BMW's hybrid vehicle: motorcycle or car? Or both?
MUNICH, Germany (CNN) -- At first glance, the C-1 scooter looks like BMW crossed one of its auto assembly lines with one of its motorcycle plants.
Heads do turn as the hybrid scooter cruises European streets. It's marketed here as a commuter alternative to crowded public transportation -- and to the high costs of fueling a car, the equivalent of some U.S. $4 per gallon for gas these days. The C-1 is miserly by comparison, getting about 80 miles (128 km) per gallon of petrol.
"What I do is I just start with the accelerator, there is no clutch," says Uhland Burkart, demonstrating the vehicle in downtown Munich. "So when I want to go I just open the throttle, and here we go."
Burkart, who heads the sales and marketing division for BMW motorcycles, says company research and development teams began searching for answers to city driving difficulties in the early 1990s.
"Well, we said, 'There's a solution. It's a scooter or a motorcycle.' But then you don't have the safety, and you don't have the weather protection. Normally in a scooter you need specific garments, you need a helmet."
It took about five years from the first prototypes to production of the part-scooter, part-car C-1. It was put on the market in spring 2000, at a cost of 6,500 to 7,000 euros, or about U.S. $5,500.
Making it safer
Dominating the design concerns was the question of how to make the vehicle safer than an ordinary motorcycle. In the United States, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says motorcycle fatalities account for 5 percent of highway deaths each year, although motorcycles comprise only 2 percent of registered vehicles.
That's because motorcycles provide little protection in a crash. They have no roof, no safety belts, no air bags, and less bulk than an automobile.
Burkart says the C-1 addresses some of those concerns with what it calls an aluminum "safety cell."
"The safety cell has been built to withstand crashes like cars. And actually, you experience safety that is comparable to a small car," says Burkart.
In Germany, C-1 riders don't need to wear helmets, and they don't need a motorcycle-driving license.
But there are different safety standards in different countries. Other European countries still require helmets and some require motorcycle licenses to operate the C-1. The original vehicle has a 125cc engine. But a more powerful 176cc version is on the market, in part because Italy requires 150cc vehicles on its motorways.
Not coming here soon
BMW has no plans to market the C-1 in the United States, Canada or Australia. Tim Hurd of the traffic safety administration says company officials have talked with the agency about the C-1, but haven't begun formal efforts to determine whether the vehicle can meet either motorcycle or automobile safety standards.
The C-1 is sexier than the ubiquitous Vespas and Mopeds that dart through European urban traffic. But it would never be confused with a sleek racing bike because of accoutrements like a windshield wiper, two seat belts and an optional luggage rack.
But there's still plenty of "gee whiz" effect.
"It's actually fun, because all the people in the cars are looking at you. You're enjoying a lot of attention," says Burkart.
He clearly was enjoying that attention on the busy streets surrounding BMW's research and development center, as he demonstrated the vehicle for CNN.
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