Test driving an FUV at the Arcimoto production facility, 2018. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Three Wheels More Fun

After almost filing for bankruptcy a year ago, Arcimoto is back on the road with a new CEO who’s committed to swerving the electric vehicle company out of trouble 

It’s not a car. It’s not a motorcycle. It’s not a tricycle —  though it does have three wheels. It looks like a glorified go-kart, but when you’re whipping down Patterson it feels like a red Ferrari. It’s Arcimoto’s Fun Utility Vehicle or, as I like to call it, “Arci.” 

The FUV is Arcimoto’s flagship electric vehicle. The doorless, windowless, air-bagless car looks dangerous enough to make my mother say, “You are not actually driving that death trap” when I told her I would be taking one home for the weekend. 

Yes, mother, I did ride that death trap and it was sort of awesome. 

Arcimoto CEO Chris Dawson pulled up to Eugene Weekly in a bright blue “retro” style FUV. After discussing the rollercoaster of a journey Arcimoto has had over the last couple years, he tossed me the keys and suddenly I was going 40 mph in what looks like a cross between a door-less Jeep and a golf cart.

The FUVs currently sell for around $20,000. MUVs, or Modular Utility Vehicles, have one seat in the front and a large trunk in the back; they go for $23,500.

Arcimoto, founded in Eugene by Mark Frohnmayer in 2007, set out to make small electric vehicles at a lower cost than a car. The end result is a three-wheel, two-passenger vehicle with enough power to reach 75 mph. Handlebars with a clutch replace the steering wheel. There’s a foot brake and a hand brake, two seatbelts, hand and foot warmers and a Bluetooth speaker system. In the back there’s a small trunk that, according to Dawson, fits three grocery bags. I was most successful with two. For being so different from any vehicle I have ever driven, I got used to the cool air and handlebars quickly. 

“Mark was brilliant in the fact that he saw a gap in EVs and he said, ‘OK, let’s create,’” Dawson says.

Frohnmayer’s FUVs hit the street in 2018, but it wasn’t until Arcimoto’s stock skyrocketed in 2020-2021 that the company was on the map. Dawson says at Arcimoto’s peak in 2021 the company was worth $1.2 billion. Arcimoto’s stock success came crumbling down shortly after. Its sprawling production warehouse in the Whiteaker was making fewer and fewer FUVs per quarter. By the time Frohnmayer was charged with a DUI in his FUV in July 2022, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. At the end of 2022, Arcimoto was worth $450,000. That’s where Dawson stepped in.

“I am the dumpster fire guy,” Dawson says. “And Arcimoto is one hell of a dumpster fire.”

Dawson met Frohnmayer at a networking event two years before he would become CEO. He says he thought what Frohnmayer was doing was “incredible,” but he had some issues with profitability. 

They kept in contact over the next couple of years, and Dawson joined Arcimoto as a board member two weeks before Frohnmayer was moved from CEO to chief vision officer in August 2022. Dawson says at that point, “We were having existential conversations about where the company was going. If Arcimoto could even exist?” 

When he realized how much money they were losing by keeping production open, he demanded they shut down. Arcimoto closed its doors in January 2023 for a month, laying off two-thirds of its staff to regroup and figure out how to make FUVs profitable. 

“We needed to be profitable yesterday,” he says. “But we’re less negative every month. Last year we lost $50 million; we don’t have $50 million to lose this year.”

He says that by downsizing staff, but keeping the same level of production, Arcimoto was able to cut costs and that, in addition to focusing on meeting with investors, the company could stay afloat. Dawson became CEO three months later in April 2023.  

Dumpster fires are nothing new to Dawson, who previously worked 60 hours a week at Tesla, where says he was in charge of “putting out fires.” He says at Tesla he was mostly getting pulled in to help fix engineering issues with the vehicles. He did this all while commuting to Colorado every weekend to get his MBA at the University of Denver. He says during this time he invented a drink his coworkers at Tesla called ‘The Dawson,’ —  two green tea bags steeped in black coffee to keep himself awake.

Dawson left Tesla in 2019 to continue his work on EVs at Atlis and then founded his own engineering services company, Nikola Tesla, specializing in EV technology. Arcimoto attracted him because of his belief in the product and his eagerness to save the company from collapse. 

“People are going to have to start making decisions based on energy, and that is where we will be there to save those folks when they get to a point where it’s food or gasoline,” Dawson says of Arcimoto. While he believes that eventually a vehicle like an FUV could be a solution to America’s rising fuel costs, he acknowledges that the U.S.’s attachment to big cars and freeways is difficult to break. He’s been meeting with investors from across the globe, from Dubai to Cairo, to discuss how Arcimoto can break into the international market. 

“They see the massive implications that this product has that don’t exist anywhere in the world,” Dawson says. “And if there’s power available, it’s incredibly cheap.”

My days with the FUV were numbered, but the memory of whipping down the streets of Eugene in a go-kart will last a lifetime — as will the memory of my arts editor and I getting stuck in a traffic lane after I accidentally turned off the motor while we were driving. Sure, the FUV has its fair share of issues: the no doors, a motor button a little too close to the hand brake, and being a vehicle I would not be caught dead driving on a freeway, etc. But what it lacks in practicalities is made up for in the way it can make something as mundane as a trip to Safeway feel like F1 racing. 

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