The two-wheeled vehicle whizzing around a Beijing test track is a mashup of motorcycle, electric car and space capsule, wrapped around the brain of a smartphone. And engineer Zhu Lingyun believes it will be on public roads within two years.
Inspired by a Ford Motor Co. concept car from 1961 that used gyroscopes to stay upright, Zhu built a streamlined version that resembles an escape pod from a science-fiction movie. Beijing Lingyun Intelligent Technology Co. plans to build the gyrocar itself and may pick a domestic location for its factory this month, with a goal to start sales in 2020.
“I was told by a potential investor that I have zero chance to make the idea work,’’ Zhu, 40, said after a test drive of a prototype called the 1703. “But I firmly believe this is the future of urban transportation because it is exquisite, energy-saving and easy to manage. I have to make it.’’
Zhu isn’t the only carmaker trying to capitalize on advances in batteries, electric motors and the gyroscope technology used in iPhones and Segways to track user movements or maintain balance. San Francisco-based startup Lit Motors developed several prototypes of a two-wheeled EV, and the New York Times reported in 2016 the company was in talks about a potential acquisition by Apple Inc.
Lit Motors didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. No phone number is listed on its website, and part of its contact page redirects to an internet pharmacy.
Two-wheeled cars first appeared more than a century ago but never caught on as consumers preferred either the space and stability of traditional cars or the speed and handling of motorcycles.
The cars typically had the equivalent of a bicycle kickstand on each side to keep them upright while stationary. Those kickstands retracted when the car started moving.
Zhu first saw Ford’s Gyron on the internet about five years ago, and he said he was hooked immediately. The vehicle, resembling something from the futuristic TV cartoon “The Jetsons,’’ was pictured on the May 1961 cover of Car Life magazine and displayed at the Detroit Motor Show that year.
The Gyron had two seats, a cockpit-like passenger compartment and tail fins mimicking the silhouette of fighter-jet wings. It never went into production, though it spawned a lineup of collectible toys.
Zhu was so enamored he founded his company in 2014 to develop a 21st-century version. He started Lingyun with 3 million yuan ($470,000) in angel investments and three other employees.
Three years ago, he raised $10 million from investors such as China Broadband Capital Partners LP, Sequoia Capital, Hillhouse Capital Group and GSR Ventures, and now he wants to raise another $30 million to help prepare for mass production, Zhu said.
Zhu’s company currently is valued at $60 million, he said.
“On most occasions, a car is used by a single person, so a car for one person has market prospects,’’ said Li Jianwei, who led Sequoia’s investment in 2014. “As long as they can prove that their vehicles are reliable and safe, the government will gradually accept it. We took this as a long-term investment.’’
Li declined to say how much Sequoia invested.
Beijing Lingyun’s gyrocar is about 3 meters (10 feet) long and 1 meter wide, with a seat for one person. It has no steering wheel or acceleration pedal and can reach a speed of 100 kph (62 mph).
The 1703 prototype can drive autonomously –- a promotional video shows a woman applying lipstick and checking her iPhone as she spins around a parking lot — or can be controlled by using a computer mouse and 24-inch screen.
The gyroscope balancing the car is under the seat, and doors open on both sides. Retractable wheels are under the doors.
During a test drive, the gyrocar was quiet and stable, and more nimble than a traditional car when making turns.
Beijing Lingyun also built a version with a steering wheel and brake, which likely will reach showrooms first. It will cost less than 100,000 yuan ($16,000) if assembly lines can produce about 5,000 to 10,000 units a year, Zhu said.
The gyrocar’s battery has a range of 100 kilometers, and Zhu plans for the batteries to be removable and rechargeable at home.
China is the world’s largest market for EVs, yet a primary obstacle to the gyrocar’s mass appeal is whether it’s legally a car or a motorcycle. The vehicle is considered a motorcycle in the U.K. but sits in regulatory limbo in China, where current rules don’t address two-wheeled gyrocars, Zhu said.
“The question is if they are legally allowed to travel on roads,’’ said Nannan Kou, a senior associate with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Beijing. “The dilemma makes this type of vehicle a premium toy rather than a useful transportation tool.’’
That’s not stopping Zhu. A graduate of China’s Beihang University, known for its aeronautics and astronautics research, Zhu calls himself a “ji ke,’’ or geek.
Zhu said his ultimate mode of travel would be the magical Anywhere Door from the Japanese anime “Doraemon’’ that allows characters to travel anywhere instantaneously. Until then, he believes his company eventually can make gyrocars commercially viable.
“We created something that the auto industry hasn’t been able to present to the market in over 100 years,’’ Zhu said. “The gyrocar carries people’s imagination about future transportation.’’
— With assistance by Ying Tian