required to navigate turns. It all happens in nano-seconds and it’s almost completely smooth and seamless.
The i-Road can handle up to 26 degrees of lean angle, and at first, it feels like you’re about to fall over….that this contraption can’t possibly handle tight turns at any kind of speed. But it does, and the vehicle remains stable, smooth, and perfectly level. At rest, it is upright and the vehicle’s brakes change the body stance as well as slowing the i-Road down if you come into a turn a little too hot.
Nor is it wonky or strange to operate. There are two doors, two seats – motorcycle style – and you simply get in, close the door, hit the power button and off you go. Unlike just about every alternate mode of transportation I’ve ever driven, the i-Road is neither peculiar nor boring. That said, creature comforts are absent….there is no heater and aside from its high fun factor, the i-Road isn’t something you want to spend a lot of time in.
This type of technology is not unheard of. Peugeot introduced its gas/electric hybrid HyMotion trike a couple of years ago, and Piaggio has had a three-wheeled scooter on the market for several years now….although it is powered by an internal combustion engine. Each manufacturer has its own take on three-wheeled transport, but they all perform essentially the same function.
But the question of the day is: will it be for sale in North America? At this point, Toyota says it has absolutely no plans to put the i-Road on the market here, but, on the other hand, it is providing a small number of i-Roads for a ride-share program in Grenoble, France.
Were Toyota to contemplate marketing this intriguing little runabout in Canada, one of its biggest hurdles would be overcoming the bureaucracy and recalcitrance of Transport Canada. Unless it has to do with safety, this arm of the government does not take kindly to innovation, and many a good idea has ended up in the round file at Transport Canada. The Segway, for example, went nowhere; it is actually illegal to operate one on Canadian streets and it has wound up in the same vehicle classification as a fork lift. If we are serious about alternate transportation, it seems to me, one of the first things that needs doing is an audit of Transport Canada.
If you want to see the i-Road in action, there are plenty of short videos on YouTube. Here’s a link: http://youtu.be/ScsDvRYyitc .