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These Tiny Electric 3-Wheelers Seat One, Don't Have Airbags And Are Now On LA Roads

(Courtesy Electra Meccanica)
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When U.S. drivers commute to work, they're usually the only person in the car.

Nationwide, nearly 90% of people who commuted by car, truck, van or motorcycle drove alone, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. As most Angelenos know from personal experience, that makes for a lot of traffic.

But a new vehicle that just arrived on the market in Los Angeles aims to help us think smaller. It's called the Solo and, as the name suggests, it seats just one person. Its first and only dealership is in Studio City and opened Saturday.

The tiny, three-wheeled, all-electric vehicle is a triple-novelty based on a simple idea.

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"What we're looking to do is bring into the public's awareness the advantage of single passenger transportation," said Anthony Luzi, director of U.S. operations for Canadian-based Electra Meccanica, which makes the Solo.

The vehicle takes up about a quarter of the space of a typical SUV and looks like a car -- at least from the front-- with the usual hood, grille and headlights. But take a look from the back, and it tapers down to just one wheel.

The Solo charges in three hours, has a range of 100 miles and tops out at 82 miles per hour, according to Electra Meccanica.

Technically, it's a fully enclosed motorcycle, and that's how it's registered and insured in California. But you don't need a motorcycle license to drive one and it can be parked parallel or perpendicular - with its back wheel at the curb.

The classification also means the Solo isn't subject to the same rigorous crash-testing as a traditional passenger vehicle, so even though it's fully enclosed and has a seat belt and a roll bar, it doesn't yet have built-in airbags (its makers say they'll be included in later releases).

It does, however, have a lot of the controls drivers already use, like accelerator and brake pedals and a steering wheel. The wheel is just centered in the middle of the dash because there's only one seat. And there are two doors, even though you really only need one. Plus air conditioning, heated seats, a stereo, back-up camera and trunk space.

(Courtesy Electra Meccanica)

The Solo is the first vehicle from Electra Meccanica, which eyed Los Angeles specifically as its target market. The city could also be the home of a factory the company plans to open next year.

"If you want to be involved in anything, I suggest you be involved at the center of it," Luzi said. "The electric car industry at this point in time has found a very strong reception here in SoCal, especially here in the L.A. area."

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He's right about that. California is the largest market for electric vehicles in the country -- where traffic is bad and getting worse, and air pollution is a chronic problem. Luzi is straightforward about Solo's goal.

"We're trying to close the last gas station," he said.

That's going to take a while. With a $15,500 starting price, the Solo is inexpensive for an all-electric car, but it's going to take a certain type of driver to buy in -- someone willing to squeeze into a ultra-compact vehicle that if she rolls down the windows and stick out her arms, she could literally touch the traffic.

(Courtesy Electra Meccanica)

"When I first saw the Solo, I literally gasped because I couldn't figure out where the rest of the car was," said Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst with Cox Automotive.

Microcars haven't exactly been bestsellers in the U.S.. After ten years on the market here, Mercedes sold just 6,211 gas-powered SmartCars last year. But Lindland said super-small cars have potential.

"On California roads, it actually might be OK in terms of size because you're crawling along in some of the nation's worst traffic," she said.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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