Of all the press cars I’ve had since I’ve moved to NC, the one that’s gotten the most attention by far has no doors, no floor, and all of one lonely horsepower. It’s both the crudest and yet most futuristic vehicle I’ve had so far. It’s a fascinating halfway point between bike and car called the ELF. I had one for a few days, and only tipped it over once.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Organic Transit wanted me to drive an ELF so much they let me have one for three days, and weren’t even that mad when I broke two of its mirrors. Also, they gave me the benefit of the doubt of being able to physically pedal anything harder than a trash-can-opener, which was sweet of them.
The Organic Transit ELF is built right nearby, in Durham, NC, in a small but efficient-looking workshop/factory. The man behind the ELF is Rob Cotter, and he’s not a car-hating oak-embracer like many would expect. In fact, the man’s automotive history is rock-solid: his first car was a non-running Fiat 600 he got at seven years old (his plan was to put a Chevy 283 in there, and managed to push one home in a shopping cart), he currently has a beautiful Morris Minor Traveller, and much of his career was spent designing and building racecars for BMW and Porsche.
His racing career instilled in him a love of lightness and elegant, minimal designs, which led him to the purest expression of these engineering ideals: human-powered cars, later becoming the VP of the Human Powered Vehicle Association. This ultra-light engineering path led him to design and build a solar-powered racecar in 1988, and the legacy of these designs are easy to see in the ELF.
And that’s the thing about the ELF — if you take a step back from your conventional-car prejudices and ideas, you realize what a remarkable design this little three-wheeled snail shell really is. Walking around the factory, Rob pointed out all the difficult production problems and solutions they came up with to make this a viable vehicle.
Take the body, for example. Conventional fiberglass or plastic construction wouldn’t work for what he needed, so he had to convince a kayak company to give a try making the deeply-pressed panels — and it worked, making something lighter and stronger than has previously been used on anything like this. The aluminum frames (also made by a supplier in North Carolina) are aircraft-grade 6061T aluminum alloy, carbon fiber panels can be specified for use on other panels, there’s an advanced flexible solar panel on the roof — the whole thing is made with state-of-the-art lightweight design and materials.
The end result is a finished vehicle that weighs about 160 lbs — essentially me carrying a bowling ball. That’s a pretty astoundingly low number for any motor vehicle, especially one that’s even partially enclosed. Building something to be both light and strong is one of the hardest challenges in all of motoring, and I think the ELF is a pretty impressive result. It’s not solid, like a conventional car, but it also doesn’t feel like some flimsy piece of crap. I bet people used to dealing with small aircraft will be more at home in it than people used to conventional cars, at least at first.
The Organic Transit people were nice enough to give me an ELF to use for three days, and during those three days I tried to use it as my only transportation as much as possible. My perspective going into this was one of a pretty unashamed car guy— I’m not someone who’s used a bicycle as my primary mode of transport for years, and while I appreciate the environmental benefits of such a vehicle, I tried to be as objective as possible and just think of it as another form of vehicle.
Let’s just take a moment here to describe the ELF in more detail. It’s a tail-dragger three-wheeled machine, using high-end bicycle wheels. It has a sort of ovoid plastic body that’s open at the doors and below your feet, where there are a set of bicycle-like pedals, which your feet must remain in contact with.
The roof has a solar panel to trickle-charge the battery, and inside there’s a solitary seat (it can be ordered with a rear seat as well) and a decent-sized rear luggage compartment that could hold a couple full paper grocery bags and a laptop bag or something. The front has a set of handlebars which connect to the front wheels in a full Ackermann steering geometry, the linkage of which Rob described as looking like “the throttle linkage in a Jaguar E-Type.”
There’s a bicycle-type manual CVT transmission (yes! A manual CVT!) control on the left and the throttle for the 1 HP electric motor on the right. One HP is all the ELF is legally allowed to have, since on the books it’s considered a motor-assisted bicycle, which means it’s exempt from most motor vehicle laws and it’s allowed to drive on bike-only paths. That’s also why it’s the width it is, which was chosen to be the widest comfortable width that can still fit between the bike-only barriers on most cycling trails.
The motor looks like an enlarged silver tuna can, and is the sort that could be used as a hub motor on a bike, but here is mounted centrally, just behind the seat. To stop that massive solitary horse (and whatever human power you’re adding via the pedals) there’s bicycle-style disc brakes front and rear.
In addition to all that there’s familiar automotive-type equipment like brake lights and headlights and indicators and rear-view mirrors. The lights are small LED units that work pretty well, and I found I was sort of hard on the mirrors: one side mirror I crushed when I rolled it (more on that soon) and the interior rear-view mirror popped off and smashed when I was riding on a bumpy section of road.
I’m pretty sure you have a good enough idea of what this vehicle is physically like by now — so what’s this thing actually like to drive?
The drive I gave the ELF was actually pretty varied — I took it from Durham to my home in Chapel Hill via a four-lane almost-highway called 15-501, with a speed limit of about 45 — not really the ideal place for a vehicle like this, with a top speed of about 20-25 and about the same amount of protection from traffic as riding around in a paddleboat.
It wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun on that stretch, but I’m glad I did it, to at least know if it’s possible. It is, but barely. It’s a nervy experience, and while in traffic, the electric assist (it’s more than an assist in this context — I had that thumb lever pegged pretty much the entire time) does let you generally keep up, once things open up in traffic, you’re getting passed by big, fast metal beasts that will make you make all sorts of unpleasant ass-clenching motions.
Still, involuntary kegel exercises aside, the ELF managed to get through it reasonably well. I was told the battery range was about 15 miles And even with the throttle pegged for most of the ride between Durham and Chapel Hill, I didn’t run out of juice. Even if I did, the LiON battery pack the ELF uses is housed in a small plastic case with a handle like a small toolbox, and they had an extra one for me to swap out.
Once out of the high-speed traffic and on smaller city roads, the ELF becomes much more viable. You can use your own primate-power as much or as little as you want. I found getting started, I’d pedal a bit for speed, and also when going at a good clip on the flat to maintain or accelerate a bit. Being able to choose when and how much to pedal is great, in that if you want to use this as a way to get your couch-seasoned ass in better shape, you can, but you have much more freedom and a better guarantee of actually getting to where you want to be without looking like you slept in a sauna than with a conventional bicycle.
The ELF is really pretty fun to drive, and the experience really does feel like a mix between a car and a bike. The position and layout of things are fairly car like, and acceleration with the motor feels enough like a (admittedly small) car to be familiar, but exposure and (mostly optional) pedaling feel just like a bike. You can choose to take it places only bikes would go, or park it in a normal parking lot like it was a car. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anything that straddles these two worlds quite as completely as the ELF does.
I used the ELF for around-town errands, day and night, and some recreational driving as well, including down some bike paths and in parking lots with my four-year-old boy Otto perched on the back shelf, which he loved. That’s not likely to be smart or legal on actual roads, but with the two-seat version, I think it could be just fine.
The ELF also got more positive attention than almost anything else I’ve had as a press car, ever. People would ask me about it nearly every time I parked it anywhere. Taking Otto to the park, I found myself surrounded by excited toddlers I gave around-parking-lot joyrides to. Kids naturally love this thing — for a certain segment of the population, the traditional white van may have finally met its match.
I even had one of the strangest interactions with anyone about a press car thanks to the ELF. People who are interested in the ELF (and hyper-eco-friendly similar cars) seem to have an awful lot of themselves invested in what people think of them — I think that’s relevant here. One man I met was looking at the parked ELF, and started asking me questions about it. I told him what I thought of the vehicle, good and bad, and found that he was very concerned with what I might say about it.
One of my biggest issues with the ELF is the price — more on that soon — which in the case of the car I had was about $6500. The man insisted I should review the car as though it cost only $2000, which, while a nice dream, just isn’t the case. I’ve never had anyone push so hard for me to write a favorable review about a car before, and that includes the times I’ve had such cars with rabid cult followings as Mustangs and Jeep Wranglers.
A lot of people around this area clearly want to like the ELF and similar non-cars, though I don’t think it’d get such a (sometimes creepily) warm welcome other places in the country. And that desire brings us to what I think is the ELF’s biggest problem: cost.
An ELF costs between $5500 and $11,000 or so. When you can get a used Scion xB for $4000 or so or an old Saturn for $2000, that’s an awful lot of money for something vastly less flexible or practical than even the shittiest of used crapboxes.
That’s not to say the ELF is actually overpriced — I don’t think it is. I think the problem is that building something light and strong and efficient like an ELF — especially doing it locally here in NC instead of in some remote factory in China — is inherently an expensive proposition. I think, in the context of what an ELF is, the price is fair, Unfortunately, in the context of the real world that most people live in, it just doesn’t quite make sense.
Now, this may not be such an issue — Organic Transit has a number of ELF sharing plans, and that all of a sudden starts to make the ELF make much more sense. If you live in a big, dense city that’s bought a fleet of ELFs you can rent and use as needed, that’s not such a bad idea at all. But unless you have both a good amount of disposable cash and a real belief and interest in environmental and/or health concerns, an ELF as your only primary car just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
There’s a few other cons, too. The weather protection is pretty minimal, and even if you live relatively close to your work, if you have to dress well, it’s going to be tricky to show up crisp and perfect if you commute in an ELF. It’s still part bike, after all, and riding in one takes a toll on your appearance like a bike would, albeit less so.
I think the ELF is engineered to be pretty safe, for what it is, but I still wouldn’t want to get hit by a car in one. Sure, being half-bike and half-car means it’s significantly better than being hit by a car on a bike, but it can’t compare to the protection of a full automobile.
And I should address my issue with tipping over — I was coming into my driveway, which is inclined, and I made a sharp turn to pull into an area to park. Unfortunately, I think I turned too sharp as I applied the throttle on the gravel surface, which caused the rear wheel to slip, and the weight to shift just enough to topple over.
I was fine, the ELF was fine (well, except for the mirror), but it was a good reminder of the inherent issues in a three-wheeled vehicle: they can tip. I blame this on my unfamiliarity with the vehicle, but it should be clear it is possible to make these mistakes that end up with your ELF in repose.
Overall, I think the ELF is interesting and well-engineered, and I think it — or vehicles like it — can and will have a place in the overall transportation landscape. I don’t think these will replace your personal car for most people, but in the context of city deliveries, shared-vehicle programs for in-town general transportation, and for recreational/fitness use, I can see the ELF having an interesting future.
Especially if they have a dirt-track Spec ELF race series. That would be a blast, right?