The ELF Could Replace a Car for a Lot of People

credit: Lloyd Alter

TreeHugger Sami lives in Durham, North Carolina where they make the ELF, a solar and pedal powered hybrid vehicle that is "specifically designed to get the cycle-challenged out of their cars." I recently was in Durham and visited Organic Transit with Sami, and got to try out the ELF for myself, as well as getting a factory tour. Here's background from Sami if you want to catch up: Meet the ELF: An American-built solar-powered trike Organic Transit ELF velomobile now with two-seater option

credit: Dr. Apoorv Agarwal getting out a frame

The ELF is built with as many local components as possible, starting with a welded aluminum frame being handled here by former Ford exec and now General Manager Dr. Apoorv Agarwal, who gave us our tour.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ steering mechanism

It's hard to photograph this stuff with the busy backgrounds, but basically the components are built up on the frame by hand. The two front wheels do the steering and with a straight axle, the inside wheel is going to have a different turning radius of the turning circle as the outer one. To keep the wheels from sliding they are connected using Ackermann steering geometry, invented for horse-drawn carriages in 1817.

credit: Lloyd Alter

This is the motor (750 watts in the USA) and the black thing is a continuously variable transmission for the pedals. Note how these are both designed to go in the hub of a rear wheel but are mounted in the frame instead. They are constantly refining the design of the ELF, and have found that handling is significantly improved by moving as much of the weight forward as possible. I would have thought the benefit of moving the CVT forward would be offset by the weight of the extra chain but evidently this is not the case. The CVT (continuously variable transmission) is a relatively expensive upgrade from the standard 3-speed internal hub but for reasons that become obvious when you drive the ELF, it is worth the money.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The body of the ELF is vacuum-formed plastic; the hole where the opening is contained other parts like fenders. It is screwed onto the frame, with the solar panel installed on the roof. Options for lighter and stronger carbon fiber panels are available.

credit: Lloyd Alter

That's TreeHugger Sami, also on the tour.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Sami noted earlier that the ELF is great for the bicycle-challenged but it really is a bike, or actually a trike, and operates like one. The left hand controls the turn signals, horn and a twist of the handle controls the CVT; the right hand controls the throttle on the electric drive. You quickly learn that when you push the throttle and the ELF speeds up, you have to adjust the CVT on the fly to keep your pedals turning at a reasonable rate. You have to work the two together and it takes a little bit of practice. I wonder if they shouldn't have a pedelec motor option like Bosch makes, that I tried at CES last year. These detect the resistance on the pedals and add power as needed, reducing the need to use both a throttle and a gear shift at the same time.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Adding some finishing touches.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Those solar panels on the roofs don't have enough power to drive the ELF, but they will charge its battery in eight hours, which will push the 160 pound trike with a 350 pound payload at 25 MPH for about 15 miles. Unfortunately for Organic Transport, every country seems to have its own rules, so they have to downsize the motor to 500 watts for Canadians and as low as 300 watts in other countries, all to stay within the rules for bikes.

credit: Sami Grover

It was just below freezing when I came outside to get a ride with founder Rob Cotter. However they even have a heated seat option: just take this pad of phase-changing material and stick it in the microwave. After a quick nuke you put it in behind the seat, or even around your neck.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It does take a bit of practice to figure this thing out; I couldn't find the parking brake and it almost rolled out into the street here. As Sami has noted earlier, there are naysayers and critics of the ELF; at $ 5495 it's a lot more expensive than a cargo bike. Before I drove it I would have considered myself a critic, wondering why one would use this instead of a regular bike.

elf from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

Then I went for a ride, with Rob Cotter in the back seat. And I found that it is a terrific urban runabout, with room to carry a good shopping trip's worth of stuff (let alone a second person) protected from the weather and wind, highly visible with great LED lighting front and back, and easy to park. I can see that in an urban milieu it could easily replace a car and since it is legally a bike, you don't have to pay for parking or worry about rush hour parking and stopping restrictions. It costs less to buy than a car costs to operate for a year and gets the equivalent of 1800 miles to the gallon. I think it is a plausible alternative to a car, particularly for those who are not totally comfortable on a bike. Learn more at Organic Transit.