ELF — the Skittles-colored mashup of bike meets tricycle meets car — is on a roll.
The Science Channel featured it earlier this summer on How It’s Made. The ELF is appearing in a national TV commercial this fall. And the fact that investors recently put another $2.5 million into the vehicle’s developer, Organic Transit, signals that the Easter egg shaped bike-car hybrids aren’t a novelty but may fill a niche for transportation in an increasingly urban world.
Creator Rob Cotter and 15 employees assemble and sell the ELF at a workshop in downtown Durham. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld bought a bike while visiting the city for a 2013 show, becoming an early customer of the company founded a year earlier. Organic Transit has about 700 bikes on the road today that have racked up more than 1.5 million miles, Cotter says.
By law, the ELF is considered a bicycle — it has the handlebars, wheels and gears of a bike — with car-like features of a 1-horsepower motor, side mirrors, turn signals and a body, albeit in lime-green, ultra-durable plastic. A flexible solar panel on top provides power to a lithium-ion battery, which then powers the motor, though it also can be plugged into an electrical outlet.
Cotter came up with the idea of a solar-powered trike after working on traditional cars for Porsche and on experimental cars since the 1980s. But no groundbreaking mode of transportation comes easy. Cotter discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to make an American bicycle in an industry dominated by suppliers in Asia. The iconic Schwinn bicycle, for example, is made in China and Taiwan. To assemble an Organic Transit bike requires 400 parts, 250 of which can be found only on an ELF. Still, Cotter says 80% of the ELF is made within a two-hour drive of Durham, with 90 parts built, molded or fabricated in house. “We’re the most American-made bike in existence,” he says.
But competition may be fast on his heels. Germany-based Schaeffler AG, maker of ball-bearings and automotive parts, plans to build 40 prototype Bio Hybrids, a four-wheeled electric-powered bicycle. Schaeffler employs 84,000 workers around the world, including at a plant in South Carolina.
For Cotter, this is confirmation that Organic Transit is on to something. By the time the Bio Hybrids are completed, Cotter expects his bikes to have logged 5 million miles. While Cotter declines to say how much money the company raised before the recent $2.5 million infusion, it has attracted some noteworthy Triangle businessmen. Listed in the April filing were board members John Warasila of Alliance Architecture, who designed MetLife’s new Cary offices, Strata Solar CEO Markus Wilhelm and ChannelAdvisor Chairman Scot Wingo.
Earlier this year, Organic Transit raised the price of its solo bike by $1,000 to a starting price of about $7,000. A two-passenger style runs $8,500 or more, after an almost $2,000 price boost. Cotter says the company is working on an autonomous ELF.
The ELF aims to be something between a bike and a car, covering distances too far for a sweaty bike ride to work but barely worth getting the SUV out of the garage for a milk run. For the first time in human history, most people live in urban areas.
Organic Transit says the ELF is safer than a traditional bike, more weather-resistant than a scooter and free of the conflicting laws governing the emerging electronic bike market. Cotter says there have been four incidents where an ELF was hit by a car and no serious injuries as a result.
Early adopters include a woman who uses it to haul pottery to sell at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh and, more recently, the town of Davidson. Windsor Circle, a Durham-based software company, used an ELF as a marketing tool when it gave one away two years running at trade conferences. The first year, conference organizers were so impressed they upgraded the software maker’s booth — the value of which covered the price of the ELF. “It stole the show,” says CEO Matt Williamson. “Everyone wanted to get in it.”
Now, Williamson is considering turning the ELF into an employee perk in which workers could take the ELF home for a time. Tricked out with Windsor Circle logos, it could be a marketing tool again for the company that creates the technology behind emails that remind online shoppers to complete their orders or promote 50%-off sales for a sweater they viewed but never bought.
The ELF is also still under the radar. That’s about to change, says Cotter, who owned a marketing company for 18 years. “We’re right on the cusp of bursting out, solving a lot of people’s mobility problems.”
The vehicle with an identity crisis — part bike and part car — just might transform the city lover’s commute. Photo by Mike Belleme
The ELF, which stands for electric, light and fun, has three bicycle wheels. Photo by Mike Belleme
Bicycle tires waiting to be assembled on the wheel frames. Photo by Mike Belleme
Lithium-ion cells come from Germany, but workers customize battery packs in Durham. Photo by Mike Belleme
The ELF’s design may look simple, but a complex system connects solar power to eight turn signals and the bike’s central control module, or ‘brain box. Photo by Mike Belleme
Jose Barbosa walks between ELFs in various stages of production. Organic Transit’s challenge now is to train more mechanics across the country to service the ELF, which is sold online, in Durham and at six other U.S. vendors. The company also has vendors in British Columbia, Canada, and New Zealand. Photo by Mike Belleme
Cody Epperson adjust a panel’s fitting on an ELF. It has the handlebars of a bike but is capable of speeds up to 30 mph when electric power is combined with pedaling. Photo by Mike Belleme
The ELF’s frame is made from tempered aircraft aluminum. Photo by Mike Belleme
The body is made of material known as Trylon in shades of red, orange, green and white. Photo by Mike Belleme
Bob Quackenbush builds doors for the ELF in Organic Transit’s Durham workshop. Photo by Mike Belleme
Organic Transit sells the Solo single-passenger ELF, above, plus the 2FR two-seater version. A ‘tactical’ version for military and police costs more. Photo by Mike Belleme
CEO Rob Cotter and General Manager Maureen Costello each take a two-seater ELF out for a spin in downtown Durham. Photo by Mike Belleme
The husband-and-wife team call the ELF the most efficient vehicle in the world. Customers span businesses with spread-out campuses and disabled people prohibited from driving traditional cars. Photo by Mike Belleme