The Science of Sustainability

Bike To The Future

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Picture a vehicle that would look equally at home on The Flintstones and The Jetsons and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ELF’s unique design.

Rob Cotter, a lifelong inventor, started his company Organic Transit after a career designing high-end race cars. Photos by David Huppert/UNC-TV.

Rob Cotter, a lifelong inventor, started his company Organic Transit after a career designing high-end race cars. Photos by David Huppert/UNC-TV.

The ELF is a semi-enclosed tricycle with a roof, trunk, and enough room for eight bags of groceries. And while it doesn’t require a license plate, the bike-lane-legal electric- and human-powered ELF is capable of cruising up to 30 miles per hour, thanks to its onboard rechargeable battery.

In 2012 Rob Cotter and a group of mechanics, bike builders, and engineers started Organic Transit, a Durham, North Carolina, company dedicated to manufacturing highly efficient tricycles.

The ELF's velomobile design offers aerodynamic advantages over traditional bicycles. Infographic by Ariana Rodriguez-Gitler/UNC-TV. Click to enlarge.

One element that separates the ELF from other electric-assist bikes is its protective aerodynamic shell. And it’s that outer shell that qualifies the ELF as a “velomobile,” a class of vehicle that comes in many shapes and sizes, including some of the most efficient vehicles on the road. Most velos, as they are known, are enclosed recumbent tricycles that generate incredible efficiency, thanks to their sleek design. From his work with the International Human Powered Vehicle Association Cotter knew it was possible to design a velo that could travel at speeds that would tempt people to ditch their cars for an ELF.

According to Cotter, “Many types of technology come together and merge to fill this technological space between a bicycle and a car.”Some of the ELF’s futuristic features include its continuously variable transmission (CVT), which consists of two chains that coast independently, eliminating any friction when switching between pedal power and the 600-watt backup battery.

If and when riders get tired of pedaling, they can flip a switch, stop pedaling, and still cruise at speeds up to 15 miles per hour using the onboard rechargeable lithium iron phosphate battery. What’s more, the battery can be powered from the roof’s solar panel in about seven hours. If it’s cloudy outside, the ELF can get a charge from a traditional outlet in about an hour and a half.

The ELF is manufactured in Durham, North Carolina. Plans are reportedly in the works for a truck version, capable of transporting two people and with a higher payload capacity.

The ELF is manufactured in Durham, North Carolina. Plans are reportedly in the works for a truck version, with a higher payload capacity capable of transporting two people.

These distribution goals will likely give rise to new challenges, such as how to source sustainable solar materials and batteries, how to integrate ELFs into the bike/car culture, and how to make the vehicle affordable for the masses. But for now Cotter is focused on defining a new transportation category. “For inventors or builders or designers or entrepreneurs, if they have the opportunity to launch a very green product, a product that can help lots of people, it’s the best thing you can ever do,” he said.

The "Bike To The Future" Quest video was co-produced by Stephanie Bourland and David Huppert.

Correction: the video mistakenly refers to the ELF's CVT as a contingency variable transmission instead of a continuously variable transmission.

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Category: Climate, Energy, Engineering, Environment, Physics, Television, Video

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David Huppert

About the Author ()

As a producer/reporter for UNC-TV, David Huppert has spent the last 6 years immersing himself in the Old North State's culture and folklore, consuming as much of state's rich legacy (and barbecue) as possible. David returns to UNC-TV after a one-year hiatus in NYC where he produced for CBS This Morning. Since 2000 David has produced pieces for public television (UNC-TV, Charlie Rose) and commercial news (CBS, FNC’s The O’Reilly Factor, CNBC). When he’s not telling stories for television, David is either working on a documentary about Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, or gallivanting around North Carolina with his wife, @mediumish. You can follow him @hupdiggs and at vimeo.com/davidhuppert

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