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.
|Component||Description||SAE||Height from road|
|headlamps||1 white||J584||between 22-54”|
|tail lamps||1 red||J585e||between 15-72”|
|stop lamps||1 red||J186a||between 15-72”|
|license plate lamp||1 white||J587||no requirement|
|reflex reflectors||3 red, 2 amber||J594f||between 15-60”|
|turn signal lamps||2 amber or red||J588||between 15-83”|
|turn signal operating unit||1||J589||n/a|
|turn signal flasher||1||J590b||n/a|
Aero Moto safety equipment
The Aero Moto exceeds all federal vehicle safety requirements.
|Component||FMVSS Minimum||Aero Moto|
|headlamps||1 white||2 white|
|tail lamps||1 red||2 red|
|stop lamps||1 red||2 red|
|license plate lamp||1 white||1 white|
|reflex reflectors||3 red, 2 amber||3 red, 2 amber|
|turn signal lamps||2 amber or red||2 amber front and 2 red rear|
|turn signal operating unit||1||1|
|turn signal flasher||1||1|
|rearview mirror||1 (12.5 sq in)||1 dash centerline and 2 side|
|speedometer||1||full digital instrumentation|
|neutral light||1 green||1 green indicator plus gear number display|
|foot rests||required||vehicle floor pan|
As long as a modified vehicle meets minimum NHTSA requirements, there is no other federal restriction on fabrication or design.
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. A legal title is required in order to register the vehicle for use on public roads.
A converted motorcycle can retain the VIN from its original manufacturer. For example, the Moto Guzzi VIN could be “transplanted” to a cyclecar with the model year determined by the original motorcycle VIN coding. An alternative is the issuance of a Manufacturer Certificate of Origin (MCO) from an NHTSA authorized company that designates a new VIN based on the specifications of the specific cyclecar. In this case, the model year is typically the current year of manufacture, not the year the motorcycle was originally produced. For example, a 1997 Moto Guzzi donor cycle would be transformed into a 2022 new cyclecar (even if the new vehicle reflects a vintage design and is powered by an older engine).
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.
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.
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.
|New Hampshire ✓||X||X||X||X|
|Rhode Island ✓||X||X||X||X|
- ✓ 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.
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.
|State||License Type||Education||Driving Test|
|District of Columbia||motorcycle||no||no|
|New Hampshire||3-wheel||no||yes school|
|New Jersey||3-wheel||no||yes school|
|New Mexico||motorcycle||no||yes school|
|New York||motorcycle||no||yes school|
|North Carolina||motorcycle||no||yes school|
|North Dakota||3-wheel||no||yes DMV|
|Rhode Island||motorcycle||yes||yes school|
|South Dakota||motorcycle||no||yes school|
|West Virginia||3-wheel||no||yes DMV|
The 3-wheel driver license is generally an endorsement on a standard car license.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
States have various other regulations that may impact driving an autocycle.
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 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.
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.
The federal government has no direct role in regulating the conversion of a motorcycle into an autocycle.
Without specific fabrication guidelines, the decision whether or not to legally permit an autocycle on public roads falls to state vehicle inspectors.
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:
- valid registration, properly displayed license plate(s), and corresponding matched Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
- brake light test
- exhaust muffler properly attached and no excessive blue or black smoke
- horn volume adequate; mount is secure
- windshield intact
- rearview mirror condition acceptable
- lighting devices — headlight, tail lights, directional, hazard — in working order
- wheel and tires show no excessive wear
- frame in acceptable condition