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PhilDrivingElfVehicle

A few short blocks from the Amtrak railway station in Durham, North Carolina, you’ll find the world headquarters of Organic Transit, the company that invented and manufactures the Elf solar-powered bicycle vehicle – which are more properly called velomobiles.  I stopped by there recently to get an up-close look at the company and to take their vehicle out for a test ride. An amusing sign above their front door says: “Our customers drive our business.”

Alix Bowman explained the process by which the vehicles are assembled. The aluminum chassis is manufactured by one company. The plastic shell of the vehicle is made of TRYLON and is a thermoformed – a process by which plastic is heated to a pliable forming temperature, and then sucked by a vacuum into a given shape. Two days ago the company shipped out nine Elf vehicles to buyers up and down the East Coast. Alix wheeled an Elf out of their manufacturing facility onto the city sidewalk. I hopped in and received instructions showing me he controls of the vehicle. I loved hearing that the vehicle has two independent drive chains, so that you can pedal power the vehicle at the same time the electric motor is engaged. I took off down the sidewalk in the gorgeous downtown of Durham.

There was very little traffic on the streets on a Sunday morning, so I had the streets to myself as a traveled around the block. I quickly developed a routine of using the electric motor to get me rolling and then powering the vehicle primarily with the pedals. Even with the nice plastic frame surrounding the vehicle, I could feel a slight gust of wind in my hair (singular). The ride was exhilarating, even for the short duration of the test run.

I could visualize myself enjoying a ride out in the country in an Elf. Biking in an Elf is so much fun, it could get more Americans moving. I sure hope Michelle Obama goes out for a ride in an Elf sometime. The Elf invention itself points at a hopeful zero emission vehicle future. It feels like intercity bicycle powered buses – assisted with solar-powered electric motors – are coming closer to a reality with each passing year. Maybe one of Elf’s offspring might be a bicycle powered intercity bus. As I was leaving Organic Transit, Alix Bowman showed me this very cute paper model of the Elf velomobile.

PaperModelElf

You can create your own model using this PNG graphics file.

Meanwhile, this wooden model of the Elf bears an uncanny resemblance to a toy car I used to own as a kid.

WoodenToyElf

Maybe that’s the brilliance of this invention: Organic Transit has taken a child’s toy and scaled it up to be a usable, fun, highly efficient vehicle for adults. I’m rooting for the Elf. It’s the vehicle the world has been waiting for.

[Phil Shapiro is a maker and media maker in the Washingon, D.C. area. He loves open sourcedigital storytelling and fixing up donated computers to deliver to people who need them. He can be reached at pshapiro@his.com  and on Twitter @philshapiro.]

Phil Shapiro

Phil Shapiro is a maker and media maker in the Washingon DC area. He loves open sourcedigital storytelling and fixing up donated computers to deliver to people who need them. He can be reached at pshapiro@his.com and on Twitter @philshapiro.


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Comments

  1. BillP says:

    This is awesome but where does this belong as far as bike, car, motorcycle? This seems too cumbersome to operate like a bike and not fast enough or safe enough (crash wise) to operate in a car lane. What are the rules for something like this?

    1. velociped says:

      From a legal perspective, the ELF is considered a bicycle. It is basically little more than a trike with an elaborate faring attached.

    2. Allie says:

      I bought one of these a few weeks ago. It operates very much like a bike and is quite comfortable (and legal) to ride on trailways. I was surprised at how much more respect I get from cars on the road when I drive through downtown. Since I can speed up from a stop light quickly and go nearly as fast, they don’t seem to be too eager to pass me. Maybe they are also trying to get a good look? That happens a lot too. It has powerful headlights and I feel very safe riding at night.

      It has been calculated at anywhere between 1400 – 1800 MPGe depending on how you use it. The compact battery can be pulled out and charged from any regular outlet.

  2. WS says:

    It has electric power assist so unfortunately some places won’t allow it on the bicycle trails.

  3. JackC says:

    BillP you’ve put your finger on what seems to me to be the central problem w/the Elf (you can take your finger off now). It’s 4 ft wide; one is lucky to find a bike lane 4 ft wide. If you’re in a bike lane it’ll be difficult for other bikers to maneuver around you, or you them. If you travel out of the bike lane, will auto traffic stand your 20+mph pace? Where to park this? It’s 150lbs, can you lift it to put next to a bike rack to lock it up? If you do, it’ll take much more space than a bike, acing other bikers out of several spaces. I absolutely love the idea of the Elf – and I wish traffic patterns could accommodate low speed vehicles (not just the Elf, but other such), and that there was a way to secure the thing when going somewhere – I think there s/b some streets given over the low-speed vehicles, but that’s a ways off, unfortunately…

    1. Patricia Loftis says:

      I fill that the elf would be more visible than a moped. I would feel a lot safer in the elf than on these mopeds. I would love to have one for myself to run to the.store near by. Love it!

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