Transportation Review | Autocycles

Steven Lambert and Douglas Shinkle 4/17/2017

Introduction

Elio Motors photo of an autocycle vehicle.You may have seen an autocycle on a local street, but been unclear what it was or, for that matter, what to call it.

Autocycles are mechanically distinct from other vehicles on the road and can be identified by:

  • Their three-wheeled design.
  • Steering wheel.
  • A seat for the driver.
  • Occasionally, seats for passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency in charge of regulating vehicle manufacturers, does not currently have a vehicle classification for autocycles. This means at the federal vehicle manufacturer level, autocycles fall under the definition of “motorcycle,” which is defined as “a motor vehicle with motive power having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider and designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground.” 

Because autocycles, from a federal standpoint, are still considered motorcycles, they must comply with applicable motorcycle manufacturing and safety standards. The definition for motorcycles is very broad and encompasses a number of three wheeled configurations.

States have moved towards creating their own motorcycle sub-classifications for autocycles, or creating an autocycle classification all its own. This has impacted titling, rider endorsements and training, registration, passenger and road restrictions and required protective equipment.

American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Recommendations

In 2013, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) formed the Three-Wheeled Vehicle Working Group (3WVWG), which was tasked with developing best practices and recommendations for regulating the operation of three-wheel vehicles.

Starting with a brief overview of the differences between three-wheeled motorcycles and autocycles, the 3WVWG noted that three-wheeled motorcycles have handlebars and require the rider to sit astride the vehicle, while autocycles have steering wheels and a seat for the driver. The 3WVWG then provided the following substantive recommendations for autocycles:

  • Autocycle operators should be licensed as regular passenger vehicles.
  • There should be a way to distinguish three-wheeled motorcycles from autocycles for safety statistics.
  • Drivers should be prohibited from performing their skills testing in an autocycle.

One of the main reasons state legislatures are pursuing autocycle categorization is to distinguish them from motorcycles. Imre F. Szauter, former government affairs manager for the American Motorcyclist Association, noted that:

“The three-wheeled enclosed ‘motorcycle’ is causing problems for us, mainly because these vehicles are built to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for motorcycles but being marketed as three-wheeled passenger  vehicles. Removing the motorcycle endorsement requirement and helmet use provisions further indicates the manufacturers are marketing these small, fuel-efficient vehicles as ‘cars.’ However, because they are still titled and registered as motorcycles, all traffic crashes in these vehicles are counted as ‘motorcycle crashes.’ That’s the rub for us – you’re not required to have a motorcycle endorsement or motorcycle license to operate it, but if you crash it, your crash counts against us (motorcyclists).”

Federal Action

In 2015, the United States House (H.R. 2892) and Senate (S. 685) introduced companion bills addressing federal autocycle regulation. These bills defined an “autocycle” as “a motor vehicle with three wheels, an enclosed occupant compartment, and a steering wheel, which meets applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards, as determined necessary by the Secretary of Transportation through regulation.” The bills also provided for interim safety regulations for passenger vehicles, such as seat belt assembly anchorages, roof crush resistance, and the flammability of interior materials, as well as interim safety regulations for motorcycles such as motorcycle brake systems, rearview mirrors, and new pneumatic tires.

To determine which of the safety standards were applicable to autocycles, the bills would have empowered the Secretary of Transportation to “apply motorcycle safety standards to those aspects of an autocycle’s performance regulated through the motor vehicle safety standards applicable to motorcycles,” and “apply passenger car safety standards to those aspects of an autocycle’s performance regulated through motor vehicle safety standards that are not otherwise regulated through a motorcycle standard.” Each bill was referred to a different committee in 2015, but no further action was taken.

Further, in the fall of 2015, the Department of Transportation and NHTSA proposed a rulemaking framework which would change the regulatory definition of “motorcycle” to exclude three-wheeled vehicles that are configured like passenger cars. The proposed rule noted that there are three-wheeled vehicles with passenger car characteristics (fully enclosed cabins, hinged doors with roll-up windows, steering wheels, side-by-side seating) that need further clarification to allow consumers to be fully informed when purchasing such vehicles. The proposed rule has yet to be finalized and it remains unclear if the rule will be further delayed or scrapped due to the new administration. 

State Autocycle Laws 

As autocycles increase in popularity on American roadways, states are making efforts to define what autocycles are, address safety requirements and passenger restrictions, regulate operator licensing and operation of autocycles on roadways and distinguish autocycles from motorcycles in crash reporting. 

Autocycle Definitions

Currently, 31 states have autocycle statutory definitions. All 31 states require that an autocycle have three wheels, and 28 states require an autocycle to have a steering wheel (Colorado, Mississippi and Oklahoma do not explicitly require a steering wheel). Below are the other range of requirements commonly seen in autocycle definitions, along with their prevalence among the various state definitions:

  • 19 states require autocycles have seatbelts.
  • 16 states require that the driver not sit or straddle the seat.
  • 15 states require autocycles be enclosed.

Concerning enclosure requirements, Colorado’s statute requires that an autocycle have “a hardtop enclosure that protects occupants from the elements and that supports the vehicle’s weight without harming the occupants when the vehicle is resting on the enclosure.” The language requiring the autocycle to protect the occupants while “resting on the enclosure” is mirrored in Vermont’s statute, which defines “fully enclosed autocycle” as an autocycle that has, among other features, “full top and side enclosures capable of supporting the vehicle’s weight and protecting the occupants when the vehicle is resting on the enclosures.”

  • 15 states require foot pedals to control acceleration, braking, and, if applicable, a clutch.
  • 11 states require autocycles meet federal motorcycle safety requirements.
  • 10 states require the vehicle to have a roll cage or roll bar.

Concerning roll bar requirements, Louisiana has statutory language defining a “roll cage” or “roll bar” as “supports that will bear the vehicle’s weight and are so designed as to protect the occupants when the vehicle is resting on the supports.”

  • Eight states require autocycles to have antilock brakes.
  • Four states require autocycles to have airbags.

Probably the most comprehensive autocycle definition is Nebraska’s statute, which defines an autocycle as any motor vehicle:

  • With a seat that does not require the operator to straddle or sit astride it.
  • That is designed to travel on three wheels in contact with the ground.
  • In which the operator and passenger ride either side-by-side or in tandem in a seating area that is completely enclosed with a removable or fixed top and is equipped with manufacturer-installed air bags, a manufacturer-installed roll cage, and for each occupant a manufacturer-installed three-point safety belt system.
  • That has antilock brakes.
  • That is designed to be controlled with a steering wheel and pedals.

A more representative example of how most states define autocycles is New Hampshire’s statute, which defines an autocycle as “a three-wheeled motor vehicle that has a steering wheel and seating that does not require the operator to straddle or sit astride, is equipped with safety belts for all occupants and is manufactured to comply with federal safety requirements for motorcycles.”

This variety in states’ autocycle definitions highlights the confusion surrounding how to categorize the vehicles of this burgeoning industry. Of note is that only 15 states require that the driver not sit or straddle the seat, since this is one of the defining differences between three-wheeled motorcycles and autocycles. Some states have other unique provisions regarding vehicle equipment, such as:

  • Tandem seating (Nebraska, Missouri and New Mexico).

Concerning tandem seating, Missouri defines an autocycle, in part, as a motor vehicle where the drivers and passengers ride in a “completely enclosed, tandem seating area,” (tandem in this case meaning seating where the driver and passengers are lined up one behind the other and facing the same direction). New Mexico’s statute has similar language, defining an autocycle as “a three-wheeled motorcycle on which the driver and all passengers ride in a completely enclosed, tandem seating area.” Nebraska’s statutory autocycle definition allows the operator and passenger to either ride “side by side or in tandem in a seating area.”

  • Headlamps (North Carolina).
  • Windshields (Virginia).
  • Windshield wipers (Tennessee).

While these laws demonstrate the differences among the states’ autocycle definitions, one state’s definition in particular stands out as an example of the diversity among states legislatures in their approach to defining autocycles. Arkansas’ statute is notable because it defines an autocycle as a “motorized cycle that exclusively uses a motor operated by electricity,” and is a “zero-emission vehicle.” Further, the Arkansas statute details several mechanical requirements (such as vehicle width, length, weight, and door requirements) not found in other state statutes. 

Comparison of Elio and Polaris Models and State Definitions

While there are several examples of autocycles currently on the road and in production, Elio Motors of Louisiana, which just recently reached its pre-order goal of 65,000 vehicles required to begin production, and Polaris Industries of Minnesota, which already has several iterations of their “Slingshot” on the road, stand out for their attempts to steer autocycle legislation on the state and national level.

Autocycle vehicleThe designs for each of these vehicles vary drastically. Polaris Industries’ Slingshot has side-by-side seating, seat belts and no roof, doors, windows, airbags or crumple zone. By comparison, Elio Motors’ “Elio” has seat belts, a roof, doors, windows, airbags, a crumple zone and a tandem seating design.

These design differences are echoed in some of the laws enacted by states governing autocycle equipment and safety and operation standards.

For example, Texas’ statutory language more closely resembles the design of a Slingshot, requiring three wheels, a steering wheel, seating that does not require the operator to straddle or sit astride the seat, and compliance with federal safety requirements for motorcycles.

Louisiana’s statute, on the other hand, is more in line with an Elio. Its law defines an autocycle as an enclosed motorcycle that is equipped with safety belts, a roll bar or roll cage, windshield wipers, a steering wheel, and equipment otherwise required on a motorcycle and that has no more than three wheels in contact with the roadway.

According to Polaris’ website, Slingshots are categorized as “autocycles” in 23 states—Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. In 23 states Slingshots are still considered “motorcycles,” and the remaining four states have unique designations for Slingshots, such as “mototricycle” in Missouri, “trimobile” in Nevada, “unconventional vehicle” in North Dakota or “passenger vehicle” in South Carolina.

Of the 23 states that define a Slingshot as a “motorcycle,” eight have autocycle definitions that exclude Slingshots—Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma—in part, on the basis of not having a roll cage or enclosed cabin.

Autocycle a three wheeled vehicle.These classifications are not the same for the Elio, however, as the Elio meets the requirements for all but one of the 31 states with an autocycle definition. Arkansas is the notable exception due to its “zero-emission” autocycle definition. In the remaining 19 states, the Elio is considered a motorcycle or bears one of the unique designations mentioned above. 

As can be seen from the varied definitions, in states that favor Polaris Industries’ autocycle definition, roll cages, enclosures, or safety belts are not mentioned, while states that favor Elio Motors’ design include these characteristics in their definition. Without one overriding federal definition for what an autocycle is, the states’ individual definitions can, and in some instances do, vary widely.

Autocycle Safety Requirements

Nineteen states require an autocycle to be equipped with seat belts for its driver and passengers. For example, North Carolina’s statute states: “Every autocycle registered in this State shall be equipped with seat safety belts for the front seats of the autocycle. The seat safety belts shall meet the same construction, design, and strength requirements under this section for seat safety belts in motor vehicles.”

At the same time, only four states require autocycles to include airbags. Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico’s statutes all have airbag requirements for autocycles, with Colorado’s statute defining an autocycle as, in part, a motor vehicle with “air bag protection.”

One of the largest autocycle safety questions is whether operators and passengers should be required to wear protective headgear, such as helmets and goggles. Thirteen states require some sort of helmet or headgear to be worn while driving or riding in an autocycle. Twelve states, however, waive this requirement if the autocycle has a fully enclosed cabin or other safety feature, such as a roll bar, to protect the occupants in the event of a roll over. New Hampshire stands out as the only state where an autocycle operator of an Elio, or another enclosed autocycle, is required to wear a helmet. New Hampshire’s statute explicitly states that “[a]ny motorcycle or autocycle operator who transports a person under the age of 18 years [without wearing protective headgear] shall be guilty of a violation.”

Virginia’s statute addresses this issue by not requiring an autocycle operator to wear a helmet if the autocycle is equipped with safety glass or a windshield at all times while operating the vehicle. The statutory language states:

Every person operating a motorcycle or autocycle shall wear a face shield, safety glasses or goggles, or have his motorcycle or autocycle equipped with safety glass or a windshield at all times while operating the vehicle, and operators and any  passengers thereon shall wear protective helmets. Operators and passengers riding on motorcycles with wheels of eight inches or less in diameter or in three-wheeled motorcycles or autocycles that have non-removable roofs, windshields, and enclosed bodies shall not be required to wear protective helmets.

Autocycle Passenger Restrictions

Regarding autocycle passenger restrictions, some state statutes comport with existing motor vehicle requirements. In Connecticut, for example, 16- and 17-year-old autocycle drivers are subject to the same passenger restrictions that would apply if they were driving other motor vehicles. This includes limiting them to transporting only their parents, a driving instructor, or a person over the age of 21 who has been licensed for at least four years.

Another concern autocycle legislation has had to address is whether autocycle drivers can use their vehicle to transport infant children. Tennessee’s statute, for example, handles this issue by stating that a person who is operating an autocycle shall not carry a child as a passenger if such child is required to be secured under the law (which, among other things, requires drivers to properly use a child passenger restraint system in a rear facing position that meets federal motor vehicle safety standards), unless: the autocycle has an enclosed cab, meets the federal motor vehicle safety standards for child restraints and the child is secured in a manner in accordance with said law.

States have also addressed age restrictions for autocycle passengers. Pennsylvania, for example, has a restriction on passengers younger than 8-years-old if a car seat cannot be used. The statute states: “No person who is operating an autocycle may permit a child who is under eight years of age to be a passenger in the autocycle if the child would be required to be secured in a passenger car…” 

Arkansas’s statute requires a child to be restrained according to Arkansas’s Child Passenger Protection Act (requiring passengers less than 60 pounds to be restrained in a child passenger safety seat properly secured in the vehicle). Further, Arkansas’s statute states a child may be a passenger in an autocycle, and that the law requiring children younger than 8-years old can’t be passengers on motorcycles does not apply to autocycles.

Autocycle Licensing and Registration Requirements

One of the most interesting distinctions states make when drafting legislation for autocycles is not requiring the driver to obtain a motorcycle endorsement, but requiring that the autocycle be registered and licensed as a motorcycle. Arkansas’s statute, for example, states that the owner of an autocycle may register and license it as a motorcycle. Similarly, Idaho’s statute states:

  1. The following provisions of law shall apply to autocycles:

a)   Motorcycle plate and registration tag requirements;

b)   Motorcycle registration requirements. Certification from the national highway traffic safety administration and a manufacturer’s certificate of origin stating that the vehicle meets the federal specifications for a motorcycle shall be required for all autocycles prior to registration;

c)   Motorcycle insurance requirements.

These registration requirements are the same in TexasNew Mexico and New Jersey. New Jersey’s requirement, for example, states: “An autocycle shall be registered as a motorcycle… A person shall not be required to hold a motorcycle license or a motorcycle endorsement to operate an autocycle if the person holds a basic driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle.”

There are 11 states—California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin—that do not have a statutory autocycle definition, but nonetheless waive the motorcycle licensing or endorsement requirement based on other criteria. For example, according to the California DMV, “Class C” driver’s licenses in California cover “three-wheeled motorcycles.” In a plurality of these states, however, the prevailing exception is for “enclosed” cabins. Such is the case  in KentuckyMassachusettsOregon and Washington. In the remaining states—Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wisconsin—the exception either takes the form of a different vehicle classification (Florida’s “tri-vehicle,” Nevada’s “trimobile,” North Dakota’s “unconventional vehicle,” and South Carolina’s “automotive three-wheel vehicle”) or a loophole in statutory law such as Georgia’s presumptive exception for “riders” and Wisconsin’s distinction between “type 1” and “type 2” motorcycles. In the latter case, statutory law implicitly exempts Georgia autocycle riders because they don’t fall under the umbrella of motorcycle “riders.” In Wisconsin, autocycle riders are exempt because their motorcycle statutes refer to “type 1” motorcycle license and helmet requirements, but autocycles are classified as “type 2” motorcycles.

Autocycle Operation on Roadways

Arkansas appears to be the only state that restrictions the operation of an autocycle on a highway. Arkansas’s statute states that an autocycle shall not be operated on an interstate highway if: the operation of autocycles or motorcycles is prohibited, the road is a controlled-access highway, the posted speed limit is more than 55 mph or the autocycle cannot maintain a speed equal to the posted speed limit.

Another restriction that further differentiates autocycles from motorcycles in certain states is the ability to drive two abreast in a lane. North Carolina law, for example, allows motorcycles to drive two abreast in a single lane. The statute goes on, however, to note that the term “motorcycle” shall not include autocycles, and that autocycles shall not be operated more than one abreast in a single lane. Connecticut law clarifies that while a motorcycle may overtake and pass a motorcycle in the same single traffic lane occupied by such motorcycle, an autocycle may not do so. 

Autocycle Crash Reporting

In response to concerns from the motorcycling community that autocycle traffic crashes are being counted as motorcycle crashes, a few states have taken steps to require the reporting of autocycle crashes separately. Maryland, for example, has taken measures to rectify this issue by requiring written accident report forms to “distinguish between autocycles and motorcycles.” Pennsylvania’s statute, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018, states that written report forms are required to include “separate information or data on autocycles.” 

Appendix A: State Autocycle Laws

State

3-Wheeled

Straddle/Sit

Comply w/Fed.
Motorcycle Reqs.

Enclosed

Roll Cage

Safety Belts

Anti-Lock

Steering Wheel

Pedals

Airbags

Helmets

Alabama

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Arizona

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

 

Arkansas

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

X

X

 

 

Colorado

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

 

 

X

 

Connecticut

X

 

X

X

 

X

 

X

X

 

 

Delaware

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Idaho

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

X

X

 

X*

Illinois

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Indiana

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

 

Iowa

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

X

 

 

Kansas

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Louisiana

X

 

 

 

X

X

 

X

X

 

X*

Maine

X

 

X

X

X

X

 

X

 

 

 

Maryland

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

X

X

 

 

Michigan

X

 

 

X

X

X

 

X

 

 

X*

Minnesota

X

X

X

 

 

 

X

X

 

 

X*

Mississippi

X

 

 

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

Missouri

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X*

Nebraska

X

X

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

New Hampshire

X

X

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

 

X

New Jersey

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X*

New Mexico

X

 

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

North Carolina

X

X

X

X

 

X

X

X

X

 

X*

Ohio

X

X

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

 

X*

Oklahoma

X

 

 

X

 

X

 

 

 

 

 

Pennsylvania

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Rhode Island

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

X

X

 

 

Tennessee

X

 

X

X

X

X

 

X

 

 

X*

Texas

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

 

Utah

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

X*

Vermont

X

 

 

 

 

X

 

X

X

 

X*

Virginia

X

X

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

X*

Total

31

16

11

15

10

19

8

27

15

4

13/12*

 

* State has an exception to helmet requirement when the autocycle is either enclosed or is designed with a roll cage, roll bar, roll hoops or an otherwise crushproof body.

Maine’s autocycle statute was sunsetted in 2013, and is therefore not included in the totals.