Simultaneously powerful, environmentally friendly and strikingly sleek, this egg-shaped electric bike fuses the best of both vehicular worlds.
It’s 9 o’clock on a spectacular, sunny morning in Washington, D.C., and all over the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, clusters of colored tulips have sprung up. On this day, I’m feeling lucky to be alive. But that has little to do with the sunshine and the pretty flowers.
Mostly, I’m feeling lucky because I’ve just narrowly avoided being run over by a hulking, 15-seat passenger van. I am just seconds into my first test ride of the ELF, an egg-shaped, plastic-walled, three-wheeled, solar-powered electric pedal car that I’m taking for a spin where Pennsylvania Avenue intersects with the Capitol grounds. And I’ve messed up. I’ve cut across a traffic circle and ridden over a crosswalk instead of going around the circle with the flow of traffic. That’s put me in the path of a van that has the right of way. Or, actually, maybe I have the right of way because, after all, I am in a crosswalk. The thing is, I’m not sure what the rules are in an ELF. Is it a bike? A car? Am I allowed in the crosswalk? And most importantly, where’s the brake? The last of those questions I answer just in time. There’s a brake on the handlebar, and it stops the ELF cold, preserving my existence.
Seconds later, I pull over, seeking answers to my other questions from Pete Warasila, an Annandale, Va., resident who has ridden his ELF into Washington so I can almost destroy it on my maiden test ride. Warasila owns two of these electric pedal cars as well as a stake in Organic Transit, the Durham, N.C., company that manufactures the ELF. “A lot of people don’t know what to make of the ELF,” Warasila says. “But you can ride it anywhere you can legally ride a bike.”
Today, for instance, Warasila and his wife, Connie, whose ELF is mango-colored, parked their car and bike trailer in Arlington, Va., and rode their electric bikes 7 miles into Washington. Most of that ride was on surface streets where, just like any other bicycle riders, they stayed near the right-hand shoulder so cars could pass. But unlike any other bicycle rider, the Warasilas also engaged the ELF’s battery-charged, 1-horsepower motor to help them along when they were climbing a hill or just wanted some extra speed. Connie burned 350 calories on the ride, according to the ELF’s smartphone app, which measures top speed, average speed, total distance and even the amount of carbon dioxide an ELF rider didn’t put into the air by taking this electric bike instead of driving a car.
The last of those features is the most important element of the ELF’s business model, says Rob Cotter, CEO and founder of Organic Transit. Cotter, 57, is an environmentalist and a designer who once worked on performance cars and racing vehicles for BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. He founded Organic Transit to help protect the environment by converting car drivers to bike riders. “If our company isn’t enormously successful, then we won’t have the impact we want to have on the climate,” Cotter says.
He’s off to a good start. The 2-year-old company has sold 350 ELFs and is already expanding into a new, larger production facility. Organic Transit used a Kickstarter campaign to help raise its initial funding. The company smashed its $100,000 goal, raising $225,000 from 547 backers, some of whom put in $4,000 or more and, in turn, received one of the first 50 ELF bikes that were made.
Those early adopters got a good deal. Today, an ELF will cost you $5,500. Part of that money goes to pay for a 12-pound, 48-volt lithium-ion battery that can keep the ELF going for 18 miles on a charge — or up to 35 miles if you use the pedals, which, along with a 100-watt solar panel on top, help to power the battery. Also pricey is the NuVinci drivetrain, an advanced, continuous variable transmission. Twist a knob on one of the handlebars, and the ELF changes gears without the chunka-chunk of a chain that you’d get on a 10-speed bike.
That “infinite gear” is a huge help when you engage the ELF’s motor and the electric bike leaps forward. On my first ride, I hit the motor and was suddenly pedaling like crazy, trying to keep up with the now-loose gear. “You don’t have to work so hard,” Connie told me. “Just tighten the gear as you go.” Indeed, with a gentle turn of the handle, I was suddenly able to pedal smoothly, even with the zippy motor engaged on the bike. Or the trike. Or vehicle. Or, well, what is it?
“Our niche is filling the space between the bicycle and the car,” Cotter says. “In biking, people talk about something called Big Blue Ocean. That represents the huge number of people who should be buying bikes but who don’t. Maybe they don’t because they don’t want to be caught out in bad weather or are worried about falling or because they want to carry groceries or have some help getting up hills. The ELF addresses all of those things.”
The ELF weighs 150 pounds, which makes its 1-horsepower motor necessary for getting up hills. But, the motor will propel the ELF at 20 mph on a flat surface — a speed limit that ensures the ELF is not classified as a moped or a motorcycle in nearly all 50 states. That means riders can take the ELF on the street or in a bike lane. They can also take along cargo. The ELF has a storage compartment in the back and a total payload of 350 pounds.
That’s enough for eight bags of groceries, Cotter figures, which should be plenty for your average driver. Organic Transit also wants to lure commercial clients who need to make deliveries. Pizza parlors, maybe. Or “last-mile” shippers. For those customers, Organic Transit is at work on prototypes of The Ox, a boxier version of the ELF that will still be legally classified as a bike, saving its owners the costs of gas, insurance and registration.
What the ELF gives him that a bike didn’t is both room for groceries and a feeling that car drivers can’t miss him. The ELF, though designed like a recumbent bike — a seat with a backrest and pedals stretched out in front of you — sits high above the road, at car height.
Riding in style: The ELF has headlights, taillights, brake lights and even turn signals. Learn more
That kind of use on big-city roads is where Cotter figures the ELF can do the most good. “Most trips in urban areas are very short,” says Cotter, who hopes to sell 1,200 ELFs next year. “Why put carbon in the air to go a few miles?” But Cotter also envisions the ELF riding beyond cities. He’s working with nonprofits to get the ELF distributed in the developing world, where it could be used to transport water between small villages — something that’s done on foot in many parts of the world. “You can carry more water more easily in the ELF, and when you’re back in the village, you have a battery and the solar panel that can be used to charge small electronics like radios,” Cotter says. “This could change people’s lives.”
Maybe so. But just one word of caution to all the potential ELF riders around the world: Don’t be like me. Look both ways when you’re crossing the street.
Freelance writer Joseph Guinto once rode a bike to work. Once. He then sold it to a co-worker so he wouldn’t have to ride it home.