“It’s fully electric!” Mark Frohnmayer yells to the guy in the pickup truck idling next to us. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and Frohnmayer and I are the center of attention at this red light. Now there’s another guy in another pickup truck, on the other side of the first one, who also has questions about the vehicle we’re sitting in. “It’s electric,” Truck Guy #1 tells him, before turning back to look at us some more.
I’m not surprised by the stares. The Arcimoto, after all, doesn’t have windows. Or doors. Or a steering wheel, or pedals. Or a conventional number of wheels. It’s basically a fully electric street-legal tricycle. When the light turns green, I twist the throttle, and the fittingly electric blue Arcimoto shoots forward.
If Frohnmayer gets his way, it'll turn a lot more heads. He founded Arcimoto to build the vehicle in 2007, and now, after more than a decade of work, he is gearing up to build and sell hundreds, if not thousands, of them in 2019. And that’s just the start of his ambitions for what he has termed an FUV—Fun Utility Vehicle.
It certainly is a load of fun to drive. The instant torque that comes with electric motors means every green light is another (unspoken) invitation to drag race. The whole thing is just over 5 feet wide, and the three wheels make it a hoot to take through corners. It uses battery power instead of gasoline, so you can enjoy a ride into the hills without worrying about polluting the air. It’s rather comfortable as well, with real seats, x-shaped seat belts that cross over your chest, and a phone mount in the middle of the handlebars.
Even in clogged San Francisco, the off-the-line acceleration is a thrill. Each front wheel gets its own 25-kilowatt motor, and twisting the throttle can unleash up to 67 horsepower, which in this 1,200-pound ride is enough to hit 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 80 mph. Regenerative brakes on the front wheels (all three also have hydraulic brakes) help boost the range to 100 miles. The 17.5-kilowatt-hour battery sits underneath the two tandem seats.
Frohnmayer launched Arcimoto after making a bundle selling his videogame company. He was looking to buy an electric car with his newfound fortune when he found a gap: Nothing on the market combined the comfort and stability of a car with the small footprint and visceral feeling of a motorcycle. (Today the enjoyably ludicrous Polaris Slingshot fills the niche, but it runs on gas.) His decision to build one himself started a decade-long journey that included eight generations of prototypes. The first one resembled the Go Cars that tourists drive around San Francisco. The sixth was particularly wide up front, giving it the look of a pinched golf cart.
With each iteration, Frohnmayer and his team (15 in the early days, now 75-strong) played with the specs, moving the seats around, shifting the power between the front wheels and the back, and changing the dimensions and overall look. Steadily, Frohnmayer burned through cash and the goodwill of those he had asked to invest. “Family stopped returning phone calls,” he says. “I had to make new friends.” But he kept pushing, and advances in the electric vehicle industry helped him along. Over the past decade, lithium-ion batteries have gotten much cheaper. Charging stations are easier to find. And the basic idea of a car fueled by electricity is, thanks in large part to Tesla, sounding smarter and smarter.
Frohnmayer didn’t land on a vehicle that he felt could live up to the notion, though, until the eighth and (to date) final design. In order to create enough room to accommodate two adults while constraining the FUV’s footprint, he and his engineers dumped the steering wheel and pedals, opting for handlebars, with a twist throttle and brakes operated like those on a bike. That brought the length down by 2 feet, to just over 9 feet. And dropping all that equipment had the benefit of cutting 600 pounds from the vehicle, a boon for range. Finally happy with his design, Frohnmayer took Arcimoto public in 2017 and retooled a factory space near its Eugene, Oregon, headquarters. This year it built 24 vehicles in preparation for the first push: Sales start in the new year. In the first half of 2019, Arcimoto is aiming to sell about 185 vehicles.
While final pricing remains TBD, Frohnmayer wants to get the FUV's base price to about $11,500. With options (like doors, a transparent roof, and that bigger battery), most should sell for about $15,000. And while the Arcimoto is certainly a blast, the “utility” bit of the FUV moniker is a tougher sell. Frohnmayer talks up the vehicle’s small size, and while that might make parking easier, the FUV isn’t narrow enough to lane-split, so you have to sit in traffic like everyone on four wheels. He’s right that most of the time, cars are a major waste of resources. The average passenger car has 1.67 people in it, according to the Department of Energy , and most of its energy goes to moving its own bulk, not that of its cargo. And while more people in Arcimotos would be an improvement in terms of how we use space and energy, it’s not going to solve traffic and pollution—that would take a lot more people on bikes, or their feet.
But where’s the delight in that? We’re slowly moving away from a paradigm where everyone owns and drives their own car. And as the boring parts of driving get roboticized, vehicles that emphasize enjoyment of the open road could take off. After all, those guys in the pickup trucks weren’t saying, What an efficient use of space and resources! They were interested because it looks wild—and like a whole lot of fun.
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