Transport is changing. Emissions caps are tightening, owning a car in the big city is increasingly prohibitive, and commuters are ever mindful of electronic or hybrid options as alternative ways to get around – often proving both cheaper and faster.
While public transport in Grenoble, France, already has an efficient network of electric trams – avoiding the oven-like temperatures and face-in-the-armpit cattle trucks of the London Underground at peak times – it's also the face of a new, and rather unlikely, Japanese import: the Toyota i-Road.
This futuristic three-wheeled personal mobility vehicle juxtaposes itself against the mountainous French backdrop thanks to its luminescent colour schemes and starkly Japanese looks, and is a guaranteed head-turner – even for the locals who are trying to get used to its introduction and Boris-bike-esque rental scheme. We should know, as we drove one around the city and became the immediate centre of attention (and possibly amusement; it was French school half term holidays after all).
If, that is, you happen to sign-up for the scheme, which demands a €50 introductory course fee and €150 deposit (the latter repayable if withdrawing from the scheme). For that you'll get a proficiency test that – given the rear-wheel-steering making you the i-Road feel like a kid in a hardware store trying to negotiate one of those flatbed trolleys – is essential for safety. The i-Road doesn't handle like any old scooter, indeed it's quite unlike anything we've ever taken on the road.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. We're talking about France and about a scheme that, as chance will probably have it, you're highly unlikely to be in, let alone be able to sign-up to the city-supported scheme. So why are we giving the i-Road any attention? Not just because it's bloody good fun – the kind guaranteed to gleam a smile like a kid on a theme park ride – but because there's the bigger picture at play here: the future of viable city commuter transport.
Let's face it, London is a mess – as one Guardian reporter put it, a city that's privatised itself to death (with buildings reminiscent of bizarre sex-toys poking out of its skyline) – that's overly busy. Crossrail just means more people come 20-whenever. Boris bikes, yes, make some great sense - but with the drunken free-wheelers and traffic-unaware tourists sans helmets, sense and insurance running dangerously wild at times (and this coming from a daily cyclist), the city needs a more forward-thinking commuter impetus. The point being this: could the i-Road successfully translate into multiple cities throughout the UK, Europe and worldwide in the future?
Perhaps. As we first descend into the seat-and-a-half i-Road the grey clouds overhead opened and Biblical amounts of rain ensued on apparent cue. Here, clearly, is the i-Road's first obvious benefits: it keeps you dry (and, amusingly enough, we later scoot past a chap on a bicycle with a giant all-body-umbrella surrounding him – has he not seen the i-Road?).
Secondly is the size. At 870mm wide it's less wide than a motorbike, so squeezing around clogged-up traffic ought not be a problem. It's a little wider than a scooter, but you stay dry (but not warm, the popper-sealed windows and flexy plastic doors aren't exactly the most reassuring), don't need to wear a helmet (there's a seatbelt, but no airbag), or worry about putting your brogues down into any puddles and, um, whatnot. Insurance is also covered in the rental price (€3/2/1 for first/second/ongoing 15-minute intervals in its Grenoble annual contract format).
But it is small inside. Like, really small. A second seat does sit behind the driver's, but if's only really useful if you happen to have legs no longer than seventeen inches. We jest, of course, as a fellow journalist squeezed his photographer into the back, but we found the space more suitable for a bag and a camera.
As an electric vehicle the automatic controls are simple, comprising three dash-mounted buttons for neutral, drive and reverse, with the usual brake and accelerator pedals, plus a footbrake for complete stops. No physical exertion required. Phew.
There's something a bit Robocop or even Star Wars about the electric "woosh" sound when hitting the accelerator to the floor. But there's no hurtling to excess – the 45kmph speed cap sees to that (60kmph is theoretically possible).
Although it all sound wonderfully simple, the i-Road is equally complex in its initial operation. Not the actual pedal-pressing processes, as any driver will get that, but the rear-wheel-turning setup makes the self-righting system lean rather heavily when cornering, like a three-wheeled superbike hurtling round a track. But unlike a bike this mechanism can feel a little backwards. Corner too late and you'll veer into another lane; try and reverse parallel park and you'll end up scratching the paintwork of any neighbouring vehicle to death (instead, parallel parking happens in a nose-first forward motion). It's quickly apparent why there's a training course attached to any would-be participant.
But 10-minutes in we just got it – and then it became rather fun. Swift enough to negotiate through city traffic, not really any more bonkers looking than a Smart car (have you seen the latest Smart ForTwo?), and affordable for quick jaunts. The range of somewhere between 30-50km before a recharge is needed might not be incredible, but the six-bar battery is clearly visible on the main display, as is the speed and other essentials.
Renting an i-Road is actioned via the Cité lib by Ha:mo app (that's "harmonious mobility"), which handles source/drop-off destinations and recharging stations for ease of use. Not got much phone battery juice left? There's even a USB port on board to ensure the app is accessible, although the actual unlocking of vehicle and charging stations is actioned by a card which operates like a contactless credit card.
Ok, so there were some hair-raising moments when hammering over the pock-marked roads of Grenoble and occasionally wondering when we were going to go skating sideways after cornering too fast (that never happened, maybe we're too chicken), but as a new way to explore commuter transport possibilities its encouraging to see the future unfurl in the here and now.
Who knows, in a few years the i-Road might be the norm. We'd certainly like to see Mayor Boris Johnson careering around a corner in one (preferably a bright pink one) and as more electronic infrastructure is needed in not only the Big Smoke but plenty of other cities, a tie-in with suitable energy suppliers and firms makes sense.
With each i-Road pitch in Grenoble there are two extra electric charging stations for privately owned vehicles seeking a top-up parking and recharge spot – it's like one big happy family of electronic vehicles and, whether in this hyper-Japan format or another, it marks the beginning of an accelerating electric revolution.