EUGENE, Ore. It’s 2pm on Saturday afternoon, and Eugene, Oregon is about to witness the (re)launch of the most important entry in the electric transmission industry to date. Outside Arcimoto’s new headquarters, nestled in a sliver of industrial space between the railroad tracks and the sprawling Whiteaker neighborhood, parked cars have begun to line up. A nice representation of Eugene’s car supporters: Volkswagen diesel cars, Toyota hybrids, Subaru Outbacks, and an onslaught of new electric cars and trucks like the Isuzu Vehicross.
The crowd gathered to witness the delivery of Arcimoto’s first “Signature” line of three-wheeled “For Utility Vehicles” is as classically Eugene as the vehicle they drive here. Old hippies brush shoulders with middle-aged public radio-supporters, and there is also a mix of more traditional families and a few younger alternative types-with one performatively circling the parking lot on OneWheel. Any hope of estimating the prospects of Arcimoto’s quirky three-wheeled electric runabout based on the people in attendance faded as I realized that the same group could easily be on hand to check out the opening of a new microbrewery or clothing store. outside.
This puts me back to the problem I was presented with when I received an Ars assignment to cover the “automaker” of my city – how to judge a three-wheeled electric that straddles the sports and useful products , and is built by a company that has gone through seven previous iterations over its decades-long history? This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that even the version of FUV I recently gave access to represents an early “Signature” build. Major design iterations lie ahead. And even if there is a strong reference point in the market for the Arcimoto FUV today, it will still be a moving target.
For all its apparent uniqueness, Arcimoto’s idea is not a radical blue-sky idea. Three-wheeled motorcycles posing as car conversions have been around for decades, and these cars have been edged into the mainstream by companies like Elio Motors. Eugene in particular has been ahead of the three-wheeler adoption curve for years, accepting both imports such as the Zap Xebra and domestic imports such as the NEVco Gizmo. Each has appeared in local ways since the beginning of the millennium. So today, the burning question facing Arcimoto is unique. Can this car transcend its local niche in a popular progressive college/hippie town (where three-wheeled scooters have been featured in the Eugene Festival festivities for two decades now) and actually sell to a wider market?
The pressure is certainly on Arcimoto. Last year, the company raised nearly $20 million in an initial public offering, about double what it had initially raised. Going through that process, the company became the second pure electric automaker to list on NASDAQ after Tesla. With a surprising amount of capital success, Arcimoto will now try to make the leap from a struggling, unknown local startup in debt to the City of Eugene Economic Development Fund to a nationally recognized player in what It’s called the “Cambrian explosion” of new mobility options. Can a Luxury Utility Vehicle lead to a functional business model?
I ‘money, I know’ problems
Although Arcimoto has been around for more than a decade (founded back in 2007), it was clear from the moment I arrived at its new headquarters the day before the launch of its signature vehicle that its capital raising has been necessary to become serious business. Within the last year, the company has leased its new production center, grown to more than 60 employees, and brought in production equipment that began to fill its clean, bright work space. Tables line one wall of the plant so engineers and salespeople can work cheek-to-jowl, while heavy manufacturing equipment like laser cutters, tube benders, and CNC machines line the wall far away. In between, a makeshift (and for now, highly labor-intensive) assembly line hosts a row of “Signature” wheeled stands.
From the moment you arrive at the plant, you immediately feel like a brand-new startup rather than a decade-old firm. The place was spotless, the equipment was brand new, the staff was mostly young and obviously enthusiastic, there was a mix of computer people and car people, and a great buzz filled the air. But there’s also an unmistakable hint of chaos in the mix: equipment isn’t working. A production device went down during installation (although luckily I was told it was covered by warranty). And immediately, there was no vehicle ready for me to drive when I arrived at the prearranged time. No one is sure how to handle the sudden (but again, planned) arrival of a reporter.
While the electronics team was preparing the FUV for me to drive, I toured the facility with CEO Mark Frohnmayer and Vice President Jesse Fittipaldi as they filled me in on the company’s plans. The IPO has allowed Arcimoto to buy more manufacturing equipment than initially planned, they said, resulting in what the duo says will be more vertical integration and a flexible manufacturing facility. Snowmobile/motorcycle/ATV manufacturer Polaris, which also manufactures a (gas-powered) three-wheeled vehicle called the Slingshot, was cited as the inspiration for the system that produced the FUV steel tube cage and structure.
But any hope of seeing a FUV go through the entire production process died quickly, as Arcimoto executives explained how far they still had to go. Now, Signature vehicles that are delivering next day are very hand built. And despite their $42,000 price tag, these are effectively test cars. Before Arcimoto can begin manufacturing the FUVs at the estimated starting price of $11,900, it must also begin production of the “Beta” vehicles that will be operated by fleet partners later this year. That will provide giant level of response and worth giant round out the design tweaks before the vehicle and engine are ready for production.
Already some major design changes are coming into focus, showing how early Arcimoto’s development process is for an 11-year-old company. When I noticed that none of the cars I could see around the plant had the full doors shown as an option in the company’s literature, I was told that the the material at the base of the FUV’s frame makes the manufacture and fitting of full doors more difficult than the first. soft. A small change to the frame, which the company says will not be noticeable to the naked eye, will provide more dimensions and angles according to the alternative doors. It’s a seemingly small challenge for a company that is in the midst of countless tasks of moving a startup from zero to one. But for Arcimoto he has it eight design revisions already under its belt and millions of dollars of equipment finally arriving at this plant, that show struck a note of disbelief.