Will the ELF, from Durham-based Organic Transit, save the planet? | Summer Guide | Indy Week
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Will the ELF, from Durham-based Organic Transit, save the planet? 

"What is that?!"

Take a spin in the ELF, a category-defying new vehicle built here in Durham, and prepare to have this question shouted at you by passing motorists. And bicyclists. And people on the sidewalk. Park in a public place, and get ready for an onslaught:

"Does it have a motor?"

"How fast does it go?"

"How much does it cost?"

The curiosity is understandable: The pod-shaped ELF (the name stands for Electric, Light and Fun) isn't like anything else currently on the streets. It looks like a pared-down version of one of those futuristic concept cars that auto companies like to dangle as the transit solutions of the future, but which really more closely resemble the same old two-ton steel behemoths they've been building since the days of the Model T. With all-electric cars, efficiency is improving, but still, it takes a lot of energy to push around all that weight. Energy that still generally comes from fossil fuels.

What makes the ELF different is its power source: you, and/or the sun. It weighs around 130 pounds, which means your leg muscles and a small electric motor are enough to get it rolling up to 30 miles per hour. It has solar panels on top to recharge the small battery. And when running on a combination of pedal and solar power, a Duke researcher has estimated that the ELF could get the equivalent of 1,800 miles per gallon.

Priced at $4,000, the ELF is positioned to crack open the existing asphalt paradigm. It's sufficiently light and low-powered to operate legally on bike paths and trails, while its zippy engine and high profile let it rub shoulders with city traffic.

"We saw the space available between the bicycle and the car," says Rob Cotter, founder and CEO of Organic Transit. "It's a great big hole in there."

There have been other pretenders to this territory. The motorcycle, the moped and various types of scooters have managed to carve out small niches from the internal combustion side.

The ELF represents the arrival of the practical pedal/electric, bike/car hybrid. It's built on compounded advances in materials, DC motors and batteries, using technologies borrowed from bicycles, boats and even ultralight and remote-controlled aircraft.

All these factors substantially improve performance, but its design represents the biggest advance. Whereas most of the few other velomobiles (the word, not yet in dictionaries, means a pedal-powered car-like vehicle) in the world are based on designs for human-powered racing vehicles, the ELF is designed from the ground up for commuters, grocery shoppers and errand-runners, not racers. Hence the high and comfortable sitting position, large wheels, easy steering and shifting mechanisms, tall frame for traffic visibility, and other practical choices.

Another key to its practicality is the punchy little electric motor: Relying on pedal power alone, over long distances, it would be hard for all but the most fit to sustain a reasonable cruising speed in the ELF, especially up hills. But the power assist makes it practical for nearly anyone.

It probably won't pull many committed cyclists off their bikes. I'm one of those, and pedaling the ELF made me miss the wind in my face and the ultra-maneuverable minimalism of two-wheeling. But its potential to woo commuters out of cars could augur big changes in the transportation mix.

"Many people cannot be cyclists," says Cotter. "They don't want to kill themselves going up big hills, they don't want to get caught in bad weather, they don't want to arrive at work all ... like you're riding a bike.

"We sacrificed aerodynamics somewhat to make it something that people can get in and out of easily, carry eight bags of groceries, sit in traffic, have brake lights and blinkers and all that stuff," he says. In short, he's not looking to sell a few thousand models to hobbyists and self-sacrificing environmental purists. He's got bigger plans.

"[People] want to be able to carry stuff," he says. "A lot of it. And they want to have a safer ride, a more visible ride. And they don't want to fall over. That market is called the great blue ocean." That metaphor refers to a recent damning critique of the bicycle industry, which has been charged with concentrating its efforts on fighting over a small pool of existing customers rather than working the vast pool of non-riders.

That market—the "great blue ocean" of non-riders—is the one Cotter means to tap.

He and his underdog vehicle have a lot of persuading to do. But in talking to him, you get the sense he might be onto something big. A clean-cut, vigorous 56-year-old, partial to T-shirts and baseball caps, in person he comes across as half businessman, half visionary. He's gathered around him a dedicated corps of designers, builders and doers, all working hard for (so far) little pay to change the way we get around.

And early indications are promising. "We've quadrupled our annual projections in the first quarter," he says. He's convinced the demand for an eco-conscious vehicle is now here and is just waiting for the right supply. "Given the opportunity, lots of people would take the green way out."

Cotter's combination of the practical and the forward-looking are reflected in his rather unique résumé. Fresh out of college, he landed what he thought would be his dream job, working for Porsche, Audi and BMW in the race car segment, but he left after a few years, unsatisfied. On his own he pursued his interest in human-powered vehicles, eventually building a pedal-powered tricycle that could go 61 miles an hour. He joined the directorship of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, and in 1988 he organized the American Solar Cup, the first solar car race in the U.S.

Cotter says his primary aim in starting Organic Transit is environmental. "I feel I have an obligation to do the cleanest things I can possibly do," he says. Recognizing that the time was ripe for a mass-market velomobile, he founded the company four years ago and set about developing a prototype.

A 20-year resident of Raleigh, he was drawn to the startup culture in Durham. In 2011, he took part in the Bull City Startup Stampede, an event organized by the Durham Chamber of Commerce to help fledgling local businesses. He won the use of office space, which led to the procurement of Organic Transit's current home in a former furniture showroom in downtown Durham.

He didn't yet have a workforce, but through chance meetings and word of mouth, in a process that can only be described as organic, Cotter began to surround himself with a band of employees. The first hire was Alix Bowman, a 2007 graduate of Carnegie Mellon's business school with a focus on sustainability. In February 2012, she says, "I was walking my dog in downtown Durham and had recently closed my own business," a goat-patrol concern. "I was thinking about what I should be doing next, when I saw the posters in the window of 309 E. Chapel Hill.

"At that point, that's pretty much all that was in there, the posters in the window," she says.

True to the company's prevailing all-hands-on-deck startup culture, Bowman says she's now involved with "strategy, planning, marketing, sales, communications—basically everything that's not directly building the vehicles."

To help design the ELF, Cotter called on connections he'd made in decades past. He brought in Michael Lewis, an inventor in Portland, Maine, who holds the world record for distance traveled by a one-horsepower electric vehicle in one hour, and Davis Carver, another Maine resident who owns bikeman.com, a major online parts retailer well known to enthusiasts. For a couple of years they collaborated online, trading sketches. In 2012 they were part of a design team Cotter flew down to Durham for an intensive week-long session in which they mocked up prototypes of the frame and body.

Along the way, Cotter also picked up angel investors; although he's talked to venture capitalists, he says he "doesn't want just anyone's money." He says he will not sell out his green principles—either to a car company or to somebody who would want to put a gas motor on the ELF.

Last November, Organic Transit debuted on Kickstarter with a $100,000 goal. By mid-January, they'd amassed $225,789 and more than 50 orders (top contributors of $4,000 or more were promised the first ELFs to roll off the line). The cash injection and nod from the market signaled that it was time to grow, fast.

They began to take on staff. On the production and logistical end, James Hepler, a friend of Bowman's who studied electronics at Durham Tech (and who played drums in prominent local indie bands and now runs sound at Motorco), came on board in December ("Employee No. 5," he says). Now he works to refine the vehicle's electrical system, as well as "purchasing, sourcing, human resources, accounts receivable and accounts payable. And I'm one of the bookkeepers," he says, laughing.

One of the chief mechanics (Employee No. 3), Brian Highfill, was originally a NASCAR mechanic who "decided I was a little too green for the auto industry." As a child he was Cotter's neighbor, then ran into him again when he was working as a bike mechanic at The Bicycle Chain and Cotter came in with a broken wheel hub on one of his prototypes. Now Highfill works in the machine shop where they assemble parts for the vehicles.

One of the signal hires is Jeff Finck, formerly a home remodeler. Late last year, he was driving home when he heard Cotter interviewed on WUNC's The State of Things. When he got home he looked up Organic Transit and immediately drove to the office.

He started the next day as a volunteer, then he put money down on a vehicle. Soon he was an employee, and a crucial test case: He lives in North Raleigh and commutes to and from work every day in his ELF.

It's a 19.2-mile trip each way on secondary roads, by his reckoning. "I'm saving $160 a month on gas," he says, "let alone maintenance and wear-and-tear." And if he's too tired to pedal after a long day, he can rely on the battery to take him the whole way.

"I've lost 10 pounds. I haven't been this light since I was a teenager," he says. "And it's an awful lot of fun."

This was made clear to me on my own test drive. People craned out their car windows to get a better look, and children were rapturous. Driving an ELF is like being in a celebrity's entourage: Everyone wants to talk to you to ask about your ride.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon last week, the ELF felt serviceably sturdy, handled well and easily hopped up onto sidewalks on Duke's East Campus, which was empty post-graduation. Relying on pedal power alone, I was definitely challenged going up hills (though who couldn't use some physical challenge in their day?). ELFs are modified recumbent bicycles, which are famously faster than uprights overall but are disadvantaged in climbs, as you can't use your bodyweight to bear down on the pedals. But having a motor to bail you out lets you save your strength to go faster on level ground and down slopes.

As a bicyclist who occasionally needs to carry cargo and sometimes gets caught in the rain, I can see that the ELF has some plain advantages. For drivers, the $9,100 that AAA estimates to be the average annual cost of car ownership is an even better argument.

Whether Americans will embrace vehicles like the ELF is uncertain, but anything that might help break cars' near-monopoly of our transportation can only be a positive step. America's so-called "love affair" with the automobile, which long ago degenerated into a toxic, consuming obsession, is harming our bodies, our cities and our planet.

"The most environmentally damaging thing each of us does every day is get in our car and drive," says Cotter. "And 40 percent of trips are under 2 miles. What the hell are we doing? And I'm an American too, I'm guilty of all those things. But there's not a lot of options."

For their part, Cotter and his employees are betting on a sharp upward trend for alternative vehicles. In months, Organic Transit has grown to 14 full-time and eight part-time employees, and it is sitting on nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in orders, which they've started fulfilling at an accelerating pace (one expectant customer is Jerry Seinfeld, who stopped by when he performed at DPAC in February). Cotter already has plans to expand manufacturing to California, the Netherlands and Germany, and eventually to places like India and Brazil.

It all seems rather dizzying. Cotter says he's been working 100-hour weeks for the last two years. And things are only picking up from here. But he remains committed.

"If we're not moving our planet and our society into a cleaner direction, we're doing something really wrong," he says. "We can make that shift, and people are very excited to be a part of that. The technology's available."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Reinventing the wheel."

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