The i-Road is not a car. It’s a funky electric three-wheeled concept the automaker seems to think we’ll one day use to zip around cities burning nothing but rubber. It combines the advantages of a motorcycle (nimble, thrifty, easy to park) and of a car (enclosed, controls you’re used to, won’t topple) in a vehicle that is as fun to drive as it is weird to see.
Toyota unveiled the i-Road two years ago at the Geneva Motor Show and has been pimping it since. Consumers in Tokyo and Grenoble, France, have driven it, and now Toyota wants to bring it to the Bay Area. I hope it happens. This thing is unlike anything I’ve driven.
It’s practical, too. Less than 3 feet wide and just 7 feet long, the i-Road looks like someone cut out the middle third of a Smart car and smushed the outer bits together. It maxes out at 37 mph, fast enough to match speedy drivers on main thoroughfares. No, you don’t want to wander beyond the city in one, but then the 37-mile range won’t let you anyway. The kind of range is just fine for running around town. It recharges in about three hours, though Toyota won’t say anything about the battery. Made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, it weighs a spritely 600 pounds.
Don’t be put off by the weird styling. If you know how to drive a car, you know how to drive the i-Road. What’s different here is not the act of steering, accelerating, and braking, but the feeling of it all. At slow speeds, the single rear wheel does the steering. It’s kind of like guiding a boat, or drifting a car. It reminds of a black lab I once had, wagging his tail so hard his butt dictated where he went.
After 10 minutes driving around the parking lot of Toyota’s Silicon Valley R&D lab, I felt like a natural.
Turn the wheel while going more than a few miles per hour and you get a taste of the i-Road’s biggest innovation: the active lean suspension. The front wheels move up and down independently, so the i-Road doesn’t turn so much as lean, like a motorcycle or a skier carving down a mountain. (The Piaggio Mp3 scooter does the same thing.) Software controls the depth of the lean based on your speed, and the steering wheel buzzes if you’re at risk of tipping over. The moment you hit the brake, the i-Road pops upright.
Like I said, it’s weird. But after 10 minutes driving around the parking lot of Toyota’s Silicon Valley R&D lab, I felt like a natural. I realized I wasn’t going to tip over. I could anticipate how far the i-Road would lean at various speeds, and when the wheel would buzz angrily. I figured out how far to turn and when to hit the brake to come to a stop in just the right spot. I gleefully spun in circles, marveling at the 10-foot turning radius that’s less than half what a Smart car can do. Until I felt nauseated.
The driver’s seat sucks. And the back seat is so tight only a sack of potatoes would be comfortable. There’s no button for the windows, or even a crank. You lift the whole window, like the shade of an airplane window, then hook it to the roof. The doors are flimsy and you pull them closed with a strap, not a handle. But this is a prototype, not a production model. All of this would surely change before the i-Road reaches customers. Which customers, you ask, and when, and where?
All of that is TBD. Toyota’s betting on hydrogen fuel cells to displace the internal combustion engine for most driving, but believes battery electrics will play a vital role in urban transportation. What that means for the i-Road, however, is a mystery, even to the automaker. It’s like my lab Cody when he caught his tail: It’s got this interesting thing, but no idea of what to do with it. Unlike Cody, however, Toyota can tap the creative power of Silicon Valley, so it’s asking for help.
This weekend, Toyota hosts a “Smart Mobility Challenge.” It’s invited entrepreneurs and startup types to imagine how the i-Road might be used in the Bay Area beyond the obvious idea of “car sharing.” The automaker thinks potential customers include urban residents, young parents, millennials, and active seniors. Whoever does the best job coming up with a compelling business plan wins $15,000 and a chance to work with Toyota.
Here’s hoping they do a good job. I would be very excited to get back in the i-Road.