Three-wheeled vehicles are nothing new – trikes and reverse trikes have been around a while. But the release of Polaris’ confusing Slingshot, which has everything from a car but the fourth wheel, has made three-wheelers a lot harder to classify. Now the law is getting involved in some states, and registering and insuring a three-wheeler has become more complicated than ever!
Three-wheeled vehicles have been around for decades in some form or another. Three-wheeled “reverse trikes” like the Can-Am Spyder are niche vehicles that have always managed to be grouped into the same legal classification as motorcycles, a situation that has never posed any problems to either their manufacturers or their owners.
That was, until, vehicles like the Campagna T-Rex and more notably, the Polaris Slingshot came along, and stretched the definition of “motorcycle” to its absolute limits. Logically, these vehicles are much closer to being three-wheeled cars than motorcycles – but they actually benefit significantly from holding the legal classification of being called a “motorcycle.” However, that discrepancy has caused problems across the country, from what laws apply to them, to how they are registered, and even whether or not they can even be considered street-legal at all.
They’re not cars, but they’re certainly not motorcycles either – see how the new category of “autocycle” has come about, and why these new vehicles are creating a head-scratching mess from plants in Minnesota, to showrooms in Texas, to the halls of the U.S. Senate!
The Polaris Slingshot has been a huge hit since its introduction in 2014, far exceeding even Polaris’ best expectations. But there’s been a down side – the success of the Slingshot and other three-wheelers has forced lawmakers across the country to figure out how these vehicles are classified, and it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“It Made No Sense That These Were Considered Motorcycles Under The Law”
“You don’t straddle it, you sit in it. And you don’t use handles, you actually use a steering wheel,” said Representative Niraj Antani, author of a bill that was recently signed into law in Ohio, creating a new legal classification for vehicles like the Polaris Slingshot. “Really, it made no sense that these were considered motorcyles under the law.”
Logically, Antani is right. The Slingshot has a car-like body, bucket seats, a steering wheel, a console shifter, and a 2.4L Ecotec inline-four engine taken from GM crossover SUVs. Aside from having a single rear wheel, there is nothing about the Slingshot that is remotely motorcycle-like, and it doesn’t make any sense that the law would consider them “motorcycles.”
But under federal law, they are – and Polaris knew exactly what they were doing when they built it. Under DOT classifications, a three-wheeled vehicle, despite its other characteristics, is a motorcycle – and this distinction is not insignificant.
Polaris’ telling disclaimer about the Slingshot shows that, despite the car-like features, it is classified as a motorcycle – a distinction that Polaris has capitalized on.
Legally classifying it as a motorcycle allowed Polaris to avoid much of the safety testing and equipment that would have gone into manufacturing an automobile, such as including airbags, crumple zones, and seat belts into the vehicle, which would have raised the development cost for the Slingshot dramatically. At the price it would have cost to develop the Slingshot to automotive safety standards, there may not have been a market for it at all.
Polaris was clever to stretch the definition to it’s limits to develop the Slingshot, which was an instant hit after it’s release in 2014.Unfortuately, local lawmakers weren’t as enthusiastic about this unusual new vehicle turning heads on their streets as Polaris was.
It’s All In The Language
Under federal law, the Slingshot, and similar vehicles like the Campagna T-Rex, are motorcycles. Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t register vehicles – the states do. And with 50 different states and unique definitions for what constitutes a “motorcycle” in each one, state law is where classifying them got a lot trickier.
How the law classifies a vehicle is not of little consequence. It determines how the vehicle will be registered, what fees will be associated with it, how it will be insured, and what kinds of laws will apply to it – a problem that has had lawmakers scratching their heads as Slingshot sales racked up across the country.
In extreme cases, something like the Slingshot, which fit into neither the legal definition of car or motorcycle, couldn’t become street-legal at all. This was the unfortunate situation that impacted Slingshot owners and dealers in Texas in 2014, when the state banned them on their roads due to the inability to classify them under then-current law.
Furious Slingshot owners were forced to park their vehicles and dealers sent millions of dollars in inventory back to Polaris, until 2015 when the law was amended to allow the Slingshot to be classified as a motorcycle. The Lone Star state was the biggest state involved in the confusion, but similar situations affected the Slingshot in other states across the country.
Unfortunately, Texas’ solution of just lumping the Slingshot in with motorcycles, as it traditionally has been, isn’t working for everybody.
The Rise of “The Autocycle”
For years, three-wheelers have been lumped in with motorcycles in many cases, but the situation in Texas and elsewhere has forced lawmakers and other groups to consider whether that is really the best solution – and it many cases, it isn’t.
Several problems occur when that happens. For example, when three-wheelers are called motorcycles, crash data and other statistics are lumped in with those of motorcycles – which skews their data, and more importantly, insurance rates. A number of motorcycle organizations across the country has opposed their inclusion into the classification.
And while the motorcycle classification has been good for Polaris’ business by allowing them to keep development costs down, another company developing similar-looking three-wheelers has the exact opposite goal in mind.
That company is Elio Motors, a Shreveport, Louisiana-based manufacturer of small three-wheeled commuter vehicles. While similar to the Slingshot in its design, the philosophy behind Elio’s is fundamentally different, and so is their target customer – Elio is targeting everyday people with their vehicle, as theirs is a fully enclosed three-wheeler that includes an integrated roll cage, airbags, crumple zones, and three-point seat belts.
An Elio Motors vehicle, with founder Paul Elio in the driver’s seat. Elio is similar to the Slingshot only in the number of wheels it has – the philosophies that guided each vehicle’s design couldn’t be more different, which has also carried over into the legal classification each vehicle wants to fall into.
Not only is Elio Motors not concerned about losing the motorcycle classification, they actually want it eliminated. Elio does not want their potential buyers to be deterred by having to get a motorcycle license, motorcycle insurance, and worst of all, wear helmets in order to drive their vehicles.
So firm is Elio’s resolve to get their vehicles reclassified at the federal level, they lobbied State Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to introduce S-685, a bill that would create a new vehicle class called the autocycle, a motor vehicle with three wheels, an enclosed occupant cabin, and a steering wheel, with unique federal safety standards distinct from those for motorcycles and autos. The bill, introduced in early 2015, is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Polaris’ and Elio’s objectives seem at odds with each other, but the distinction between the two is an “enclosed occupant cabin.” Paul Vitrano, Polaris Vice President of Global Government Relations, said in an email statement that the Polaris Slingshot would not be affected by the pending legislation because of this distinction. “Polaris believes Slingshot should continue to be classified federally as a “motorcycle,” along with most other three-wheel vehicles, and be excluded from the proposed federal “autocycle” classification,” he said. “If it’s not enclosed, it’s not an autocycle.”
The classification of vehicles like the Slingshot as motorcycles, automobiles, or as autocycles has a lot to do with what laws apply to them as well – for example, whether or not you need to wear a helmet while riding one.
But while federal legislation to fix this discrepancy has stalled, the battle continues to take place in states across the country. Currently 41 of 50 states do not now require a motorcycle license to operate a three-wheeled car like the Elio, and 26 states have either enacted or are developing legislation related to autocycles.
Ohio, Rhode Island, and Minnesota have all recently passed laws allowing autocycles to be operating autocycles to be driven with regular drivers licenses – though again, the definition of “autocycle”, like “motorcycle” differs from state to state, showing that while states are making headway in accommodating this new class of vehicle, the controversy is far from over!
What do you think should legally constitute an autocycle? Would you ever want own one, and if so, why?