Tom Edwards, an avid environmentalist and cyclist, wanted to bike the 5.5 miles to his Durham, N.D., engineering job. But he was hesitant after several biking coworkers reported troubling incidents with unfriendly motorists.
Now he’s found a new solution: the ELF – a wasabi-green, three-wheeled covered bicycle, which he’s been pedaling since early March. “I receive full respect from the other vehicles that share the road,” he said. Plus he’s worked off eight pounds.
The ELF, known as an Organic Transit Vehicle, is a new way of helping consumers avoid high gas costs and reduce their carbon footprints. It also offers a car-like experience, with far lower maintenance, insurance and parking costs. The single-seater goes up to 20 miles per hour on pedal power alone but an electric motor allows a top speed of 30 mph.
A photovoltaic panel can deliver a seven-hour solar battery charge, or the owner can plug it into a standard 120-volt charger. The bike, which resembles a circular giant pea pod with turn signals and lights, gets 1,800 mpg and can carry up to 350 pounds of cargo.
Edwards says he saved money to buy two of the ELFs for $4,000 each by selling his second car, a Honda Civic, when he purchased another ELF. Now he and his wife each have one. The vehicles currently retail for $5,000 each.
ELF is the brainchild of Rob Cotter, founder and CEO of Organic Transit. The former vice president of The International Human Powered Vehicle Association has long been fascinated by pedal power, but also has experience working on high-end cars such as BMWs and Porsches. As America’s love for their cars has waned, Cotter, 56, began to feel that "there was a market for a vehicle that filled a niche between a bike and a car,” he said.
He knew the knocks on bikes as commuting vehicles: They could fall over, didn’t offer protection in adverse weather, couldn’t carry much cargo and forced you to arrive at work sweaty from arduous rides. So five years ago he teamed up with a friend, Michael Lewis, who designed his own efficient electric car.
Cotter invested $200,000 of his own money and produced the first prototype of the ELF--considered a low speed electric bicycle – in June, 2012. Cotter says it’s analogous to the impact of the Model T on automobiles and represents "environmental prosperity, where the product is as clean as possible, making the user healthier and the local community healthier and more livable."
As fuel prices increase, “products like ours become that much more viable,” Cotter says. He sought to raise $100,000 during a month-long Kickstarter campaign that began last December; he ended up with $226,000, and immediately sold 51 vehicles. To date, Organic Transit has sold 250 bikes, and has set its sights set on the European market which Cotter believes has even more potential than the United States. He's in talks with a German customer who he says is interested in purchasing 1,200 ELFs over the next 12 months.
Cotter is targeting everyone from high-tech employees in Silicon Valley to a baker who prefers to conduct her business via bike. “Customers are coming on board because they want to be able to deliver things more easily in an urban environment,” he said.
But not everyone is a believer. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said that the ELF's 48 inch width – more than twice the width of a bicycle – creates "a real safety risk on streets traversed by motor vehicles" and says it should only be used on a dedicated bike path.
Steven Plotkin, a transportation energy analyst with Argonne National Laboratory, adds that a top speed of 30 mph won't allow it to easily co-exist with cars, where speeds are often higher than that even in congested urban areas. He also said since it’s wider and taller than regular bikes, it won’t easily fit on bike paths.
Dorie Goldman, a baker living in Amherst, Massachusetts, uses the ELF to transport her organic breads to farmers markets. She acknowledges it's tough to keep up with traffic, so she stays all the way to the right edge of the road. It's tricky for cars to pass unless there's a wide shoulder, she says.
Still, she says it's so much easier to conduct business this way than on a bike, her former mode of transport: "The ELF enables me to pack everything up, protected from the elements, and arrive with a ready-made sales cart, which is also a huge eye-catcher." She says it's not unusual for random strangers to ask her to take a photo of them in front of it.
Chris Travell, vice president for strategic consulting at Maritz Research, says the ELF is a "really cool idea, but it’s likely a limited niche, rather analogous to the SMART car,” especially with the steep price tag. Cotter says though it seems costly, he points to AAA estimates of $9,300 a year car maintenance and operation costs. One of his customers is putting 1,000 miles a month on his ELF, meaning within seven months he’ll have saved enough in non-car use to recoup his ELF costs.
“I don’t think it will be in every garage instead of a car any time soon, but it can certainly play a role in transportation for some people," said John O’Dell, Edmunds.com’s senior editor for fuel efficiency and green cars. He sees that niche limited to those in the upper income strata who are already heavily into biking. Still, he sees the value of an enclosed bike that better protects the occupant.
Cotter said if he got even a slice of the 13 billion bikes and 13 billion cars that are sold each year, as well as the urban delivery market, "it would be a home run.” He's planning to offer more options for customization and is bullish on ELF's future. “We expect rapid growth," and plan on building "hundreds of thousands of units globally," he said.