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RP Siegel headshot

Solar-Pedal Trike Fits the Niche Between Bikes and Cars

Words by RP Siegel

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal said that China would soon have as many drivers as the U.S. has people. India is on track to surpass Japan to become the third largest auto market next year. What will all this growth in automobiles mean for our climate?

Sure, fuel economy is improving, and the continual addition of electrification into the mix will reduce emissions. But will this be enough to offset the surging growth in developing countries? Remember, we need to do more than hold the line. According to James Hansen, we need to reduce emissions by 6 percent every year if we are to stay within 2 degrees of warming.

What if a large percentage of those millions who are expected to purchase their first automobiles decided to go for a bicycle instead?

I have some good news to report on that front, coming out of a tiny shop on the edge of downtown Durham, North Carolina. According to Rob Cotter, CEO and founder of Organic Transit, makers of the ELF solar-pedal trike, there is a niche waiting to be exploited in the space between bicycles and cars.

“In the bicycle world,” said Cotter, who I spoke with in a tiny office in the corner of his shop, “they have what they call the 'great blue ocean.' That’s the 80 percent of people who could be riding bicycles but don’t.”

There are a variety of reasons for this, but they basically boil down to these few:

  • They’d commute by bike don’t want to get to work all sweaty.

  • They don’t want to get caught in the rain.

  • They want to carry a bunch of cargo.

  • They don’t want to pedal up big hills.

  • They want to be safer.

Filling the bike-car gap?

Enter the ELF, a three-wheeled, covered bicycle that you can pedal or drive with a motor. The 11Ah 48-volt Lithium-ion battery that powers the electric motor can be charged at an outlet, or from the solar panel that sits atop the vehicle’s roof. The motor will take you comfortably down the road at 20 miles per hour -- faster if you pedal along.

It addresses all of the above concerns without missing a beat. No need to get sweaty. The roof keeps off the rain. There’s cargo room enough to carry a dozen grocery bags or 350 pounds of cargo. The 750-watt motor will take over on big hills, if you’d prefer. And it’s safer for several reasons: First, because a three-wheel platform is more stable than two -- no need to balance. Second, because it’s taller and brightly colored —much more visible in traffic. And third, because there is some measure of protection offered by the surrounding cover, which is made by a material similar to that used in canoes. When you're done, park it in the sun and let it charge up.

The product is durable, stands up well to sun and weather, and has excellent visibility. It comes with LED headlights, taillights and brake lights.

Cotter, who worked on race cars after college, later fell in with Paul MacCready of Gossamer Condor fame. The two worked together in the Human Powered Vehicle Association. “I knew then that I could build a vehicle that could the equivalent of 800 miles per gallon,” said Cotter, but in the Reagan years, interest in fuel economy and efficiency waned. So, he took a job as a creative director, started producing documentaries and became very involved in human rights.

Now, he has put it all together in the name of  “environmental prosperity," with the ELF that can achieve a jaw-dropping equivalent of 1,800 miles per gallon.

Taking it on the road

I took one for a short test drive, and while it took a few minutes to get used to, it definitely put a smile on my face. Yes, it rattled a bit going over bumps, and yes, I had to remember which gear I had left it in when I switched back from motor power to pedaling. But it did what I asked it to do, which was to take me from point A to point B without much effort on my part -- and virtually no impact on the planet. It was not hard to see the possibilities.

Unlike some reviewers, who focused on the shortfalls of the vehicle when compared to an automobile, having recently traveled in places like India and rural Kenya, I could certainly see how a vehicle like this could fit in. I can see a whole bunch of these Elves chugging alongside bicycles carrying three people and motorcycles carrying four, as they often do in places like this.

I expect this niche will become an important one over the years to come, because of its ability to meet the transportation needs of thousands, if not millions of people, as they emerge from poverty or simply adjust their lifestyle to a more urban and Earth-friendly one, and while doing so with minimal impact to the planet on which we all live. Other players will certainly jump in, but ELF will certainly participate and hopefully be remembered for its pioneering work in this important area.

Image credit: RP Siegel

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com


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