“The idea is low key, low tech, low cost,” says Johan Neerman, the Belgian industrial designer and systems thinker – and not infrequent designer of trains, ships and gondolas – who founded Johanson3 and acts as its chief executive. Neerman has prototyped a line of five electric tricycles for urban and suburban commuting, designed to be a “practical, fun tool to replace the car for short to midrange distances,” according to Aleksandra Gul’chencko, the company’s project manager.
The design is a stable three-wheeler, with the driver leaning back rather than sitting (though sitting is an option). Feet rest on a plate, and pressing down on that plate creates a lean on the front wheel, turning the vehicle while the rear wheels remain solidly on the ground. That makes for easy on-and off, especially for those who – owing to age, injury, or fashion choice ("skirts, saris, djellabas, and kimonos” are accommodated, according to Johanson3) – cannot throw a leg over a bicycle seat. Various models accommodate single riders or as many as three adults plus two kids, and can haul up to 660lbs of flesh and cargo.
At just 2ft wide, the commuter models are not much wider than the elbows of a rider hunched over a pair of mountain bike handlebars, and can slip through a standard doorway. At an average of 120lbs, though, it isn’t exactly designed to be carried upstairs to the rider’s apartment. As Neerman notes, the steel body may be weight-intensive, but that also makes it cheap and durable.
Neerman underlines that the J3 is not so much a vehicle as it is a system. Beyond the frame, everything on the trike is off-the-shelf technology. Tires (knobby, balloon or racing slicks), brakes (caliper or disc), and batteries and chargers are replaceable or upgradable by anyone with a good gasp of bicycle repair. Peripheral modules to carry golf clubs, surfboards, toolboxes or anything else the rider wants to kludge together are in the works.
Because he is not limited by proprietary technology, Neerman can bank on the future to make his design more effective – both in terms of weight and cost savings. “When we first started designing, the battery we were using weighed 30kg,” he says. “Now we can go the same distance on a battery that weighs 8kg.” In a few years, a solar roof panel might offer a substantial boost to cruising range (currently about 30 miles on one battery, with room for four of them) on a sunny day.
Priced around $3,000 for those who help crowd-fund the project, the J3 should see its cost should drop significantly once the trikes are in production, Neerman claims. Johanson3 plans to manufacture in the US, and get the vehicles under the feet of consumers without the middlemen and logistical difficulties of overseas production. The company has already contracted with two US manufacturing firms, though Neerman would not disclose their names.
A US base of operations also lets the startup conquer safety regulations in one swift shot, giving the J3 a toehold in a large market and obviating the company from passing dozens of European countries’ requirements piecemeal. Neerman also sees – as would anyone who has ever seen a tuk-tuk – the huge market potential of Asia, and he cites in-depth talks with potential partners in both India and the Philippines.
Neerman concedes that the J3 is no silver-bullet answer to the world’s transportation woes. But if you’re going to package yourself as part of the solution, it helps to be the one with replaceable parts.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.