Could San Francisco’s tiny tourist cruisers become the cars of the future?

Fun Utility Vehicles have arrived in The City

If a Jeep and a golf cart had a baby, it might look something like the Fun Utility Vehicle, or FUV.

These cute yet aggressive-looking electric three-wheelers are already shuttling tourists around The City and across the Golden Gate Bridge. But Arcimoto, the company that makes the FUV, is hoping its vehicles will someday become an option for everyday trips and deliveries in crowded cities like San Francisco.

As the mass adoption of electric cars grows increasingly imminent, Arcimoto is betting that city dwellers might be open to a vehicle that weighs in somewhere between an e-bike and a Tesla.

“This is about building the right tool for the job people are already doing,” Arcimoto CEO Mark Frohnmayer told The Examiner at a test ride in Fisherman’s Wharf this week. “That just comes from looking at statistics and realizing that the vast majority of trips are one or two people traveling a short distance with a small amount of stuff.” Nearly 60% of all passenger vehicle trips are five miles or less, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

With three wheels, two seats, a hand throttle and no doors, the FUV is legally classified as a motorcycle. But because of its metal cage and seatbelts, you don’t need a motorcycle license or a helmet to drive one. (Half doors are available to tack on.) For people like this writer, who have never driven a motorcycle, there’s a bit of a learning curve to figuring out the throttle and the dual hand and foot brakes. Little bumps in the road don’t feel too good, either. Once you get the hang of it, though, the FUV lives up to its name.

The ride has zip, too, easily ascending San Francisco’s steepest hills. With a top speed of 75 mph, it’s legal to drive on highways. That’s one of the reasons GoCar Tours added them to their fleet: Unlike the company’s flagship yellow go-carts, FUVs can legally cross the Golden Gate Bridge. That’ll give locals one more reason to be annoyed by the tourist rental service, although the electric FUVs represent an improvement in terms of noise and exhaust.

Makers of Arcimoto Fun Utility Vehicles say the compact three-wheelers don’t require drivers to change their behavior patterns. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Makers of Arcimoto Fun Utility Vehicles say the compact three-wheelers don’t require drivers to change their behavior patterns. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Of course, taking these things on the highway is not for the faint of heart. Frohnmayer, who’s currently staying in Pacifica, said it was “not a problem” for him and his team to crisscross the Bay Area’s freeways in their FUVs. As motorcycles, the vehicles don’t have a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety rating, but Frohnmayer said the roof and roller coaster-style double seatbelts were subject to automotive-grade testing.

“When you think about safety, not just of yourself, but of the world around you, we think that it is a much safer road if the vehicles are smaller,” Frohnmayer said. “Letting people make that reasonable choice is part of the story.”

So far, Arcimoto has sold just a couple hundred FUVs, but the publicly traded Eugene, Oregon-based startup has big expansion plans. Once its new factory is up and running by the end of 2022, the company hopes to crank out 50,000 vehicles per year. FUVs, which can run about 100 miles on a single charge, are currently available for sale online for $17,900.

The FUV is just one “heavy micromobility” vehicle the company has in production. Others include an open air roadster, a one-seater specially designed for deliveries, and a one-seater flatbed. The same general idea applies to all form factors: if you’re not going far, or carrying much stuff, a little vehicle might be able do the trick. Parked diagonally, like a motorcycle, three FUVs can fit in a single parking spot.

Fun Utility Vehicles have motorcycle-style controls. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Fun Utility Vehicles have motorcycle-style controls. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

As California moves toward an electric vehicle future — the state plans to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035 — size really does matter. Electric vehicle batteries are expensive, heavy and made from rare earth metals. The larger the vehicle, the larger the battery needed to power it. The Ford F-150 Lightning’s battery, for instance, weighs 1,800 pounds, considerably more than the entire weight of the 1,300-pound FUV.

Despite their popularity in Europe and China, tiny cars like the discontinued Smart Car haven’t had the same success here in the U.S., where pickups and SUVs now make up more than two-thirds of new passenger vehicle sales. But as policymakers push car-loving Americans to go green, Frohnmayer still thinks tiny cars could be an easier pill to swallow than bikes and mass transit. “What this doesn’t require you to do is change any of your behavior patterns,” Frohnmayer says of the FUV. “This is designed around how people use cars today.”

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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