Legalities

Background

Three-wheeled vehicles — often referred to as trikes, autocycles, or cyclecars — exist in a murky and evolving world of local, state, and federal laws combined with complex registration and title regulations. Drivers of these vehicles are subject to a different set of state legal requirements involving driver license endorsements and insurance coverage. Outside the United States, the situation is just as confusing.

Federal vehicle safety

In the United States, all vehicle safety regulation falls under the umbrella of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As of 2021, NHTSA does not have a separate definition for three-wheeled vehicles and, by default, all vehicles with less than four wheels are considered to be “motorcycles”. From a federal viewpoint, autocycles must comply with applicable motorcycle manufacturing and safety standards.

NHTSA mandates specific standards for motorcycle equipment (some do not logically apply to three-wheelers), but does not require crash testing or safety features like airbags or seat belts. Here is a summary of relevant Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

  • FMVSS 106 Brake Hoses – pass through certification of hoses and fittings from the original manufacturer
  • FMVSS 108 Lamps, Reflective Devices – see table below
  • FMVSS 111 Rearview Mirror – a stable mounted mirror at least 11 inches from the vehicle centerline with a minimum 12.5 square inch surface (10 sq in if convex); a 4-inch diameter mirror, for example, would quality
  • FMVSS 116 Motor Vehicle Brake Fluids – DOT certified only
  • FMVSS 119 Tires – DOT certified only
  • FMVSS 120 Tire Rim – Appropriate size and load matching of tires and rims with DOT certification and information label
  • FMVSS 122 Motorcycle Brake System – meets stopping performance criteria as well as parking brake, brake fluid reservoir volume, and other requirements
  • FMVSS 123 Motorcycle Controls and Displays – standard requirements for controls and displays, including side stands and footrests
  • FMVSS 205 Glazing Materials – meets windscreen performance standards with appropriate label

FMVSS 123 requires a speedometer with illumination whenever the headlamp is activated, and a green dash light activated when the gear selector is in neutral.

FMVSS 108 defines minimum requirements for vehicle lighting.

ComponentDescriptionSAEHeight from road
headlamps1 whiteJ584between 22-54”
tail lamps1 redJ585ebetween 15-72”
stop lamps1 redJ186abetween 15-72”
license plate lamp1 whiteJ587no requirement
reflex reflectors3 red, 2 amberJ594fbetween 15-60”
turn signal lamps2 amber or redJ588between 15-83”
turn signal operating unit1J589n/a
turn signal flasher1J590bn/a

Aero Moto safety equipment

The Aero Moto exceeds all federal vehicle safety requirements.

ComponentFMVSS MinimumAero Moto
headlamps1 white2 white
tail lamps1 red2 red
stop lamps1 red2 red
license plate lamp1 white1 white
reflex reflectors3 red, 2 amber3 red, 2 amber
turn signal lamps2 amber or red2 amber front and 2 red rear
turn signal operating unit11
turn signal flasher11
rearview mirror11 dash centerline and 2 side
speedometer1full digital instrumentation
neutral light1 green1 green indicator plus gear number display
foot restsrequiredvehicle floor pan
seat beltsn/ayes

As long as a modified vehicle meets minimum NHTSA requirements, there is no other federal restriction on fabrication or design.

Legal title

The legal title to a vehicle is a joint federal-state process. Every title requires a valid Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that is defined by NHTSA. Beyond the VIN, the legal requirements are set by each state.

In general, a converted motorcycle will retain the VIN from its original manufacturer. For the Aero Moto, this means that the VIN will be “transplanted” from Moto Guzzi and the model year will be determined by the VIN coding. A legal title is required in order to register the vehicle for use on public roads.

State laws

Each state controls its own vehicle registration, insurance, and driver license requirements. In addition, states may mandate certain equipment, like helmets or protective eye wear.

License plates

Florida antique motorcycle plate

Motorcycle plates do not have a federal standard but since 1980 all states except Minnesota have adopted a 4 x 7″ (100 x 180mm) rectangle; in Minnesota the size is slightly larger at 106 x 183mm. Some states allow a vertical display that fits a rear mudguard better. Only rear plates are required for motorcycles.

Each state offers its own assortment of special and vanity designs combined with unique numbering systems. An “antique” plate, if available, is certainly appropriate for the Aero Moto. Annual renewal stickers are generally placed in the upper right corner.

Autocycle designation

As of 2021, most states have adopted some kind of autocycle statutory definition to distinguish 3-wheelers from traditional motorcycles, but there is no consistent standard.

StateSeatFedRoofRollBeltsALBSteeringPedalsAirbag
Alabama ✓XX    X  
Arizona  XXXXXX 
Arkansas  X X XX 
Colorado  X X   X
Connecticut XX X XX 
Delaware ✓X     X  
Idaho  X X XX 
Illinois ✓X     X  
Indiana  XXXXXX 
Iowa ✓X     XX 
Kansas ✓X     X  
Louisiana   XX XX 
Maine XXXX X  
Maryland ✓XX    XX 
Michigan  XXX X  
MinnesotaXX   XX  
Mississippi  XXX    
Missouri  XXXXXXX
NebraskaX XXXXXXX
New Hampshire ✓XX  X X  
New Jersey  XXXXXX 
New Mexico  XXXXXXX
North CarolinaXXX XXXX 
Ohio ✓XX  X X  
Oklahoma  X X    
Pennsylvania ✓X     X  
Rhode Island ✓XX    XX 
Tennessee XXXX X  
Texas ✓XX    X  
Utah ✓X     X  
Vermont ✓    X XX 
Virginia ✓XX       

    Table Legend

  • ✓ symbol – Aero Moto qualifies as an autocycle
  • Seat – seated with feet on floor, no saddle, riders do not straddle vehicle
  • Fed – meets all minimum NHTSA standards for motorcycles
  • Roof – enclosed passenger compartment
  • Roll – roll bars or cage
  • Belts – seat belts for both driver and passenger
  • ALB – anti-lock brakes
  • Steering – steering wheel instead of handlebars
  • Pedals – clutch, brake, accelerator pedals instead of hand controls
  • Airbag – frontal airbag protection

The advantage of an autocycle designation is that it may allow operation with a regular car driver license, reduce insurance requirements, and eliminate the need for a helmet and/or eye protection.

The Aero Moto does not meet the roof enclosure, roll bar, anti-lock brake, or airbag requirements. As of 2021, the Aero Moto would be designated as an autocycle in fourteen states.

Driver license

State driver license requirements vary considerably regardless of autocycle designation status. Because operating licenses and vehicle safety regulations are separately administered, the early political push to create an autocycle category (presumably to avoid the need for a motorcycle license) has dimmed as states with autocycle classifications nevertheless still require special license endorsements.

Only three states currently permit a car driver license to operate an autocycle without additional testing or education. Two other states don’t require a skills driving test, but all other states do. The driving test can be handled by an authorized school, or the test may be required to be taken at a state department of motor vehicles.

StateLicense TypeEducationDriving Test
Alabamamotorcyclenono
Alaskamotorcyclenoyes DMV
Arizonamotorcyclenoyes school
Arkansasmotorcyclenoyes DMV
Californiacarnono
Colorado3-wheelnoyes school
Connecticut3-wheelyesyes DMV
Delaware3-wheelnoyes school
District of Columbiamotorcyclenono
Florida3-wheelyesyes school
Georgiamotorcycleyesyes school
Hawaii3-wheelnoyes DMV
Idaho3-wheelnoyes DMV
Illinois3-wheelnoyes school
Indiana3-wheelnoyes school
Iowa3-wheelnoyes DMV
Kansasmotorcyclenoyes DMV
Kentuckymotorcyclenoyes school
Louisianamotorcyclenoyes school
Mainemotorcycleyesyes DMV
Maryland3-wheelnoyes school
Massachusetts3-wheelnoyes school
Michigan3-wheelnoyes DMV
Minnesota3-wheelnoyes DMV
Mississippimotorcyclenoyes DMV
Missouri3-wheelnoyes school
Montanamotorcyclenoyes DMV
Nebraska3-wheelnoyes school
Nevadacarnono
New Hampshire3-wheelnoyes school
New Jersey3-wheelnoyes school
New Mexicomotorcyclenoyes school
New Yorkmotorcyclenoyes school
North Carolinamotorcyclenoyes school
North Dakota3-wheelnoyes DMV
Ohio3-wheelnoyes DMV
Oklahomamotorcyclenoyes DMV
Oregon3-wheelyesyes school
Pennsylvania3-wheelnoyes school
Rhode Islandmotorcycleyesyes school
South Carolinacarnono
South Dakotamotorcyclenoyes school
Tennesseemotorcyclenoyes school
Texas3-wheelyesyes school
Utah3-wheelnoyes DMV
Vermont3-wheelnoyes school
Virginia3-wheelnoyes DMV
Washington3-wheelyesyes school
West Virginia3-wheelnoyes DMV
Wisconsin3-wheelnoyes school
Wyoming3-wheelnoyes school

The 3-wheel driver license is generally an endorsement on a standard car license.

Helmets

Helmet mandates by state

According to the Motorcycle Legal Foundation, all states except Iowa and Illinois have some form of helmet mandate. With regard to autocycles, there is little clarity, especially at the municipal or county level. If a local police officer interprets the Aero Moto as a car, no helmet is required in any state. However, if instead the officer “sees” a motorcycle, then the helmet requirement must be applied. There is a vague dotted line between a vehicle registration even as an designated “autocycle”, a driver license with a 3-wheel endorsement, and whether or not a helmet should be worn — all subject to interpretation.

In some states if you wear seat belts (after all, motorcycles do not have them) the requirement for a helmet is waived.

Helmet types

Helmet types (courtesy of Motorcycle Legal Foundation)

Given that the Aero Moto chassis provides much more protection and traffic visibility than a motorcycle frame, a half or full face helmet may be sufficient (and either choice is fully legal in all 50 states).

Eye protection

Eye protection mandates by state

Some states mandate eye protection even when the vehicle has a windscreen. The Aero Moto does have dual windscreens — driver and passenger side — and probably qualifies for the exemption when state law allows it. What exactly constitutes “protection” is also poorly defined. A helmet visor may be acceptable, as well as regular eyeglasses or sunglasses.

Noise restrictions

Noise restrictions by state

Whether defined as an autocycle or not, three-wheelers are still basically motorcycles as far as the power plant and drive train are concerned.

Nearly all states require a muffler, and many prohibit any modification made to increase exhaust sounds. In any event, it’s probably a good idea to wear ear protection all the time. In addition, some localities have specific decibel and time limits on engine noise.

Daytime headlights

Daytime headlight requirements by state

To increase visibility (the lack thereof being the cause of many unfortunate motorcycle accidents), all states except Maryland and Rhode Island require the use of headlights at all times. A modulating headlight changes between full power and low beam with a dimming effect (the light does not turn off completely) to create much higher visibility.

Many motorcycle electrical systems automatically turn on the headlight despite the fact that this typically drains current from a low capacity alternator. The Aero Moto will also feature “always on” headlight wiring; LEDs will be used to cut down on power consumption.

Other restrictions

States have various other regulations that may impact driving an autocycle.

Passengers

Four states — Washington, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana — prohibit passengers between five and eight years old (go figure this age bracket). The other states have no passenger restrictions.

Lane splitting

Lane splitting is when a motorcycle squeezes between vehicles on the road, typically along the divider line. For some reason, California allows this, but it is generally illegal or frowned upon everywhere else. The Aero Moto is too wide to practice lane splitting anyway, so this limitation doesn’t apply.

Headphones

Many state prohibit or ignore the use of headphones, but a handful accept the practice. High end full face helmets have bluetooth capability, so embedded headphones will probably become increasingly common.

Vehicle conversion

The federal government has no direct role in regulating the conversion of a motorcycle into an autocycle.

Modifications

Without specific fabrication guidelines, the decision whether or not to legally permit an autocycle on public roads falls to state vehicle inspectors.

Vehicle inspection requirements by state

In states without any vehicle inspection process, there is essentially no restriction on the method or extent of modifications as long as the vehicle still follows the federal vehicle safety guidelines for motorcycles.

In states with safety inspections, the ability to pass is often subject to interpretation. Nineteen states have some form of inspection (not including emissions) that would subject any significantly modified vehicle like the Aero Moto to scrutiny. Presumably emissions testing would not be an issue, especially since the engines involved are likely to be decades old (and may be grandfathered in many states).

Example inspection checklist

As an example of a high enforcement motorcycle standard, Massachusetts inspects the following on an annual basis:

  1. valid registration, properly displayed license plate(s), and corresponding matched Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
  2. brake light test
  3. exhaust muffler properly attached and no excessive blue or black smoke
  4. horn volume adequate; mount is secure
  5. windshield intact
  6. rearview mirror condition acceptable
  7. lighting devices — headlight, tail lights, directional, hazard — in working order
  8. wheel and tires show no excessive wear
  9. frame in acceptable condition