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Toyota Taps Silicon Valley to Seek Business Model for Quirky I-Road Three-Wheeler

The electric vehicle has some of the benefits of both car and scooter, but can only go a short distance before needing to be recharged.

Ina Fried for Re/code

Toyota knows it has a fun vehicle in its three-wheeled, leaning i-Road. The covered electric vehicle offers the compact size of a motorcycle and the weather-protective benefits of a car with enough room in the back for cargo or a second passenger.

But the i-Road can only run for about 30 miles at a time at a top speed of 37 mph, and then needs three hours to be fully recharged. So what Toyota needs to figure out is who wants one and if there are enough of those people to put this into production.

To answer those questions, Toyota is turning to Silicon Valley. The company held a competition with startups pitching the Japanese car maker on potential uses, ranging from car-sharing options to its suitability as a low-cost emergency vehicle. The effort culminated in an event last Friday at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, where finalists made their case to a panel of Toyota executives and investors.

Some sort of shared ownership model was a common theme for most of the 10 companies that made it to the semifinal round.

“While this isn’t a replacement for conventional vehicles, it fits in there to provide more capability than a scooter with more weather protection and safety,” said Christoper Gregg, the Toyota engineer responsible for helping find the U.S. business opportunity for the i-Road.

In addition to soliciting business ideas, Toyota also gave about 100 people attending the OnRamp event a chance to test drive the i-Road in a nearby parking lot, along with the company’s Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell-based sedan.

Akihiro Yanaka, the chief engineer for the i-Road, told conference attendees how he came up with the way i-Road should handle by thinking about how he handles turns in his favorite hobby — skiing. Drivers, he said, should feel like they are in control “with an enjoyable sensation of being one with the machine.”

Car makers have been increasingly turning to the San Francisco Bay Area for both technology and business ideas, with nearly all the major companies having set up permanent research facilities in the region. In September, Ford held its second annual developers conference, including a hackathon, in San Francisco.

For now, the i-Road remains a prototype, with the company testing it in Japan and as part of a car-sharing service in Grenoble, France. Only five of the vehicles are stationed in the United States.

“I’m now here to help the vehicle to meet U.S. regulations,” Gregg said. “Some changes are probably needed.”

The contest winner, Jason Wiener, had a vision for how the i-Road could be used by both licensed drivers when operating at full speed and, at slower speeds, by those who are either too young or old to drive on traditional streets. In California, for example, three-wheeled vehicles that go below 20 mph can be classified as an electric bicycle, potentially opening the door for seniors and others who have limited mobility.

The time frame for when the i-Road truly hits the road here remains uncertain. The rules vary from state to state, adding further complication. “We will be in production at some point,” Gregg said.

Here are a couple of videos of the i-Road in action, including a brief glimpse at my test drive and a longer video of one of the Toyota engineers giving it a ride.

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