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Come October, the city of Grenoble in the south east of France will have 35 new, electric, brightly-coloured, three-wheeled Toyota i-Roads on it streets. The vehicles are part of a car-share pilot project Toyota has undertaken in conjunction with the city, French power company EDF and other partners that seeks to offer Grenobleâ€™s residents additional options for completing the last or first legs of local journeys.
The i-Road, which started life as a concept car, is a curious mixture of motorcycle and car with the steering dynamics of a motor boat. Toyotaâ€™s â€œActive Leanâ€ technology sees the i-Road leaning into corners when turning and, because the lone rear wheel is responsible for steering, taking a corner feels distinctly boat-like, with the rear of the vehicle swinging from side to side through bends. Itâ€™s strange, but doesnâ€™t take much getting used to, and once you do itâ€™s great fun.
Fun mustâ€™ve been pretty high on Toyotaâ€™s priority list when it designed the i-Road. The interior (which seats one or two passengers in a row depending on configuration) is a bare-bones affair â€“ a single USB port, odometer, speedometer, sun visor and hooter are about all thatâ€™s on offer beyond the seat, seat-belt and steering wheel. An automatic, the i-Road offers only park, drive and reverse.
Thereâ€™s no radio, no air conditioning â€“ hell, there arenâ€™t even window winders (instead, the poly-carbonate window panels slide into the door panels or clip to the top of the door frame). Oh, and it tops out at 45km/h and only has a range of around 50km on a single charge. But none of that matters when you actually get behind the wheel and take to the streets.
What the i-Road lacks in creature comforts it more than makes up for with novelty. Available in bright blue, pink, yellow or green (or a pedestrian white) the i-Road looks like itâ€™s rolled straight out of a time machine. Children will point, adults will stare, people will talk. But that might actually be part of the i-Roadâ€™s charm: itâ€™s inherently playful, innovative and attention-grabbing.
At only 870mm wide, the i-Road is great for narrow streets and awkward parking bays. Grenobleâ€™s fleet will be dotted around the city in dedicated parking bays with charging stations. Would-be drivers can check the locations and availability of vehicles using a mobile application and payment works with contactless cards that unlock the car when touched to a card reader on the rear window.
Grenobleâ€™s also ensured that the i-Road sharing system integrates with existing public transport information systems so that users can plan their journeys from beginning to end. Using an i-Road will set you back â‚¬3 for the first 15 minutes, â‚¬2 for the next 15 and â‚¬1 for every 15 minutes thereafter â€“ although, given their limited range youâ€™d need some pretty severe traffic to rack up a two digit bill. Annual local transport cardholders will pay â‚¬2 for the first 15 minutes and â‚¬1 for every 15 minutes thereafter.
Toyota says that if the pilot project proves successful it will consider rolling out similar solutions in additional cities. While car-sharing services make a lot of sense in small, dense cities like those of Europe and Asia, theyâ€™re impractical in cities with substantial urban sprawl. Will we be seeing the i-Road on African roads any time soon? Outside of motor show demos, I highly doubt it.
As futuristic and fun as it is, I canâ€™t envision the i-Road handling either the distance between destinations for the average South African road user or the countryâ€™s numerous and notorious potholes. For the time being, the i-Road is destined to remain a curiosity â€“ the subject of holiday photos and electric car advocatesâ€™ PowerPoint presentations.