Rob Cotter has celebrated pedal power for a long time: He was vice president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, and an organizer of the American Solar Cup, the first sun-powered race in the U.S. Now, as the CEO of Organic Transit (and with the help of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign), he’s making the ELF, a curious solar-powered hybrid halfway between an electric bicycle and a battery car.
The ELF costs $5,000, and (with a composite body and polycarbonate windshield) weighs just 130 pounds. Like certain mopeds, you pedal it to get started, then twist the handlebar for electric assist. Some 20 mph is possible; 30 if you pedal a lot. Range is 20 miles, more if you carry optional extra batteries (as Stewart does). The rooftop solar panel can charge the ELF in something like seven hours, but the battery is removable and can charge from house current in anything from one to six hours (depending on the amperage of your charger).
Cotter told me that he didn’t want a solar racer this time around; he saw a market for a lightweight commuter vehicle that combined pedal power and electric assist, yet kept its solo occupant out of the rain. Jeep-type canvas doors are coming.
Cotter has built maybe 70 ELFs, so they’re aren’t many around, but as luck would have it Mark Stewart (above) brought one my way. Stewart, a school psychologist and therapist, is on a quixotic ELF journey from the Organic Transit factory in Durham, N.C., to his home in Cambridge, Mass. He didn’t want to pay the $1,000 delivery fee, so he’s driving/pedaling — one 20-mile charge after another. When he can, he’s using the East Coast Greenway. When he can’t, he’s on Route 1 or other busy thoroughfares.
Earlier this week he made it to New York City, and I met up with him in the leafy Connecticut suburb of Darien, where he was charging up and nursing a beer at the Bodega Taco Bar. It was raining, but Stewart told me he rarely gets wet as long as he’s in motion. He readily let me take the handlebars.
The three-wheeled ELF is a visceral experience. The driver leans back as on a recumbent bike, but on tall wheels so it sits more or less at the same height as the whizzing traffic. To save battery power, it’s best to pedal on startup. There’s no suspension, and you really feel that over bumps —the whole lightweight structure vibrates. Once you’re moving, though, it zips along. Visibility is good, though I missed a windshield wiper in the rain.
I could probably get used to the ELF as a short-range commuter vehicle, and Stewart acknowledges that it wasn’t built for East Coast odysseys — though he’s met countless supportive people on the road, many of whom want to know where they can get one, too. “Organic Transit tried to dissuade me,” he said. “They said it’s a commuter vehicle — and they were right. It’s not built for touring.” Here's Stewart on video, talking passionately about his ELF:
GPS is guiding Stewart on his trip, but he got lost in Connecticut. But he’s through the tough parts of his journey and by Monday morning, he should have it back in Cambridge. “I really bought it for the winter,” he said. “I hate being off my bike for three months of the year. With the ELF, I won’t have to stop pedaling.”
Fascinating aside: Rob Cotter's brother is Tom Cotter, famous for his series of books about finding super-valuable collector cars in barns and out-of-the-way garages around the world. Check it out here.
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