First Drive

Testing Toyota's three-wheel, leaning i-Road trike in Japan

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Since 2003, Toyota has been rolling out new personal mobility concept vehicles at the Tokyo Motor Show. The first was simply called the PM – for Personal Mobility – in 2003. After that came the i-Unit in 2005, the i-Swing in 2005 and again in 2007, along with two takes on the i-Real in 2007 and 2009. Even though the PM had a canopy and was conceived for urban use, it was little more than a chair on wheels, and the concepts that followed shed the canopy and actually were chairs on wheels.

Toyota engineers said they gathered feedback on those four visions of single-person transport in order to come up with its latest concept, the i-Road. It takes elements from the previous concepts and puts them together in a package that is much more road ready. And unlike those other efforts, the i-Road is going into production.

After visting a Ha:mo carsharing station in Toyota's Ecoful Town, we were given a brief chance to drive the i-Road in a large parking lot, and it only took one loop to know that we'd love to have this trike in Los Angeles.

Introduced at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year, the i-Road was set in the middle of a triangular stand far away from anything but a zoom lens. The first of Toyota's personal mobility concepts to be unveiled away from Tokyo, you didn't need to get close to it to understand that it was weird, and its canted cockpit signaled that it was another conceptual vision most at home in anime and movies.

Not only is it for the here-and-now (if you live in Japan), but it actually couldn't be easier to use. You get into it as if it were a car – it has doors on both sides – sit down and press the button to start. It's self-balancing, so there's no need any driver input nor dropdown wheels when it comes to a stop. To get going, press the D button to the left of the steering wheel, and voilà, you're on the move.

On uneven road surfaces, the Active Lean system varies the angle of the wheels while keeping the body level.

The way the i-Road turns is a variation on the rotating front wheels used on the i-Real. Just behind the headlight is a "central turning point" that's the heart of the Active Lean technology, essentially a rotary gear and yoke that extends across the vehicle, the ends of the yoke attached to arms that connect to the front wheels. When the driver turns the steering wheel, a computer figures out how much to turn the 10-inch rear wheel – only the rear wheel turns, the 16-inch front wheels don't. Then the computer figures out the lean angle needed to make the requested turn, the central turning point rotates the yoke, which leans the front wheels over and thereby leans the i-Road into a turn. Control arms that run from the hubs to the underside of the body are good for about 35 degrees of rotation, the whole system allowing for a 26.5-degree maximum lean angle. Another benefit: on uneven road surfaces, the Active Lean system can vary the angle of the wheels while keeping the body level.

Toyota says the i-Road embodies "a new type of driving pleasure," and they're right. Engineers wouldn't give us details on the lithium-ion battery, but it's enough to keep the 300-kilogram i-Road peppy under acceleration and brisk all the way to its 28 mph top speed via its pair of two-kilowatt electric motors. Doing figure-eights in the parking lot where we were allowed to drive it, the sensation is unlike anything outside of an amusement park, and it was no effort to imagine we were driving something out of Ghost in the Shell or Vexille.

There is the minutest lag between turning the steering wheel and settling fully into a turn, as the computer assesses the sharpness of the angle and the speed at which you're traveling. Throw on a bunch of lock at maximum velocity and the i-Road will scrub off some speed in order to get close to the steering angle you've requested. If you need it to turn more sharply, then you press the brakes to reduce the speed further and get more lean. If you're in a turn at a constant speed and press the brakes, the i-Road will begin to 'stand up' as the speed decreases; come to a stop in the middle of a turn and the i-Road will be upright by the time you've come to a halt.

The i-Road "probably" has a 40-km (25-mile) range when used in stop-and-go urban traffic.

It feels solid when driving, and relative to the cars and bikes on Japanese roads, certainly substantial enough to hold its own. The front seat is perfectly comfortable for a full-sized adult and the rear seat roomy enough for another, but it's ideally left to those of smaller stature, like children (or cargo). Toyota says it's only as wide as a motorcycle, but at 35.4 inches across, we're talking about one of your bigger bikes – it's half an inch shy of the BMW R1200s Enduro. That leaves it skinny enough for a small footprint for parking, but you won't be darting through traffic. The 50-km range (31 miles) is only a legit number when coasting at speed, however. We were told that it's probably got a 40-km range (25 miles) when used in the stop-and-go of urban traffic.

The i-Road will be going into service as part of the Ha:Mo – Harmonious Mobility – carsharing system in Japan and will be part of a similar system being introduced in Grenoble, France next year. Ha:mo began in October of 2012 with four vehicle stations, 11 COMS single-person electric vehicles and 10 PAS electric bicycles made by Yamaha. Along with the addition of the i-Road the service is taking the next step in scale and usability, adding 17 more stations, 89 more COMS EVs, 90 more electric bicycles and opening the service up to 1,000 members. The French experiment will see around 20 mobility stations built in Grenoble serving 70 electric vehicles, and will last from roughly the end of 2014 to the end of 2017.

Each carsharing park is a small solar power station.

Each park is a small solar power station; ten solar panels (each with a maximum output of 2.1 kW) line the front of the station, and the roof is clear in order to maximize the available sunlight. They charge a 7.8-kWh lead-acid battery that can power any of the Ha:mo vehicles – and reduce the draw from the grid – and household appliances in an emergency via the power outlets. It works in large part like Daimler's Car2Go, with the exception that the Ha:mo vehicles have to be returned to one of the 21 Smart Mobility Parks. That means users need to find a mobility park that has an available space; if the six COMS and five PAS parking spots are full at the nearest station, a user will need to use the smartphone app to find a station with an open space and will continue to pay for the use of a vehicle until that's done. One-way trips are fine, and Toyota is experimenting with different fee structures to improve the distribution of available vehicles.

After that, it's a system we're familiar with. Members carry an account card that gets them access to the vehicles. The large monitor in the center of the station provides information on the charge of each EV and bicycle. All a user has to do is evaluate the cleanliness of the chosen vehicle and rate it on the app, place his or her card over the reader on the vehicle, whereupon it will be unlocked, and they're off. The price of a COMS EV will be 200 yen ($2.50 US) for the first ten minutes, 20 yen (20 cents) each additional minute and, if you use it to go shopping, say, we were told you'd pay one or two yen (1-2 cents) per minute while it's parked in a standard spot.

The addition of the i-Road means an almost-complete selection of city-minded offerings in Ha:mo.

The addition of the i-Road will mean an almost-complete selection of city-minded offerings in Ha:mo; about the only thing missing would be a two-seater, fully enclosed vehicle – something like a Smart Fortwo, say. The COMS has a slightly higher top speed than the i-Road but the same range, and it has a flap that can be zipped up in bad weather. We'll have to wait to find out how the i-Road will be integrated into Ha:mo, since each station only has eleven spots, and at the moment, they're all spoken for. If the i-Road was currently equipped with a self-parking feature, then you could fit four of them into one space to replace one COMS EV (the scooter/bicycle side doesn't have the plug-in chargers). Without that, the wide-opening doors of the i-Road means it would have to be one-to-one.

It will take scale to know how it all works together, but it looks like that won't be a problem as far as the COMS EVs are concerned: we were told that convenience store giant 7-11 has ordered 13,000 of them - at a cost of 600,000 to 700,000 yen apiece (roughly $6,100 to $7,200 US) - to use for home delivery services.

When we say we'd like i-Roads in LA, what we mean is that we think they'd be perfect for the beach communities where we live. In the same way that this is about the only part of town where we see any Smart Fortwos, we think the i-Road would be a perfect addition to a location where electric cars are appreciated, the problem of road congestion gets larger every day, the weather is just about always great and the i-Road comes with its own parking space. Add a surfboard rack on top and a dog seatbelt in the back, and they would be in continuous use. If not that, well, we suppose there's always Ha:mo NAVI and the bus.

Toyota Information

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