Raleigh, N.C. — A bill to define and license three-wheeled cars, or "autocycles," whizzed through the state House on Thursday, passing a Finance Committee vote and two floor votes with little debate.
The vehicles are enclosed like a car, with a steering wheel, safety belts, air bags and a roll cage in case of accidents. They have a three-cylinder engine and can carry a driver and an additional passenger in a rear seat.
However, because they have three wheels, rather than four, they're considered motorcycles under current state law. That means drivers would have to wear helmets and have motorcycle endorsements on their licenses.
House Bill 6 would change that by reclassifying them as a separate type of vehicle without those requirements.
The push for the legislation came from Elio Motors, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based startup that says it will make the autocycles in the U.S. for about $6,800 each. Production has not yet begun, but Elio Vice President Joel Sheltrown told the Finance Committee that about 41,000 people have already submitted non-refundable deposits for the new vehicles.
Bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said the autocycle's low cost and high fuel efficiency – it can go up to 84 mpg for highway driving – could make autocycles "one of the mainstays of our future commuter needs."
"It’s an entry market. It’s an exciting market," Torbett said. "My guess is that we’ll see these in North Carolina if we’re fortunate enough to move forward with this bill."
Sheltrown told the committee that requiring helmets in the cars would not only be redundant, since occupants are enclosed in a roll cage, but potentially dangerous, because the additional weight of a helmet could make an air bag deployment deadly.
He also said a driver wouldn't be able to obtain a motorcycle endorsement in an autocycle because the vehicle's two-wheeled front end would be too wide to navigate the cones in the required motorcycle safety test.
"If we can’t pass the test, there is no reason and no benefit, no protection to the public to require a motorcycle test for this kind of vehicle," Sheltrown said. "It handles like an automobile."
The state Division of Motor Vehicles supports the change. Commissioner Kelly Thomas said it would cost the state about $109,000 to add an autocycle category to its vehicle classification database.
"There’s not a really big hit to the state for this," observed Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg. "It could be a revenue generator."
Elio has been working for several years to change state laws across the country that could make its vehicles harder to sell. It's had success in many states so far, and North Carolina looks poised to be the latest.
At the federal level, Sheltrown said, the three-wheelers are still classified as motorcycles. But U.S. Sen. Doug Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, is running a bill similar to House Bill 6 in Congress. In the interim, states can classify the vehicles as they see fit.