What has three wheels, an enclosed seating area, a steering wheel, pedals and safety belts?
Well, under current Arizona law, it's a motorcycle, even though it bears little resemblance to the Harleys, Hondas and Suzukis – and even their cousins with handlebars and two rear wheels.
But that law is creating problems for Elio Motors which is hoping to market its 84 mpg car with two front wheels and a single rear wheel next year to Arizona consumers. So the firm is lobbying state lawmakers to classify what they will sell as something else: an “autocycle.”
Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, who is sponsoring SB 1201, said this is more than a marketing tool. Burges said Arizona law classifies anything with three wheels as a motorcycle, and what that means, she said, is it can be driven only by someone with a motorcycle license.
That's only about 14 percent of the state's more than 4.8 million drivers, putting a severe crimp in the number of potential customers here.
But Joel Sheltrown, the company's lobbyist, said the problem is deeper than that.
He said would-be owners of the vehicle, expected to retail at $6,800, certainly could try to get a motorcycle license. Only thing is, they just can't pass the field portion of that test in an Elio which he said has the same front wheelbase as a Ford Taurus.
“We run over the cones and the white lines,” Sheltrown said. “And we can't do the figure eight in the road test.”
SB 1201 gets around that in two ways.
First, it creates an entirely new class of vehicle in state law, a definition that seems custom-made for Elio.
Under the terms of the legislation, an “autocycle” is any vehicle where the driver and passengers ride in a completely enclosed seating area which also is equipped with a roll cage. There also would need to be safety belts, antilock brakes, and it would be controlled with a steering wheel and pedals just like a regular car.
Potentially more significant, it would spell out that the kind of license needed to operate a motorycle or moped “is not necessary for operating an autocycle.”
Sheltrown insisted a special license – and special training – is unnecessary even though there is only a single rear wheel. He said the car's “lateral G,” a measurement of such stability, is actually better than some other vehicles on the road.
“Going into a skid at 60 miles per hour on flat ground, the Elio will not flip,” he said.
Kevin Biesty, lobbyist for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said his agency has worked with the manufacturer and is convinced that special training is unnecessary.
Sheltrown said the company, currently headquartered in Michigan but planning to move to Arizona, believes the vehicle probably could be legally operated now without a motorcycle license. But he's not willing to risk it.
“I want for our customers to be able to drive without fear of getting a citation,” he said. “You wouldn't want to take that chance.”
Burges said she agreed to sponsor the legislation because it provides a less-expensive and fuel-efficient alternative for motorists.
“I find the make and design intriguing, to say the least,” she said. The measure already has been approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and now awaits action by the full chamber.
There are no Elios on the road right now, at least not for general use. Sheltrown said the hope is to have them start rolling off the Louisiana assembly line early next year.
But that hasn't stopped the firm from trying to line up buyers now.
The company's web site is taking $100 deposits to be among the first to own one. And as of earlier this week the firm reported it has more than 9,000 reservations.