From Frank Stronach to Daymak to ElectraMeccanica, a string of new and notable Canadian names are investing big money in a bid to build and capture the market for electric three-wheelers. Are buyers ready?
Three-wheel vehicles have a bumpy history, but recent developments suggest electric three-wheelers may be having a moment as car makers worldwide ramp up their electric offerings.
Smaller than conventional passenger cars, larger than motorcycles, and with speeds that vary from a putt-putt to supercharged, three-wheelers are unlike any other vehicles on the road.
Recently, a cross-section of Canadian automakers — from legacy manufacturers to individual tycoons — have pledged to develop and launch electric three-wheelers. And they’re not alone. While still an uncommon sight on North American roads, the global market for three-wheelers is robust and growing. Pegged to be an industry worth more than US$9 billion worldwide in a March 2020 The Insight Partners report, data projections support a value jump to US$13.7 billion by 2027.
Currently, “the prominent importers of three wheelers from Asian manufacturers are Northern Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” says Insight Partners. India and China have both seen explosive three-wheeler adoption in recent years. But the areas seen to hold future growth potential include North America.
So as things heat up, we look at the Canadian contenders and the opportunities and challenges they face in a mobility sector being disrupted by electric vehicle adoption, urban micro-mobility deployments and commuters looking for a new lease on transportation options.
Frank Stronach, founder of autoparts maker Magna International, is a known and respected quantity in the car world. Stronach started Magna in 1957 and stepped back from the multi-billion dollar empire in 2012. Not content to sit in quiet retirement, Stronach is moving forward with plans to manufacture a three-wheel, single-seat electric vehicle called the SARIT (Safe Affordable Reliable Innovative Transport) just outside of Toronto.
Zoning for Stronach’s electric vehicle assembly plant — projected to be a 60,000-square-foot facility with an output capacity of 100,000 to 500,000 vehicles per year — in Aurora, Ont., was approved by the local council on March 23. In an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada, Stronach confirms manufacturing of the vehicle is expected to begin late this year.
With its single-seat, lightweight design and US$4,000 price tag, Stronach says the SARIT is for commuters worldwide. The SARIT is somewhere in between a bike and car — it’s three feet wide, six feet long, and five feet tall and will be able to travel 100 kilometres per charge with a peak 32 kilometre-per-hour speed.
Stronach says the idea for the SARIT came when he was stuck in traffic commuting to and from downtown Toronto. Sitting in the gridlock he saw that the vast majority of cars had only one occupant.
“I said to myself, that’s crazy. [That’s a] waste of energy, human energy, nonrenewable resources. So I went back to the workbench and I worked on a one-seater electric car.”
According to Stronach International’s presentation to the Whitchurch-Stouffville Council, an initial 80 per cent of the components for the SARIT will be produced in Canada, while the company’s goal is to have that number be 100 per cent in the next 2 to 3 years.
Stronach says he expects the SARIT will sell with commuters “all over the world,” in part due to the fact that the EV would be “half the price of public transportation.” Stronach says.
“I’m excited that it will be better for the environment, and [for it] to relieve traffic jams. And it’s affordable,“ he says. “I think there’s a need for it.”
Despite his longevity in the auto industry, Stronach is actually a latecomer among Canadian entrepreneurs entering the electric three-wheeler fray. Others that precede him hail from different locations and their vehicles reflect equally different visions, falling across a spectrum of more car-like to close relatives of a motorcycle.
One of the first electric three-wheelers to hit the road came from B.C.-based ElectraMeccanica. It makes the Solo, a three-wheel, single-seat EV designed for commuters, fleet and utility operators and ride-sharing programs. The vehicle’s 160-kilometre range, its top speed of nearly 130 kph and stylish, aerodynamic design puts it in an entirely different niche to the SARIT.
ElectraMeccanica was established in 2015 with headquarters in Vancouver and a research and development facility in New Westminster. In 2015, the first Solo prototype was operational. By 2019, 60 pre-production Solos were deployed in Canada, the U.S. and China for final on-road validation testing. While cleared for sale in China and all but one U.S. state, ElectraMeccanica ran into regulatory obstacles related to a lack of side airbags that halted sales Canada.
Last year, it began manufacturing the Solo in China, where the company says it is now able to produce over 20,000 vehicles per year. To better serve the U.S. market, where several showrooms are already open, ElectraMeccanica announced in early April that it would also be opening an assembly plant and engineering facility in Arizona.
In a north-south border crossing reversal for three-wheelers, San Diego-headquartered Aptera, says it is looking to Canada to open a battery factory, in Alberta, which will supply its San Diego plant with parts for their new three-wheeled Paradigm EV, according to chief technology officer Nathan Armstrong. The vehicle was announced in December, and while the exact purpose of the factory hasn’t been decided, Armstrong says the focus is on battery packs, biocomposites, composites and metal components.
Production on Paradigm is set to begin in January 2022 and the company is currently raising the roughly $20 million it would take to open its Alberta facility. In addition they will also be sourcing parts from Ontario.
Armstrong, who is based out of Aptera’s offices in Calgary, says he and the company are hoping Canada will take a leadership role in natural fibre composites and battery technologies for this emerging technology. Armstrong is using his own existing facilities in the province to help manufacture Paradigm.
When asked why a three-wheeler vehicle seemed like a viable technology for Aptera to develop, the answer is mostly performance.
Armstrong says that the Paradigm has three wheels in part because it allows for less drag than four. With top speeds of over 160 kph, online specifications also show the two-seater EV’s rooftop solar technology self-charges up to 60 kilometres “while simply being parked.” Otherwise, the Paradigm charges at a rate of 21 kilometres per hour for standard Level 1 chargers and 804 kilometres per hour with rapid charging.
Orders adding up
There are over 10,000 total orders to date for the Paradigm EV, which is priced from $26,000 to $46,000, according to Armstrong. So far, he says, the biggest market segments represent two very different user groups — commuters and those looking to use the EV for long-distance trips.
Back in Ontario, meanwhile, Toronto-based Daymak Inc. launched a four-month crowdfunding campaign in March for its futuristic three-wheel vehicle called the Spirtus EV, after it was unveiled last December under the umbrella of its Avvenire line. The speedy two-seat, three-wheeler costs US$19,995 for its 300-kilometre range “deluxe” version and US$149,000 for its 480-kilometre range “ultimate” model. The deluxe version has top speeds of 137 kph, compared to the ultimate model’s over 210 kph. Both models charge at a rate of 21 kilometres per hour for standard 110v chargers, and 48 kilometres per hour for 240v chargers, but time for rapid charging stations is unclear.
As of May 11, Daymak’s website order tracker says they have over $250 million from over 4,000 pre-orders over 30 days by consumers and dealers.
The light electric vehicle manufacturer plans to make the three-wheeler in Canada at its Oshawa, ON. facility, and has a target of reaching the 50,000 preorders by July, 2021 — something the company says they are “tracking” to meet.
And in Quebec, Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP) announced in March a $300-million program to build and launch electric versions of all its vehicles, including its three-wheel Can-Am, which is decidedly more motorcycle than car.
Making three-wheeler vehicles in Canada is one thing, but as noted, selling and driving them here has its own complications. That’s because certain three-wheelers may meet federal safety standards but run afoul of some varying provincial standards. In 2016, for example, as part of a 10-year pilot program, Ontario approved three-wheelers as long as riders have a valid car driver’s license. Other provinces are more in line with some U.S. states where three-wheel vehicles are classified as motorcycles and require a motorcycle license to operate.
Currently eight provinces in Canada allow three-wheelers to be registered as road-use vehicles with either a valid driver’s or motorcycle license and many jurisdictions require the use of both seatbelts and helmets with the vehicles. Children under a certain age are not allowed as passengers.
Aptera’s Armstrong says the technology is outpacing Canadian regulations.
“This is something that we’re going to be talking to provincial governments about,” Armstrong says, “because this is an emerging sector in the transportation industry and for them to try and block it, essentially, will be a backwards move.”
Armstrong says while Aptera is conducting its own passenger safety testing, the company is also in talks with the Ontario government, and plans to have conversations with Alberta about regulations at a later date.
Winning over the public
Other barriers to entry in the Canadian market are weather and the high amount of highway and non-urban commuting. Prospective drivers may be wary about trying to battle through a blizzard on three wheels and some of North America’s longest and busiest and highways are in Canada. When most of the other cars in the lanes range from long-haul 18-wheelers to all-terrain SUVs and some commutes can take drivers far out of downtown cores, driving in a three-wheeler could seem challenging.
From a stability standpoint, Armstrong says that a “three-wheeled vehicle with stability control is as safe as a four-wheeled vehicle.”
Changing policy and public perception is a tall order for even the most established automakers, but with more start-ups entering the field and echoing the same sentiments, now could be the time the three-wheeler finally cracks the North American market.
Editors note: This story was updated to reflect Daymak’s latest announcement about sales of the Spiritus in May, 2021.