Narrow track vehicles - the convergence of the car and the motorcycle
By Mike Hanlon
November 19, 2009
Since Nicholas Negroponte first came up with his landmark teething ring visualization of the coming together of communication, computing and content, the term convergence has become the uber buzzword. Now there’s convergence going on in the personal transport industry, with the car and the motorcycle morphing as car makers attempt to downsize their vehicles to make them better suited to the world’s increasingly crowded roads. This article begins with Nissan’s tandem two-seat, half width tilting car, the Landglider, and examines all the other work being done around the world as narrow track vehicles seriously begin to make their case.
Sitting in Nissan’s Landglider was an experience, I’d been looking forward to it since I first spied the pre-show imagery – this truly is near the point where the motorcycle and automobile meet. It’s a two passenger vehicle, one behind the other, it’s half the width of a conventional car and it leans through corners like a motorcycle.
Being fully enclosed and with impact absorption zones and a composite protection tub, the Land Glider’s pilot is a lot less vulnerable than a motorcycle rider, yet the Land Glider’s light weight and the punchy electric motors mean a motorcycle-like torque to weight ratio for quick acceleration and the steer-by-wire system leans the Land Glider up to 17 degrees – it may not be the 45 degree plus of a sports motorcycle, and the proof-of-concept will surely be in the driving experience as to how drive-by-wire feels in comparison to the mechanical systems we’re all accustomed to, but it’s more than enough to have safe, low-speed fun commuting to the office.
The Land Glider is one of a wave of new single track concept vehicles being shown by auto makers this year as they begin preparing for yet another looming crisis for the auto industry - Global Traffic Congestion!
Global Traffic Congestion
The number of vehicles on the world’s roads will double between 1989 and 2025, while the total length of commonly used roadway will essentially remain the same.
In Europe, drivers already spend one quarter of their road-going time in traffic jams, so as the number of vehicles grows, a future of extremely congested roadways looks likely unless something is done. The developing super nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China alone will add billions of new cars to our roads over the next few decades.
Automobiles per capita has long been an indicator of a country’s economic prosperity and as these highly populous nations grow wealthy, massive automobile uptake is being forecast.
Right now, China has 131 cars per thousand people and India just 12 cars per thousand.
By 2050, India will have 382 cars per thousand people, and China will have 363 cars per thousand. By 2050, India will be the most populous nation on earth with 1.6 billion people, and China will be a close second with 1.5 billion. Do the math and you’ll begin to understand the problems we face – by 2050 China and India alone will have 1.1 billion cars – and that’s more than the total number of cars in use on the planet right now, and with an infrastructure likely to be well behind the growth.
Two years ago, humanity passed the point where 50% of the world's population is living in urban areas. Cities are a relatively recent development in civilization. Two hundred years ago just 3% of the global population lived in cities, by 1950, that grew to 30%. But the numbers are surging and by 2030 five billion people will live in urban areas – more than 60% percent of the population.
Yet cities cannot build more roads because there is no more space.
Traffic congestion is very bad for economic health. It wastes the time of all caught in it and the resultant inability to forecast accurate travel time means more people add additional time to their travel "just in case" and a huge lump of non-productive time gets added to everyone’s routine.
Traffic jams waste fuel and increase air pollution, and no country knows this better than Japan where road congestion is at its greatest on Earth.
The automobile-based mobile society Japan helped build has ironically created the world’s largest traffic jams in its heartland for several decades now.
Japan gets a sneak preview of traffic congestion
Over that time Japan has been learning about mass mobility in confined and congested spaces, and it’s interesting to look back through previous Nissan concept cars of the last few years that have also incorporated solutions for traffic jams, such as its PIVO and PIVO 2 concepts, which both had wheels that turned 90 degrees, and a 360 degree rotating cabin, offering the ability to drive out of any situation forwards.
The view of many designers is that the move to smaller vehicles is inevitable to ease traffic congestion and make a smaller object which can flow through traffic more easily, at the same time as being as energy and space efficient as possible.
Now motorcycle riders have known this secret for a long time. Motorcycle point-to-point times are pretty much immune to traffic conditions – you simply ride through the jam with your smaller more maneuverable machine capable of picking its way through holes in the traffic. Statistics from the City of London show that at peak times the average vehicle speed is 3mph, buses and taxis with privileges run an average 5mph and motorcycle dispatch couriers average 15mph – five times the average on the same roads with no priveleges.
In Bangkok, ranked fourth in the world’s worst traffic jams by Time magazine, the fastest point-to-point vehicle is the motorcycle taxi – affectionately known as the “Bangkok helicopter”. On any street corner you can find a young fellow with a red jacket and a 125 scooter who will give you more bang-per buck than any amusement park ride. You can spend your afternoon in the back of a taxi going a few miles, or you can go to the other side Bangkok inside 20 minutes for a few dollars. Be warned though – the Buddhist mindset of the Thais means they’re not nearly as concerned about dying as you might be.
I sent the following email a few years ago to close friends, and the image of the fellow on the Bangkok helicopter accompanied the email.
"Just had an exciting ride across Bangkok on the back of a motorcycle taxi (aka the Bangkok Helicopter) - absolutely nothing gets across Bangkok like a motorcycle taxi - not even an average maniac on a motorcycle - these guys take pride in getting there faster than anything else. The one I chose, entirely by accident, would give Valentino a run for his money, and by the midway point of the ride I was getting pretty scared cos clapped-out 125 scooters with suspension long since devoid of any damping, is not supposed to have a fat arsed 85 kilogram farang on the back. I had to consciously relax my grip on the grab rail at one stage because I was afraid I'd snap a tendon. His ability to maintain corner speed while negotiating some hair-raising maneuvers across up to three lanes of traffic was astounding."
"Then his phone rang, and I got really scared when he reached into his jacket and hit the button to answer it - he then turned on the speaker phone and jammed it inside his helmet. As I now carry the camera with me at all times, I got some piccies. He actually had a meaningful conversation without slowing for a moment."
"I gave him a big tip on the basis that I was still alive. One hundred baht ($3) from one side of BKK to the other - at ballistic speeds. Bravo!"
A smaller footprint on the road is a massive advantage in cutting through traffic snarls.
The average car occupancy in the United States is 1.57 persons, including the driver, so the two seats of a single track vehicle such as the Land Glider or Tango should be more than adequate for the vast majority of road trips. Not surprisingly, the first parameter chosen by Nissan in penning the LAND GLIDER from a clean sheet, was its width. Nissan kindly provided us with access to its design engineers on the Land Glider project and it became clear that they decided the narrow width of the vehicle long before they had decided on tilting as a means of obtaining dynamic stability.
The Nissan’s tilting mechanism goes one step further than the tandem half-width cars shown by Volkswagen and Renault at the Frankfurt Motor Show last month. Both of those cars sit flat on the road like a conventional car, while the Land Glider’s body moves in the same way as the motorcycle.
The Renault Twizy Z.E.
The Twizy Z.E. shown at Frankfurt is an urban mobility concept proposed as one of a suite of four electric vehicles Renault intends to introduce over the next three years and the Twizy is slated to begin production in Spain in 2011.
The all-electric Twizy has 15kW of power giving it performance comparable to a 125cc scooter. It’s all enclosed with driver protection and at just 2.30m in length, and 1.13m wide, it’s quite small. The plug-in electric Twizy will be very nimble for urban use, thanks to its feather weight of 420kg, complete with batteries, and a 100km range.
The Volkswagen L1
The L1 Volkswagen has an F1-inspired carbon fiber tub to protect the occupants and a frugal diesel hybrid powerplant. Taking advantage of the aerodynamic teardrop shape to give it an aerodynamic drag co-efficient of just 0.195 along with an extremely small frontal area and feather-like weight – 380 kg in total mean the vehicle is never having to work hard and it wrings an astounding 1.38 l/100km, that’s 170 US mpg and 205 imperial mpg.
The Volkswagen L1 is set for production in 2013, four years from now, when it will almost certainly be the most fuel efficient car with an internal combustion engine available anywhere!
The best known available single track four-wheel vehicle in the world right now is the Tango, from Commuter Cars. At over US$100,000, it’s actually more an electric supercar than a commuter, with a top speed of 150 mph, standing quarter miles in the 12 second range, but as the prices of the Lithium Ion batteries reduce over time, and mass production gets underway, Commuter Cars expect the Tango will eventually sell for under $20,000.
The Tango uses its batteries in the very floor of the vehicle to give it a very low center of gravity, hence it can smoke em at the racetrack despite its seemingly precariously narrow wheelbase.
The Tango has attracted a lot of high profile customers to date, being available, green, exclusive, expensive and very practical – Google founders Larry and Sergei both have Tangos, as does actor George Clooney.
Of the numerous tilting four-wheeled vehicle projects going on around the world right now, unquestionably the most likely to succeed is that of French company Lumeneo which has a narrow track, tandem, fully-electric four-wheeler named the Smera. The Smera has a decided advantage over all other four wheel tilting concepts – you can buy one now. The Smera is only available if you live in Paris, but Lumeneo is in the process of establishing dealers across Europe and it’s a vehicle of the future that is far more suited to commuting than the traditional car.
The Lumeneo Smera’s specifications are in line with the other tilting car concepts, in that it weighs in at less than half the weight of a small car –450 kilograms in case. The two electric motors give it 30 kW in total which gives the vehicle quite lively acceleration to its top speed of 130kmh. Most significantly, it has a range of 150 kilometers, which makes it a viable electric vehicle.
Another very similar machine is the Tilting Car Project based in London. The company’s 350 kg NARO car tilts, and uses a 400cc motorcycle engine to give a top speed of 85 mph and 100 mpg – for now, it’s still a concept, but with strong links to automotive design and race experts Prodrive it’s more likely to get up than not.
On the motorcycle side of this convergence, it should be pointed out once more that the Nissan LandGlider is steer-by-wire, and that instead of the direct mechanical action of twisting a set of forks from handebars which are directly attached, there’s a computer in between which does what it thinks you want to do, and it rather than you determines the angle of lean.
Motorcyclists may not like this new way!
BMW's C3 Electric
BMW’s enclosed C3 motorcycle was launched a decade ago and withdrawn from the market through lack of interest – it was so far ahead of its time that it is now reemerging as a two-wheel road safety pin-up vehicle. The design addresses most of the safety concerns of a motorcycle and benefits from a host of active safety technologies introduced since we last saw the C3 available a decade ago. And now it’s electric. It’s the safest motorcycle design yet made – it was a decade ahead of its time and its time is now. The C3 may be one of those rare products which gets a second chance and becomes a killer app.
Adiva's two new tilting three wheelers
Adiva’s fully enclosed design first saw the market as the Benelli Adiva, which we tested and raved about five years ago. The Adiva design offers the ability to fold the roof away on sunny days, yet stay warm and dry when it rains. A CVT transmission ensures the engine is always operating at peak efficiency and the company finally has volume production and we expect it to be a major player with Italian design and Chinese production creating a compelling proposition to commuters with its 125 and 200cc fully-enclosed motor scooters.
At the Tokyo Show Adiva announced two three wheeled variants, one with two-wheels at the front, and one with them at the rear - the latter to be known as the Moose and sold as a reconfigurable electric urban commercial delivery vehicle.
Now we’re a bit lost as to the complex rebadging OEM, manufacture, design and distribution relationships between the Adiva Moose and the products of Chinese manufacturer Xingyue and the visions of Italian design house XNovo.
Chinese manufacturer Xingyue
A very similar machine to the Adiva Moose, albeit with an internal combustion 150cc motor, is produced by Chinese manufacturer Xingyue and European distributor Sidam has been showing an identical design to the Moose in electric, hybrid and internal combustion forms for several years.
In Canada the Xingyue sells for $5500 Canadian dollars and in America, the Xingyue forms the basis of the Auto Moto which comes with anti-lock brakes, a built-in speaker system with provision for an MP3 player to be plugged in, a lockable luggage compartment and a range of accessories including side door enclosures and additional lockable luggage compartments.
What we do know is that the design is a ripper - I first came across a Xingyue on the street in Akihabara in 2007 and spent some time talking to the owner who reported the machine was perfect for Tokyo’s congested roadways, really easy to ride and had been very reliable.
The Auto Moto
I expect the Xingyue and its various forms to do very well indeed, and it might well be that Xingyue three wheeler becomes a massive sales success, even if it does get offered in slightly different forms with different brand names in different markets. In America, as the Auto Moto, it’s even more enticing at just US$3800.
Piaggio's three wheelers
In the middle ground, a number of tilting three wheeled machines have emerged, most successfully from Piaggio and Gilera. Piaggio markets several different versions of the three wheeler, including a hybrid electric with a 125 cc internal combustion motor and with normal ICEs from 125 to the sports orientated 500 Fuoco Gilera.
This was the bike which we tested several years back which really sold everyone here on three wheels. On dry tarmac, it could not be faulted – it stops quicker and safer than a motorcycle thanks to twice the tire contact patch up front, it doesn’t get disturbed from its line in corners when it hits a bump or pothole, and it kept measuring up to everything we threw at it so well, that we went looking for trouble. We eventually found a carpark with large stretches of flat tarmac liberally coated with a thin layer of fine sand and began purposefully locking the front wheels. On a motorcycle, it would have been messy and painful and expensive, but the two wheels up front gives you enough time to unlock the front brake and stay upright rather than kissing the bitumen.
If you’ve got some macho idea about scooters being a bit limp, this will turn you around. For learners it’s much safer than a motorcycle, particularly in that very dangerous period just as light rain begins falling on roads that have been dry for a long time and build up a coating of oil and rubber. Remember that all the tires sold in the world each year get worn down leaving all that rubber as dust on the roadways, and when you mix it with rain, it makes a very slippery coating.
At least half a dozen of our writers tried the Piaggio, and everyone was amazed at how good it is – three wheels is safer, offers better cornering and allows you to do things you can’t do on two.
Peugeot's three wheelers
More recently two hybrids from Peugeot that use a 125cc normal internal combustion engine with two front wheel electric motors have been shown and for our money, Peugeot could be set to do very well with theses machines, one of which has a roof, and one which doesn't.
Both the Piaggio range and the Peugeot concept have the two wheels at the front.
There’s another three wheeler which originated in Holland as the Carver, spent time being redesigned as a hybrid electric vehicle at Japanese automotive design boutique Phiaro, and now appears ready to emerge in America under the working title VentureOne.
Yamaha continues to develop its Tesseract four-wheeled motorcycle. With budget cut-backs halving the size of the Tokyo Show, it was hard to determine just how much we would have seen of the Tesseract in normal economic circumstances.
The Tesseract’s ingenious two wheel drive and four wheel suspension and steering must surely be the basis of safer narrow track vehicle design. Throw in Yamaha’s knowledge of 2wd motorcycles, and the Tesseract might one day add a new dimension to narrow track vehicle stability and sheer recreational delight with a 4wd motorcycle… and a roof would be easy.
The Tesseract appeared in part in Yamaha’s technology showcase section and it’s to be hoped that we see more of the innovative four wheeler.
Half the width means half the weight, more agility, more access to narrow roads, easier parking and much quicker road transit times. From a driving viewpoint, the lighter weight of a much smaller vehicle will further enhance the torquey power characteristics of an electric motor to achieve what Nissan is calling “linear acceleration.” Expect performance equivalent to a 250cc scooter with a top speed of 120kmh.
At speeds such as this, the Land Glider would be using less than a quarter of the energy a car would be using – half the frontal area and half the drag co-efficient, plus reduced running losses make for a very energy-efficient vehicle and that’s what makes the narrow track vehicle so appealing as an alternative to the car.
The Land Glider’s steer-by-wire functionality uses sensors to measure vehicle speed, steering angle and yaw rate, then calculates the angle of lean required to negotiate a corner.
The Land Glider is rear-wheel drive, with two electric motors in the rear powered by lithium-ion batteries mounted beneath the floor to offer an extremely low center of gravity.
The car also features a non-contact charging system that can be charged whilst shopping at a supermarket or stopping at a motorway service station. This system enables vehicles to be charged wirelessly at locations where the infrastructure exists.
To ensure maximum safety whilst driving, engineers have fitted a car-robotics style crash avoidance system in which sensors mounted in the body detect other vehicles in the same way as fish swim in schools without colliding. This system directs the vehicle’s path away from any obstacles, though I guess I’m a luddite in that sense, as I’d like to be making the decisions as to where the car was being steered in a crisis situation.
There will be a lot of robotics in the Landglider.
Nissan's robotics expertise
At CEATEC, Nissan announced it has updated its Eporo BR23C “robot car” that uses a laser range finder to detect obstacles and objects around it and avoid collisions. A similar accident avoidance technology will be employed in the Landglider.
Nissan has also recently shown a set of Segway-like balancing skis it had developed in partnership with Japan’s National Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, competitors to Toyota’s Winglets and Honda's U3-X.
In 2005 it showed PIVO, an electric concept car with a revolving cabin which eliminated the need to reverse, and multiple drive-by-wire systems and excellent visibility.
One of the stars of the 2005 Tokyo Show, the original Nissan Pivo concept car was conceived as an electric car with compact packaging taking full advantage of multiple electrical drive-by-wire systems to offer a coccoon like environment.
The Pivo's most distinctive feature was its cabin which revolves 360 degrees, eliminating the need to reverse and designed so it never has a blind spot no matter which way you’re looking – even the pillars are transparent – this is a car that gives its driver situational awareness at all times.
The excellent visibility is enhanced by Nissan’s Around View technology, which helps reduce dangerous blind spots. Nissan arranged for me to drive several of its different forward-looking technologies when I was at CEATEC in 2007 and the navigation and audio systems were designed to be very simple to operate while driving.
Pivo’s outstanding maneuverability made Pivo ideal for urban driving. Its narrow width made it able to pass oncoming traffic even on the narrowest streets and it can fir into the tightest of parking spots – all you need is the remote control to maneuver into parking spots just an inch wider than the car thanks around view technology see-through pillars, and other telematic innovations that reduce blind spots.and the bend of robotics which are designed to do everything for you, include opening the electrically-powered sliding door which ensures you’ll never bump your head cramming yourself into a small vehicle.
And it has three seats not two - Pivo seats three passengers comfortably despite an overall length of just 2,700 mm. The driver sits front and center while two passengers sit side-by-side in the rear. Tall, sliding doors make it easy to get in and out without hitting your head.
Today’s urbanites are deluged with information from all sides. But Pivo manages the flow with a host of telematics features that deliver the right information at the right time. The driver can control the information flow without taking the eyes off the road.
And the exterior even features oval recesses both front and rear that are covered with soft materials – comfy places to sit outside when Pivo is parked. You find the same thoughtfulness in a soft, organic interior that extends from the center of the revolving egg-shaped cabin, which is the Pivo's most unique feature. Because the platform has a longitudinally symmetrical design, the driver's perception of the car's corners does not change even when the cabin is rotated 180 degrees.
Pivo is powered by a Nissan-developed high-performance Compact Lithium-ion Battery and Nissan’s unique Super Motor. The result is zero emissions. Beyond this outstanding environmental performance, the electric powertrain enables a highly compact body. Designers made the most of Nissan’s Compact Lithium-ion Battery – which, being flat, require much less space than conventional cylindrical cells – to achieve remarkable packaging efficiency. Even more space and weight savings are achieved with Nissan’s Super Motor. One Super Motor on each axle delivers power to two shafts, each of which can be controlled independently. This allows efficient distribution of torque to all four wheels with two (not four) electric motors.
Pivo's unique revolving cabin is just one of the myriad possibilities enabled by Nissan’s multiple drive-by-wire technologies. These include steer-by-wire, brake-by-wire and shift-by-wire systems that replace mechanical linkages with electronic signals. By eliminating the need for mechanical links between cabin and chassis, designers were able to create the unique pivoting passenger compartment. Drive-by-wire technologies afford even more flexibility inside the cabin as the layout of steering, braking and other functions is no longer governed by mechanical linkages. Even better, drive-by-wire systems mean less weight and fewer mechanical parts.
See-through pillars and Nissan’s Around View Monitor helps to reduce dangerous blind spots. Cameras mounted on the outside of each A-pillar feed an accurate image of the surroundings to screens mounted on the inside of the pillar. The net effect is pillars that become virtual windows. The Around View Monitor meanwhile generates a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings on a dashboard monitor. Cameras positioned front and rear on both sides of the car capture images of the surroundings. An innovative image processing technique synthesizes these images into a single bird’s-eye view.
A dash-mounted infrared (IR) commander allows drivers to operate the navigation system and audio system without taking an eye off the road or fumbling around for controls. It’s a new type of human-machine interface (HMI) that uses an infrared camera and Nissan’s "Magic 4" concept. You simply point fingers at the Infrared commander to choose from any of four items on a menu. If you want item number three, hold up three fingers. Or, for example, if you want the music louder, just motion upwards with your hand.
Nissan PIVO II
In 2007 PIVO 2 emerged as a complete makeover with all the benefits a 360 degree turning cabin and 90 degree turning wheels based around a proprietary Nissan 3D motor technology, and a Robotic Agent to create a unique owner-vehicle relationship that is akin to that of a bi-lingual Japanese-English friend.
Nissan’s Pivo concept was the most popular concept car of all time on this site, so we’re expecting a similar reaction to the Pivo 2, an advanced electric concept car that will debut at the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. Powered by advanced compact Lithium-ion batteries, Pivo 2 employs ‘by-wire’ technologies for braking and steering and features a 360 degree turning cabin and 90 degree turning wheels that makes reversing a thing of the past. In addition to advancements on this radical rotational design, the second generation Pivo uses a Robotic Agent to create a unique owner-vehicle relationship that is akin to that of a friend.
Where the first Pivo, with its fully rotating cabin design, made reversing obsolete, the Pivo 2 takes that easy mobility concept to a new level. Each of the four wheels are powered by Nissan’s advanced electric In-wheel 3D Motor and can turn through 90 degrees to allow Pivo 2 to drive sideways as well as forward - making parallel parking in even the tightest places as simple as driving straight ahead.
Thanks to the highly innovative Robotic Agent, you are never alone in the Pivo 2. With conversations possible in Japanese and English, the Robotic Agent has been created to work with Pivo 2 to make every journey less stressful. It provides a unique interface through which to communicate with Pivo 2 on everything from basic vehicle functions through to the nearest available parking.
Accordingly, you are never alone in the Pivo 2. With conversations possible in Japanese and English, the personal agent’s task is to make every journey less stressful and offer a conversational interface with Pivo 2 covering everything from basic vehicle functions through to the nearest available parking.
The high tech robotics in the Land Glider may be far less obtrusive than in previous concept cars but there’s a lot of research behind the LandGlider and my discussions left me in no doubt the vehicle on show at Tokyo was fully-functioning.
It may not appeal to everyone, but it looks like being near the convergence point where you get the economy and footprint of a motorcycle and the comfort and safety of a car.
A smaller vehicle uses less energy, it uses the limited space on the roads more efficiently, and it gets you there quicker.
Medium and long term all you need to do is look at the trends to understand that we’re inevitably headed for global gridlock and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that what we now consider a basic right, unlimited personal mobility on public roads, is simply not sustainable as the population grows.
Double tier roads or additional underground thoroughfares are too costly to consider – public mass transport with very small personal mobility devices is probably the ultimate solution, and Japan is already leading the way in that regard as well.
In the short term though, we think that single track vehicles are the only viable way of putting more people on the roads and the big corporations are now beginning to move in that direction with vehicles such as the Nissan Land Glider, VW L1 and Renault Twizy.