The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Driving

I had the pleasure of recently attending the TED conference in Vancouver, B.C., where I gave a TED talk on the main stage about how we will travel to Mars — and when (far sooner than you could guess). More to come on that when the talk is released in late June or early July, timed to the release of my new book from Simon & Schuster, How We’ll Live on Mars.

It was a great year for talks at TED, and you’ve probably already heard about the controversial and fascinating talk Monica Lewinsky gave. But there was an outlier demonstration by a TED partner this year that has gotten little attention but which absolutely fascinated me.

In the basement of the Vancouver Convention Center, where TED is now held every year, Toyota set up a test track to drive its new concept vehicle called the i-ROAD. The i-ROAD looks like a tiny car. If you judged solely on initial appearances while the vehicle was at rest, you’d say it’s a covered scooter.

Instead, it’s a completely revolutionary vehicle like none other. For one thing, the i-ROAD is fully electric. It goes about 30 miles on a three-hour charge from regular 110-volt current. That alone is revolutionary. Electric autos take forever to charge from 110 volts. Last year, I tried to charge a new Tesla model S from my garage 110-volt plug and got fewer than 30 miles added to the range after 10 hours. Electric vehicles demand at least 220 volts for reasonably quick charges, and 440 volts works far better.

The i-ROAD also works far differently than any other vehicle, including electric motorcycles. A motorcycle is rear-wheel drive and “bends” at the front tube on the chassis to turn one wheel, forming a V-shape between the two wheels as the front wheel is turned. The i-ROAD is front-wheel-drive and it steers via a small rear wheel that isn’t powered.

Far more radical is the i-ROAD’s front suspension. As the vehicle leans over into a turn the way a scooter or motorcycle would, one of the right front wheels retracts into the body and the other extends. It’s all controlled by a computer and a stabilizing system that won’t allow the vehicle to lean too far or lose traction. When I drove it, I pushed it at full throttle through really sharp turns, and as the vehicle began to break loose just a bit on the slippery polished concrete surface of the test track, the computer took over, braking and stabilizing the vehicle. The confidence in this system one feels as a driver is staggering.

Inside the vehicle, there is room for one or two people sitting tandem. There’s a steering wheel and a dashboard, windshield wiper and a brake, just like in an automobile. You release the parking brake, turn on the key, grab the wheel and step on the accelerator pedal. Then… you enter a space that can only be described as flying.

I’m a pilot, and I love to fly small airplanes. Not the normal, straight-to-my-destination kind of flying, but the kind of flying that involves lazy 8s, chandelles, steep banks and even the occasional loop or barrel roll. I love the feel of moving through three-dimensional space the way an airplane does, with specific geometry that results in coordinated turns and banks.

So that brings me to the point of how an i-ROAD “flies.” It banks like an airplane through turns — often steeply, which is thrilling. But the reason an i-ROAD gives me the same thrill as flying is how it steers — not from the front, but from that rear wheel. You see, an airplane turns from the rear too — by its rudder. The pilot steps on the rudder pedal, which begins to skid the tail sideways, and then coordinates the turn by banking, which stops the skidding. That feeling is like no other.

If you are a passenger and you close your eyes while a pilot performs a perfectly coordinated shallow bank, you cannot tell you are not flying straight and level. When you keep your eyes open, your brain creates a sensibility that you are turning, but you can’t actually feel it. Yet you think you feel it, and that feeling is partly from G-forces, which increase dramatically as the bank steepens.

The same thing happens in the i-ROAD. You begin banking, but the turn is perfectly coordinated if you turn the wheel just right. The vehicle leans well over into a bank and your whole body moves down toward the pavement, as if you were on a motorcycle. But there are no distracting G-forces in the wrong direction. Even a perfectly performed turn in a motorcycle never quite feels right, because it can’t be properly coordinated. (A high-performance off-road racing bike comes pretty close to making a coordinated bank, but even it never succeeds, because only one wheel is steerable.) In the i-ROAD, it feels like you are flying an aircraft. It is outrageously exhilarating.

There are many other remarkable features and technical details about this vehicle I won’t go into, but I will note that this doesn’t feel like an enclosed motorcycle or an electric bicycle. It feels solid and strong, like a car. Toyota says there is no need to wear a helmet. You are seat-belted in, as in a car.

I just can’t repeat too often how much fun this thing is to drive. I own three motorcycles, and I obviously like riding them. But I’d add this to my garage in a minute if Toyota decides to mass-produce it.

Right now, there are fewer than 100 in existence, and they’re being carefully test-marketed. I asked Jason Schulz, manager of business development for Toyota’s 21st Century Partnerships, what he thought it might sell for. He demurred but suggested $10,000 might be a close number. That seems a pricey for what is limited city transport. New York is full of Vespas, and they cost about $4,500 each. Nonetheless, I can imagine every Vespa owner in the city trading his or her ride in for an i-ROAD if the price were closer to $6,000.

That said, I’d gladly fork over $10k tomorrow if I could get one. This is the perfect vehicle for cities.

Click on this link to watch a video that shows the grace and performance of this amazing machine. The voiceover is in Japanese, but you won’t care. The smiles on the drivers’ faces are real.

To a bright future,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning