In recent columns I have been talking about aspects of the global market for small, task-oriented vehicles. The answer to the question posed in the title of this article, the simple answer is, no. A more nuanced question might ask, “Is there a predominant global design for small, task-oriented vehicles?” And a further question: “Does such a design presently exist, and, if so, what is the likely future for it?”

My answer to the question is likely to be controversial, given an industry where vehicle design is singularly diverse and driven by the requirements of widely varying uses.

Innate Tension Between Custom and Universal Product Designs

Business management literature speaks of the concept of the “Global-Local Paradox”. It pertains essentially to management practices and strategies, and addresses the issue of whether a company should universalize its management procedures and product line, or, rather, adopt local customs, local ways of doing things, and harken to the needs of local markets. A multinational enterprise may well want to globalize its products, opting for the cost advantages of volume production of a universal, basic design. On the other hand, this may put the product in conflict with local or regional tastes and requirements, thus limiting sales.

Crossover UTVs, and even Club Car’s Onwardtm personal transportation vehicle, are designed for more than one purpose.  The former is designed to please the consumer who needs a work vehicle, but would also like a recreational ride through the woods and off-road terrain. The Onward, just recently introduced at the 2017 PGA Show, will appeal to the golfer and a consumer needing a sporty, all-around transport and light haulage vehicle. Club Car will put its AlumiCore™ ladder-type frame in virtually all its golf car-type vehicles, thus standardizing a key component.

So, in many ways we see design implementation that crosses over to serve diverse uses and incorporating many standardized parts. Getting beyond the North American market, however, may well call for an entirely new design. I look first at the appeal and status of the Asian three-wheel market, and then feature an American product just breaking into the North American market. Three-wheelers may be the real global product in the wide spectrum of small, task-oriented vehicles.

The Three-Wheeler: Asia’s Ubiquitous Do Everything Vehicle

Three-wheeled (3W) vehicles are common in Asian markets and are produced in the hundreds of thousands. These vehicles serve many purposes ranging from haulage to commercial transport, to personal transportation. For the most part they are on-road vehicles and are a component modality of a highly diverse, on-road vehicular transport environment.

While 3W vehicles are common in Asia, the largest market is India, where approximately 550,000 units were sold in 2015. An addition 420,000 units were exported. China is also a major market, although a good deal smaller than India. Most of India’s export trade is to Indonesia and African countries. Most of these vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines, particularly gasoline and diesel. There is growing pressure in India, however, to switch to CNG. What about electric power? In the realm of 3Ws it is limited, the most obvious reason being the dearth in electricity generation. This is most notable in India, but is also the case in China.

The American Three-Wheeler, a First World Version

evTransportation Services is the exclusive worldwide distributor for an electric-powered, three-wheel vehicle called the FireFlytm ESV (the ESV stands for “essential services vehicle”).  As the ESV tagline indicates, the company is targeting the vehicular fleets, which serve the mobility and transportation needs of security, grounds maintenance, parking enforcement, shipping and local delivery operations.

Obviously, the Firefly is not the only three-wheeled vehicle on the market, as there are conventional three-wheeled motorcycles, Polaris’s Slingshottm, and CanAm’s Spyder—as well as three-wheeled burden carriers. The Firefly has a number of unique features going for it, however.

Clearly, it is a utility vehicle, not designed for recreational purposes, and as such, it is perhaps the only 3W electric-powered vehicle on the market which comes fully packaged with total environmentally protected operator environment, telematics for operator connectivity and fleet management control, and charging station apparatus. The integrated package provides the very important advantage of making conversion from gas to electric a relatively easy task for fleet operations.

While the FireFly ESV is certainly not a motorcycle, as we have come to know the term, it is classified, legally speaking, as a motorcycle, and thus is not bound by some of the limitations of LSVs. For example, it does not need to meet the weight limitation of an LSV, and even more importantly can operate on public roads with speed limits greater than 35 miles per hour. In fact, the FireFly can do 50 plus m.p.h., which essentially means it can operate on highways, as well as by-ways.

“Five years of rigorous development and extensive customer use has confirmed that the FireFly’s specially-designed frame and suspension provides the required stability to travel at the high speeds that the vehicle is capable of,” states Phil Van Wormer, CEO of evTransportation Services.

Van Wormer also announced that the city of Santa Monica has just officially approved the purchase of 17 FireFly vehicles with hydraulic lift dumps, after evaluation of 6 different all-electric utility vehicles. Van Wormer stated that, “the City concluded that the FireFly provided the best combination of safety, road-worthiness, extended battery life, payload and reduced maintenance expense. This unique combination of performance benefits provides a lower total cost of ownership, TCO. That’s ultimately the key for customers.”

Other Important FireFly Facts

Let me just note some of the other specs that make the FireFly an important new market entrant:

  • 72 or 96 volt, lithium-powered batteries;
  • 60 mile range or 90+ mile extended range versions;
  • Right, left or center drive with one or two bucket seats;
  • Rear bed versatility—flat bed, compartmental, hydraulic lift to suit specific needs;
  • Automotive type interior, including adjustable steering wheel, 3-speed windshield wiper, optional A/C, heat, and seat heaters;
  • Narrow slide, wide opening doors;
  • Rated cargo capacity of 1,100 pounds, including driver.

The Strategic Concepts That Will Drive the Market

  • There are three strategic concepts that will drive the market for this type of vehicle:
  • Versatility—achieving the optimal trade-off in the global-local paradox;
  • Last mile connectivity—essentially providing the last stage of delivery at a more cost-effective level;
  • Growing preference for electric power that can match or surpass ICE performance.

While focusing for the near-term on the North American market, the producers of the FireFly, or its emulators, could well be the first serious attempt by U.S. manufacturers to broach the higher volume global market in the small, task-oriented vehicle space.