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Report and photos from test ride of Organic Transit’s ELF trike

Posted by on January 30th, 2014 at 2:29 pm

ELF trike test ride-19
Organic Transit CEO and Founder Rob Cotter inside the ELF during a test ride event in Portland on Tuesday.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s not a bike and it’s not a car, but the ELF trike is quickly finding fans in Portland who are looking for something in between.

ELF trike test ride-7
The event drew a good crowd —
some who arrived by bike, others by car.

Organic Transit, the North Carolina-based company that makes the ELF solar and pedal-powered trike, just wrapped up three busy days of test rides (two days in Troutdale and one day in Portland). I dropped by the test ride event Tuesday on the eastbank of the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge to take a closer look, meet the company’s founder and CEO Rob Cotter, and get people’s impressions of these interesting vehicles.

48-year old Chris Streight was one of the 50 or so people who signed up to get behind the handlebars of an ELF. With his work commute being 10 miles each way, Streight said taking his preferred vehicle — a bicycle — five days a week just isn’t doable. He was curious if the ELF would be a good way to tackle his commute on the days he doesn’t bike.

“In America, 90% of car traffic is just one person [behind the wheel] and half of all trips are two miles or less, yet bicycles are seen as toys. That’s our downfall.”
— Rob Cotter, Organic Transit CEO and founder

For David B., a 74-year old man who walks with a cane, it was the solar panel on top of the trike that brought him down for a test ride. “I’m interested in anything having to do with solar efficiency,” he told me. While David has trouble walking, he’s a frequent bike rider. He enjoyed his test ride in the ELF, but his main complaint was that it was difficult for him to get in and out of with his stiff legs. “But once you’re inside,” he added, “it’s fun and easy to drive.” “I could see this replacing my car, but not my bike,” he added.

Watching over the test riders was Organic Transit CEO and Founder Rob Cotter. Cotter has deep roots in the world of human and solar-powered vehicles. Mix in his former marketing company with clients like Mercedes Benz, IBM, Mattel, and Disney, and it becomes clear that Cotter isn’t just some garage innovator peddling a crazy idea. To him, the ELF isn’t just a new product, it’s the start of a revolution. Actually, if all goes well, it’s the start of two revolutions.

Cotter talks about saving the planet with as much fervor as he talks of saving American manufacturing.

“In America, 90% of car traffic is just one person and half of all trips are two miles or less, yet bicycles are seen as toys. That’s our downfall.” Reflecting on his relatively new company, Cotter said that the U.S. is probably the “worst place in the world” to launch a solar and pedal-powered trike. But in addition to helping cut down auto emissions, Cotter sees the ELF as something that can re-ignite America’s demand for blue-collar, industrial labor. Similar to Henry Ford, Cotter’s vision is factories across the U.S. full of wage-earners putting together ELF trikes in an assembly line.

As he showed me around the ELF, Cotter pointed out how the entire design was made to be simple so that it doesn’t take high-skilled welders and machine operators to make them. The shell (“Which acts like a helmet,” Cotter says) is made from pre-formed pieces that are easily riveted together. The trunk consists of two plastic buckets. The running boards on each side of the seat are bamboo dish-drying racks. The interior walls are made from Coroplast (corrugated plastic). The main spine of the chassis slides on pre-cut square aluminum tubes.

Michael Nover, formerly president of Kinesis USA, a frame-building company that used to be based in Portland, is now helping Cotter set up a local manufacturing and retail operation (it would be their first outside of Durham). “The majority of cost in a bicycle frame is in the welding and bending of tubes,” he shared. “Compared to what we used to do at Kinesis, the ELF is radically simpler. We can go to almost any fabrication shop to get these made.”

Cotter sees the ELF changing from one region to the next as it adapts to local topography and tastes. The business plan is also based on setting up many small building operations instead of centralized factories. This is because at 150 pounds, shipping ELFs takes away from the eco-friendly ethic Cotter believes in and adds to its $5,000 price tag.

So. How does it ride? I stepped inside and pedaled around the Esplanade to find out.

ELF trike test ride-20
Getting to know the ELF.

It’s certainly not a bike. Or even a recumbent. It feels clunkier than either of those. But that’s to be expected when operating a vehicle that weighs 150 pounds, is fully wrapped in a plastic body, and requires you to turn two wheels at the same time. The actual pedaling motion felt very intuitive and the steering system worked smoothly and predictably. I could stop on a dime thanks to the disc brakes, and getting back up to speed was made relatively easy due to the twisting of an internal Nuvinci hub in one hand and the the throttle for the electric motor in the other.

Adding to the ELFs stature as a road-worthy vehicle (both mentally and physically) is the heavy-duty horn (operated by a button on the handlebars), right and left-side mirrors, and the car-like headlights and taillights.

During my short test ride, I tried a few very sharp turns and the ELF remained stable. I also tried to turnaround on the Esplanade path and quickly realized that the turning radius is pretty wide. This could get folks into trouble if they expect to quickly flip a u-turn like they normally would on a bike. (It’s also worth noting that the recommended method to quickly turn 180-degrees, or go in reverse for that matter, is to get out and lift up the rear end.)

My ride in the ELF left me with more questions than I arrived with: What would it be like to share a lane with other vehicles on a major arterial? How long before these hit the road will Oregon law catch up and classify them as something other than a bicycle? How easy would it be to climb up a hill to north Portland if the battery dies? Would the solar panel be a reliable source of re-charging power?

At this point, Cotter is fine with all the questions his creation raises. When I asked if he considers it more closely related to a bicycle or a car (“Is this event a test ride or a test drive,” I asked), he happily declined to pigeon-hole it.

“There’s a lot of space [in the market] between a bike and a car, and that’s where we intend to be.”

Scroll down for more photos and notes from the test ride…

ELF trike test ride-5
Making the ELFs locally is a key part of Cotter’s business plan.
ELF trike test ride-22
The designers of the ELF wanted to make its assembly and construction as simple as possible.
ELF trike test ride-23
The solar panel is a major power source — and a major selling point.
ELF trike test ride-21
The ELF is made to fit a wide range of users — all the way up to 6′ 5″.
ELF trike test ride-14
20 mm through-axle adds strength to the front wheels.
ELF trike test ride-13
The battery sits neatly under the seat.

ELF trike test ride-15
There’s an ELF app with an ever-growing list of features, including a function that will make your ELF sounds like a Jetson car as it accelerates.
ELF trike test ride-16
Placed on the dashboard, the app is also made to project a heads-up display on the windshield.
ELF trike test ride-11
The trunk is lockable and has three separate compartments — two of which are plastic buckets.
ELF trike test ride-10
Inside the cockpit.
ELF trike test ride-4
A view from the front.

— Learn more about the ELF at OrganicTransit.com

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Comments
  • jocko January 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Its cool, but can you ride it in a bike lane?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 30, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Yes you can. It’s 4-feet wide and legally it’s a bicycle (but only for lack of a more accurate description in current statute).

      Recommended Thumb up 5

  • scott January 30, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Demolition

    Derby

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Patrick January 30, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I rode one at Edgefield–it’s fun and easy to operate.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Bill January 30, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    It looks very open on the bottom. How would it handle a wet, cold morning? Would you still need rain gear?

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    • Alan 1.0 January 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm

      All second-hand but I’m told that road spray inside isn’t a problem, the fenders and air flow do a good job, and the canopy does a good job keeping rain out when moving but it can drive in from the sides when stopped. Doors are an option. I’m not sure if it’s clean&dry enough for nice office clothes, I’d think about chaps or rain paints or a change of pants. I wonder about a nylon spray skirt underneath?

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Pete E January 30, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    How stealable is it? Would you be able to leave it outside?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • JV January 30, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      At 150 pounds and $5k, I would treat it like a cargo bike. Sure, you could leave it outside, but you probably want to put it in a garage or secure storage. No need to tempt thieves.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Allan January 30, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    was this a 1-day thing or is there a place to try it out in the area longer-term?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 31, 2014 at 9:17 am

      I’ve asked them to let me do a longer test ride sometime in the future. We’ll see if they’re game. I think something like this really can’t be fully understood without living with it for a few days. I’m hoping to do a more complete review once I can do a longer test.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

    • RJHinPDX February 1, 2014 at 9:03 am

      This was just two days at Edgefield, but the company is looking for a local warehouse and assembly facility, so there may be more local opportunity in the future.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • resopmok January 30, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    I’m curious what the top speed or general cruising speeds are like. I’m guessing the battery operation works as an electric assist to the pedaling.. otherwise it would be hard to get around. Also, what kind of range can you expect out of a solar/battery combo, and could it be converted or adapted to also plug into an outlet for quicker charging than the solar panel might provide?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Mark January 30, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Where can you legally park it? Outside of a private driveway or garage, that is.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • WestCoastNut January 30, 2014 at 11:04 pm

      Some people park it on the planting strip between the street and sidewalk. I would think you also park it next to bike parking bars, especially the ones on the street. Also, if you know a business you can often park it along their property, as long as its off the sidewalk.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 31, 2014 at 9:18 am

      That’s a great question and it’s one of the many legal issues this vehicle raises. If I ride it downtown, could I just park in a standard parking space and pay the meter? It doesn’t seem right to lift it up onto the sidewalk to use a bike staple rack and it certainly wouldn’t fit in a bike corral.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • john v January 31, 2014 at 5:50 am

    There may be space in the market between bikes and cars but there is not space on the Hawthorne Bridge or the bike lane in my daily ride down Barbur for this 4 foot wide expensive gadget.

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  • Brock Dittus January 31, 2014 at 5:58 am

    I had a chance to tape some conversation with Rob Cotter and a local resident who owns one these – if you’re interested here’s the link:

    http://www.thepodcasthost.com/thesprocketpodcast/2014/01/30/e168b-organic-transits-elf-test-drive/

    This already seems like a great option for anyone who doesn’t want to bicycle somewhere for whatever reason, and I could see them becoming even more reasonable in price as they became more available. I would also imagine many of the concerns expressed here would be improved upon over time. Does anyone know if this is the 1.0 version, or have there been previous models?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Humongous Ed January 31, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
    Yes you can. It’s 4-feet wide and legally it’s a bicycle (but only for lack of a more accurate description in current statute).
    Recommended 2

    I feel a little nervous at the idea of sharing a bike lane with a 4 foot eide 150 pound vehicle that can go 30mph…

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Todd Boulanger January 31, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Quick clarification: is this a 3 wheeled ‘pedal electric’ bicycle or a 3 wheeled motorcycle with an electric motor? The difference being how the motor power is engaged…separate or with the pedalling?

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  • Todd Boulanger January 31, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    With these very city and pedestrian friendly micro vehicles I would like to see a push in WA & OR to allow younger operators as young as 13 or 14 to be able to make in town deliveries and such.

    [As an example, back in the day my dad got his day light motor vehicle license at 13 for the farm and my grand mom got hers at 11...and these electric trishaws have a lot less power than a Model T or mid century pick up truck.]

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Todd Boulanger January 31, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      I forgot to add…These youth operators permits would require operators training for the rules of the road and repairs.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Gumby January 31, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      Yes. This is one of the issues with electric assisted bikes – you need to be eligable for a drivers license. This has caused some police officers to ticket people who have had their drivers license suspended.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Mike January 31, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Really bummed I missed a chance at a test drive, since the ELF looks like a piece of our future that just fell through a wormhole into our time.

    But I can’t see buying one today. As an avid cyclist, I think I would be constantly cursing what it can’t do. And as a motorist who paid about the same $$ for my AWD wagon, likewise.

    What this reminds me of is Apple’s Newton (you have to be old enough to know what that was). It was the iPad of its day, except it wasn’t. What we really needed was high-bandwidth wifi and cellular service for the concept to make sense, or even be what we wanted it to be. Now it is.

    The bet folks are making here is that ELFs and bike share bikes will get non-cyclists interested to such an extent that pressure will mount to make the needed infrastructure materialize.

    I can’t help feeling we’ve got things the wrong way round.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • GlowBoy January 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Pretty cool idea, and I expect to see more vehicles like this. I think part of the reason that Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) like the ZENN and Zap Xebra never sold very well, even in Portland, is that they were still essentially cars — very lightweight ones with a 25mph legal maximum speed, but still cars and they had to be driven like cars.

    The advantage of the ELF is that it’s still essentially a bike — just an unusually heavy one with an enclosure and the ability to go up to 20mph without pedaling.

    Still, this wouldn’t be feasible for me unless there were a stretched version that allowed me to pick up and drop off my kids.

    As for parking, it might be difficult in central Portland, but out here in the suburbs there would be plenty of room to park this at the outdoor racks we have at my work. I actually could bring it inside here, but I’d probably want to leave it outside so the solar panel charges.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Gumby January 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I test rode the Elf on Tuesday as well. At 150 pounds, I doubt anyone would use this without the electric motor. It’s quite stable and handles well but is not nearly as nimble as a bicycle. The advantages I see for this over a standard bicycle is visibility, weather protection, no need for specialty clothing and people of all fitness levels can ride (drive?) it. Nobody’s going to miss you in this thing. It also removes many of the obstacles people have with riding a bicycle. As far as size, it’s pretty similar in size to the B-line trikes and the pedicabs. Some of the comments here suggest that at $5000, this is expensive. Expensive compared to a bike maybe, but not compared to a car or a velomobile. Velomobiles start at about $3400 (without motor) at http://www.itsavelomobile.com (in Cottage grove) to well over $10K. Operating costs are only pennies a day if you charge this from an outlet and free If you use the solar panel. Columbia Cycle Works has a similar vehicle (fully enclosed and with windshield wipers) – the Tripod for $7450.

    They are planning on opening up a retail location in Portland in the next few months, so you may start seeing a lot more of these. Anything that get’s people out of their cars gets my thumbs up!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Steve Scarich January 31, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I saw one in Bend today, parked at the Mt. Bachelor transit parking lot on Bend’s Westside. Now I know what I was looking at.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Greg January 31, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    As I only saw the Troutdale test ride, I’m sorry I missed out on the Portland test ride :(

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  • Opus the Poet January 31, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    This looks like the US version of the Peel P50 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peel_P50 only not as well-defined legally (the P50 is legally a moped in the US).

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Jim February 2, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Whew do you ride this thing? It’s too big for a bike lane and you obviously don’t want to take it out into the street. Sidewalks, no, beach, no, wind will be a problem, salt flats, wrong part of the country.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • wsbob February 2, 2014 at 11:11 pm

      Jim…doesn’t sound like you’ve read up on this thing. In a variety of situations, it’s probably going to work out for riding on the street. It’s got electric assist that likely will help boost what’s been said to be an easy exclusive pedal cruising speed of 10mph, up somewhat higher…nobody testing it here in Portland has yet said in comments to this thread…I’m thinking 15-20mph may be realistic. For short hops of 2-3 miles, mostly on neighborhood streets, that may be perfect for many people.

      I know from having seen them there myself at Seaside, Oregon, several types of three and four wheeled pedal vehicles are available for rent, and people seem to have big time fun on them. In comparison, the ELF would be more serious a pedal vehicle, more sophisticated, though more expensive, of course. Still, may be potential in such places. Golf courses and retirement communities too, perhaps.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • 9watts February 3, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Here’s the Austrian version –
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaQB_tgS7f0

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  • Henrietta J Davies March 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    How much of a hill cam the electric motor clime? I live in a very hilly town so this is vital information.

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  • Mary F. Anderson March 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    How much of a hill can the electric motor climb? I live 8 miles from my job. There are two routes to it — one is by freeway (no way!) and the other involves going two miles up a hill the local bike riders call a ‘death ride’. There are a couple of stretches where the car needs to be in first gear.

    I have a friend on the hill who swore by his electric bike for going up El Toyonal — but he lived about a quarter of the way up the hill!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Caleb March 12, 2014 at 7:22 am

    A good mode of transportation for city locations. If you can ride a bike to work and around the city then this a great alternative to an automobile.

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  • Roberto Rodriguez April 1, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    I’m really considering getting a Elf, my job is 3 minutes away from my house in car! Sams club, Walmart and winco are all within 3miles

    Recommended Thumb up 0

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