Sharing conceptual elements with the Elio three-wheeled trike/car, the all-electric or gas-powered Spira is another take on an efficient, inexpensive and safe mode of transportation.
In this case, while the Spira has been crash tested and proved respectable for its size in protecting occupants, the extremely efficient 500-pound or so commuter is also built with a focus on people who may be hit by it.
Its inventor, Lon Ballard, who won a second-place X-prize in 2010 with an early prototype, says he has always been concerned with pedestrian safety.
“The genesis of this whole concept was that, we were in Thailand and we saw that in Thailand, basically the mode of transportation is like a 110cc motorbike that sells for about $1,000, and then the next step up is a $12,000 car; nothing in between,” Ballard said. “And also a couple things that people don’t realize: if you’re between 5 and 35 the number one killer in the world is vehicle accidents. The second fact correlated to that is most people killed in vehicle accidents are not inside the vehicle. It’s bicyclists, pedestrians and motorcycles.”
The solution Ballard came up with is the lightweight all-recyclable composite Spira. The gray sections are UV-resistant polypropylene foam. It looks like Styrofoam, but is much tougher while shaped and soft enough to give a pedestrian a better chance of surviving being struck.
Ballard said that the proportions of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists killed annually in vehicle collisions are around 25 percent in North America, 45 percent in Europe and up to 90 percent in Asia.
Not Just Cheap Wheels
So, the shape, look, and materials of the vehicle are intentional.
A lot of people have thought of inventing their idea of better transportation, but Ballard says he dropped out of his lucrative commercial real estate career with the intent “to save lives.”
Having made millions and paying $1 million in taxes when he sold out in 2007, he said, the self-funded inventor along with his brother Doug Ballard have spent about 80 percent of their time away from their South Carolina home in Asia developing this vehicle.
It is now in pre-production stage, and the brothers are looking for U.S. dealers, as they make the rounds at car and motorcycle trade shows, drumming up interest for their better mousetrap.
Meant to fill the gap between even humbler modes of getting around versus a full-on automobile, the Spira is enclosed with at least some of the benefits of the latter.
It’s constructed of machine-welded honey comb composite polypropylene, fiberglass, foam and ABS plastic.
Powertrain options are gas or all-electric.
A 150cc gas-powered model is estimated at over 80 mpg, and an all-electric one – which we drove – is offered with high quality 5-kilowatt and 10-kilowatt lithium-iron phosphate battery powered versions.
The gasser is good for about 53 mph, and range from its 2.5-gallon tank is around 200 miles. The EV can go 60 or 120 miles on a full charge and is quicker with speed up to 60 mph. Weight for the EVs is 520 and 580 pounds respectively.
Running gear is all off-the-shelf scooter and motorcycle parts engineered into the car/trike you see and constructed at the large Wangye motorcycle plant in China.
Being classified in the U.S. as a motorcycle, putting them into production will involve no crash testing so the risk factor may be on par with motorcycle, scooter or bicycle commuting – though the vehicle has actually shown it has better ability to absorb energy.
For buyers, Ballard says, its licensing, registration and insurance is cheaper than that of an automobile.
Instead of seeking federal monies for itself or tax credits for its buyers, the streamlined company says it’s worked the detail out on its end and for buyers, savings in annual insurance and fuel could let a $6,000-$13,000 vehicle pay for itself in a few years.
Hopping in the one side door, the driver is greeted by a V-shaped sort of tiller with motorcycle-style twist grip and switchgear along with automobile style pedals for acceleration and braking.
There’s no shifting, you just twist and go like you’re in an enclosed golf cart.
Acceleration is alright. We’ve read capabilities of 0-60 in 12 seconds were previously stated, but Ballard said they’ve not yet pinned a number on the production model.
The front suspension is a set of telescopic forks adapted from a small Chinese motorcycle. The rear suspension is a modified swingarm from the same.
On a flat industrial floor running around a made-up track, we could not test suspension compliance, but it’s a fun little mobile that hums and will chirp the tires exiting turns with electric torque.
Braking is sufficient but hard stops can be a bit sketchy from the three-wheel discs as it sort of dives a bit.
At this point there is no HVAC or radio or infotainment. A radio or a GPS would be comparatively easy to tack on and Ballard says he’s going to be testing electric air conditioning next.
Although the vehicle has the single wheel in the front, not the back like a Can-Am Spyder or Elio Trike, it resists rolling, and will understeer typically first. Give it a hand full of throttle, and it will oversteer at lower speeds.
Ballard encouraged us to drive it ham fisted, and said he was not worried we’d flip the thing. We obliged.
In all, we leveled with him that we weren’t so sure about the looks of the vehicle on first glance but after looking closer, and hearing the story, it does sound like it could have a place in the world – maybe even a significant one as Ballard envisions.
A reverse gear has since been added for the Spira EV.
While it is a bit rudimentary, it’s otherwise kind of neat, and could be preferable to a bike in a rainy or cold day, and should be dirt cheap to operate and easy to park.
If you’re strong enough, it can even be lifted up and parked in the vertical position for next to no footprint.
Whether you like the looks or not is your call. The design is partially to provide a softer deflecting hit in the event of striking a pedestrian on a busy road or the like.
Ballard says the Spira is of course not intended for highways, but rather CCC is the watchword – that is Commuting, City and Country roads.
It’s meant to be practical and basic in such uses, and has storage of approximately 10 cubic feet, about the size of a small to medium sized car’s trunk.
Ballard says the Spira was conceived and built to reduce annual worldwide human injuries tallying 50 million and offer a more efficient car-like mobile to reduce the 1.2 million annually killed.
The lightweight foam and core board technology, he says, also reduces resources needed to build and the fuel to power the Spira by a factor of 5 to 10.
At this point, the tooling, molds, and everything are ready to start Chinese production but the Spira was created as agnostic. That is, production and components in other localities could be set up so this, Ballard sees, is a solution for anywhere it might fit within the increasingly dense and sprawling world.
Pricing for the vehicles is $6,000 for the gas-powered, $9,000 and $13,000 for the all-electric versions. More info can be seen on Spira4U.com.