Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Motorcycles are one of my passions, I will readily admit, although at times, my wife has suggested the “O” word (obsession). I have written uncounted words about the emotions bikes have awakened in me, and while I am respectful of tradition, I am always looking for those designs that not only push the envelope, but change the paradigm altogether.
Engineers continue to push the limits with engine designs and suspension setups to enhance performance. But with gas prices continuing to climb, and environmental issues impacting transportation, the future will, by necessity, bring fundamental changes to the sport and the vehicles themselves.
New propulsion systems are being considered, but since many are still in their big-boned clunky stone-age era of development, their utility on a two-wheeled conveyance is still in the future. There are some prototype all-electric bikes, and hybrids can't be far behind. Ultimately, manufacturers will be forced to abandon oil altogether, which means the rise of the hydrogen fuel cell. A British firm has built such a bike, called the ENV, but it is small, short of range, and wouldn't work in the wide-open environment of American roads.
The ENV, from the Intelligent Energy website
Lately, there have been some intriguing developments that not only involve pushing development, but changing the basic machine as well.
Trikes (3-wheeled motorcycles) have been around for quite some time. Up until recently, they were modified versions of existing full-dress tourers, with two drive wheels in the back. The biggest complaint about those three-wheeled motorcycle conversions has been their restricted capability on curvy roads. Most of them have higher profiles, so they can be prone to tip-overs if forced into a steep enough twistie. I’ll try to explain this in as uncomplicated manner as I can.
Basically, a vehicle running through a curved portion of road has three forces acting on it. Centrifugal force is what you feel pushing you against the door in the direction away from the turn. Centripetal is the force applied by your wheels turning towards the curve. Angular momentum is that force that tries to keep your vehicle moving in a straight line. The reason that two-wheeled vehicles (motorcycles and bicycles) have to lean into curves is to alter the angle at which those forces act on the rider. It’s a real balancing act. Too much centrifugal, and your bike ends up falling off towards the outside of the curve (known as a “high-sider”), dumping you in the process. Too much centripetal, and the bike falls towards the inside of the curve (“low-sider”). Too much angular momentum, and the bike misses the curve altogether and ends up face-first into a rock wall, an oncoming vehicle, or at the bottom of a ravine. Leaning the bike correctly keeps the rider firmly planted on the seat and in control of the bike.
In recent years, independent designers have altered the paradigm with regards to motorcycles in general and three-wheelers in particular, by shifting the two parallel wheels to the front, opening the door to an entire class of exciting designs that hold great promise in the marketplace.
The Can-Am Spyder, manufactured by Bombardier, the maker of the legendary Ski-Doo, is the only 3-wheeler in mass production. It is a low-profile vehicle with the steering wheels in front and the drive wheel in the back. What this does for twisties is allow the rider to induce a little slide to the rear wheel, powering through turns much like a motard or dirt bike. While the frame doesn’t lean, the seat arrangement allows the rider to slide his body towards the inside of the turn, countering the centripetal force.
The Spyder from the Spyder Ryder website.
Another intriguing entry is the British-made Carver. Carver is an enclosed 3-wheeler with a traditional motorcycle engine. The arrangement here is the more traditional one of having two wheels in the back. The difference is the automatic gimbal system that allows the operator to lean the machine through turns like a traditional bike. The cockpit is small, however, which the gravity-challenged among us might find to be too tight of a fit. The Carver is not mass-produced, so it is, at this point, very expensive and sold only in Europe.
The Carver, from the Carver Company Website
A three-wheeler with great promise is a new one on the market called Aptera. This ride, like the Spyder, has the steerage in front and shares the same low profile. The difference is that the Aptera has an enclosed cockpit which seats two comfortably and comes equipped with creature comforts such as stereo, heat and a/c. One of the interesting features is the strip of solar panel in the roof. This innovation actually powers the environmental controls when the Aptera is parked. So if you return to your vehicle on a hot summer day or a cold winter night, the vehicle interior will already be at a comfortable temperature. The other neat thing about the Aptera is the powertrain. The initial version is all-electric and boasts a top speed of 100 mph and a range of 120 miles. The follow-on version, due sometime next year, will be a hybrid with a small gasoline engine augmenting the electrics. Understand that this version is still in the early stages, but the Aptera folks are claiming that this hybrid three-wheeler can achieve up to 300 miles per gallon of gas.
The Aptera is far from a gimmick. The passenger compartment has been carefully designed and actually exceeds existing Federal safety standards for collision and roll-over. The interior is wider than the Carver and looks large enough to accommodate the big boys.
The Aptera from the Aptera Company website
Aptera, with its swoopy composite bodies and the choice of recycled materials throughout, are hand-made and are pricey at about $30,000. However, other ATV manufacturers, watching the sales of the Spyder, might be willing to undertake the mass-production of the hybrid version, which would lower the sticker price by at least half. At 15 large and 200-300 mpg, you couldn’t keep them in the showroom long enough to smudge the floor. I don’t know if Aptera would be comfortable enough to go on a cross-country trip, but it would fill the bill for commuting and errand-running, provided you didn’t have to haul very much.
The biggest advantage to an enclosed three-wheeler is the ability to operate in less-than-optimum weather conditions. In parts of the country where the riding season is relatively short, these new vehicles would enable those owners to use them well beyond the time of year when motorcycles are usually retired to garage hibernation. And with the development of all-weather tires, you could even drive it through the winter.
Aptera and Carver lack the mass-production capability of Bombardier, but I have to think that someone at the Big 4 (Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha) could see the immense advantage of at least manufacturing them under license.
Innovation usually arrives on its own, but with the paradigm of our lives shifting the way that it is, conditions seem to have driven a more aggressive forward-thinking view.
And who knows what tomorrow will bring?