The TerraCraft: A convertible, tilting 3-wheeler with a unique steering system
By Loz Blain
July 25, 2013
The Terracraft is a sharp-looking 3-wheeler concept that aims to offer a unique hybrid of the motorcycle riding and car driving experiences. Its retractable roof and doors can offer weather protection and aerodynamics, its tandem double seat replicates the motorcycle pillion experience, and its unique steering system means the driver can manually dial in a tilt angle to replicate the sensation of leaning a motorcycle into a corner. Gizmag spoke with inventor James 'Wes' Abbott.
Four or five years ago we seemed to be writing about new three-wheelers and tilting narrow-track vehicles every other week. In the intervening years only a few have really taken off to any degree. That's not necessarily the fault of the technology – they still look very odd to the average consumer's eye. In fact, the ones we've ridden, such as Piaggio's brilliant MP3, have really surprised us by just how agile, fun and forgiving they can be to ride.
So we're always interested in new tilting 3-wheeler concepts like this one: the TerraCraft, which is under development in Houston, Texas.
Brainchild of James 'Wes' Abbott, a former NASA sub-contractor, the TerraCraft is a very sexy-looking concept bike. It almost looks as if a Bugatti Veyron has been squashed to a third of its normal width and equipped with formula one-style open wheels, albeit with a much narrower track.
It's a tandem 2-seater, much like a motorcycle, with a very comfy looking saddle straight out of a luxury mega-tourer, and it's got the added benefit of retractable side doors and a roof canopy that also slides back into the rear of the vehicle to make it a convertible.
So who's it for? "A lot of aging baby boomers are looking for alternatives to stay on the road and keep cruising with their clubs," Abbott told me over Skype, "but they're no longer able to hold up a 1,000-pound bike with them and mom on the back. I'm looking at options to keep them on the road a little longer and riding with the pack."
Abbott is elbow-deep in a prototype TerraCraft design at the moment, using the back half of a GL1500 Honda Goldwing to build a proof of concept he hopes to unveil at the Texas Lone Star Rally this November.
"I'm at 70% on the prototype chassis, working about 12 hours a day on that right now. I have the rolling chassis, I have the suspension fabricated up and right now I'm about to start doing some refinements in the steering linkage to mitigate bumps and such."
"Being that we're bootstrapping this right now we're not putting a lot of giant funds into getting this built. I'm kind of building it, and the engineers are kind of coming in behind me and reverse engineering what I do. Otherwise, these guys are NASA trained engineers, and they'll think of seven different designs and debate about it for seven years and about 70 million dollars' worth of budget."
I'm interested in the steering system – will there be handlebars under that bodywork?
"I'm really wanting to go with kind of a hybrid handlebar/dual-handled joystick like on an aircraft," Wes tells me. "The only limitations I have with that is with the canopy - the dimensions to get handlebars in, I just can't get around making them narrow enough. That's why I'm thinking a hybrid between the two. I've ordered a race-type steering wheel just to keep things moving right now."
So… Will it countersteer like a motorcycle?
"No, the lean is going to be an intuitive lean assist type deal … basically it's a hydraulic, hydro-mechanical type deal, so right now you'll have options. It could be sensors in the seat that sense when you lean, just like riding a motorcycle when you shift your weight over. If you lean to the left, the seat senses that lean, and there would be like a volume control – just for general understanding – so the more you lean, the quicker it leans, just like a motorcycle."
So… the steering is independent from the leaning? "Correct." And you control the leaning by shifting your bodyweight. "Yes."
So…I'm just thinking in my head – I'm coming into a corner, I haven't pre-loaded my vehicle tilt, and I slam it left into the corner. All my weight is gonna go right, onto my right bum cheek, which is going to hit the trigger to make the bike lean the wrong way. Is that something you've got a system in line to manage?
"Yeah the engineers are on me about that, however I'm telling them if somebody's not a damn pilot, they shouldn't be driving the damn thing. In a conventional Delta 1F-2 trike kit you don't go over 15 miles an hour in a curve. You just don't do it. There's no special instructions or anything, you do it and you're gonna roll. It's like an airplane or anything else. If you screw up, you're not doing it right. Like I told the engineers, this one, I will be driving. I'll take it on the road and on the track. The first one that comes out will be exclusively for people who are up to the challenge of learning how to drive a different vehicle. It is a planned deal to 'dumb it up' [in the future]."
(Probably better not shift your weight mid-ride to squeak out a sneaky fart, then.)
"We want TerraCraft pilots, not necessarily a completely safe machine for housewives. If you want a completely safe machine, go buy a Volvo. People ask me will we put a rollcage on ... if you want a rollcage, go get a Hummer. We want to create an extreme machine."
While the tilt is intended as an optional feature on the sport models, the TerraCraft team certainly have a job on their hands working this one out. I spent some time recently on a very early 3-wheeler prototype that sounds similar to what Wes is planning, with a fairly crude thumb switch to electrically control lean angle and a handlebar to steer with, and it was a heck of a lot harder to get around a corner than a standard motorcycle or countersteering 3-wheeler like the MP3. In fact, even at walking pace it was a real handful.
But Wes isn't locked in to the butt cheek weight sensor tilt, he's also looking into whether paddle or trigger control, which could be disabled with a toggle on-off, is the answer. It will certainly be interesting to see how it feels having separate but fine control over lean angle and steering. But then, it's hard to imagine it being more intuitive than simply countersteering a bike, where the physics more or less just picks the angle for you depending on how hard you turn.
Abbott says TerraCraft is "doing a bit of fundraising – we're kind of bootstrapping this and trying to maintain ownership and control without going into the heavy investors. We really want to stick with the niche market. and potentially go into the market with kit options and segue into the production models after that. We'd like to mitigate dilution and take care of our core group."
To that end, he's willing to offer the first 10 TerraCraft vehicles to early adopters at cost price as the company tools up toward production, or even less if the new owner is willing to take the bike out to expo shows and presentations. The current Phase one offerings are for bespoke and custom conversions, but Abbot has plans for both sport and touring models and says that the possibilities are vast "for any buyer to tailor to their lifestyle."
We look forward to seeing how Wes and the team end up building the TerraCraft, it's an interesting idea, although probably not one for the faint of heart!
More information: Terracraft Motors.