i-nnovative Toyota i-Road

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If buses, cabs and autonomous vehicles aren’t interactive enough for you, Toyota wants you to meet its i-Road three-wheeler. Part Jet Ski, part motorbike, part car, this sci-fi prototype from Toyota aims to explore the ride-share market frontier.

Detroit News' 6' 5" auto critic Henry Payne made for a tight fit in the tiny i-Road.

Like something out of the movie “Tron,” the two-door, battery-powered pod cuts through traffic like a motorscooter while offering the enclosed protection of a car. Just three feet wide and seven feet long, i-Road can be shoehorned into the tightest of urban parking sports.

Toyota gave i-Road demonstration rides at the SAE 2016 World Congress and Exhibition show in Detroit this week. Already on the streets in select Japanese and French cities, the i-Road would turn heads slashing through downtown Detroit traffic — but will likely make its debut in California cities where ride-share programs are common and where the electric i-Road can gain credits against the state’s draconian zero-emission regulations.

While other ride-sharing programs such as Zip Car, Car2Go and BMW’s ReachNow use existing production vehicles like Smart Fortwos and BMW i3s, i-Road is unusual as a vehicle specifically targeted at the ride-share market. Although Bollore, a Paris ride-share company, began its “BlueIndy” service in Indianapolis, Indiana last fall using its own electric Bluecars developed by Italy’s Pininfarina.

Toyota’s three-wheeler was developed in Japan by a Toyota “skunk works” team tasked to create engaging vehicles like the Toyota 86 (formerly the Scion FR-S) sports car.

“We wanted to make ride-sharing fun to drive,” says California-based engineer Christopher Gregg, 36, who is developing the i-Road for the U.S. market. “It can really take a curve and delivers great maneuverability through city streets.”

Built with lightweight, carbon fiber-reinforced plastic on a steel chassis, the 660-pound i-Road (which, with its single locomotive-style headlight, resembles a Smart car smashed in a Panini maker) is propelled by lithium-ion batteries in the floor driving twin electric motors on the front wheels. A gyroscope regulates the vehicle’s lean angle and keeps it upright. The drive-by-wire steering system operates the rear wheel for a tight, 10-foot turning radius.

With is single locomotive-style headlight, resembles a Smart car smashed in a Panini maker.

On a closed track in Cobo Convention Center’s main hall, the i-Road drove like a Jet Ski on wheels — leaning up to 26 degrees through slaloms and tight turns. The rear-wheel steering, however, lacks the precision of front-wheel steering at its 35-mph limit. Drive it like Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible” and you might wind up like a gnat in the grille of an oncoming Chevy Suburban.

In more measured driving, however, the gyroscope is particularly adept at sensing slip angle. Stop on a dime in a turn, and the i-Road instantly rotates upright — unlike a traditional, wobbly tri-wheeler.

Like BMW’s ReachNow, Toyota’s ride-sharing plans are as flexible as the i-Road is in tight spaces. Download the smartphone app and — similar to an Uber app — available i-Roads light up the map. Pick the nearest one, turn it on, drive it by the minute. Then park it at your destination. The i-Road can be charged in three hours with a standard, 110-volt wall socket, and has a range of 30 miles (less in Detroit and other colder climates). The service is in use in Tokyo, Toyota City and Grenoble, France.

Toyota’s Gregg says the company still is working on the i-Road’s introduction in the U.S. The primary hurdle, he says, is a thicket of government regulation — for example, whether the car will be classified as a motorcycle (and therefore subject to state helmet laws) or as a so-called “neighborhood electric vehicle” (which would prohibit its use on highways).

IHS Automotive auto analyst Stephanie Brinley says the i-Road is an ambitious approach to a market that has been created almost overnight by the smartphone app revolution. Where autonomous cars offer the potential of ride-sharing fleets that can move themselves, vehicles like the i-Road offer customers the thrill of driving — without the overhead of owning a car.

“Automakers need to understand how ride-sharing impacts their sales model,” she says. “And they need to understand what the needs of the market will be — and if they can be profitable.”

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic.


Twitter: @HenryEPayne