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The Man Behind the ELF

By Bill Moore

Maybe it's the times in which we're living, but for some seemingly inexplicable reason a solar-powered, human-electric hybrid trike called the ELF seems to have caught the imagination of the public and the media. Here's the man behind Organic Transit and a most improbable electric vehicle.

His name is Rob Cotter. Despite his age -- he tells me teasingly that he's only 36, "but it's been a rough last couple years," -- he still considers himself, in many ways, your stereotypical entrepreneur.

"You do what you're meant to do," he tells me, adding that he's been an entrepreneur pretty much most of his adult life. Development of the ELF, his firm's solar-powered, human-electric hybrid trike, has been the culmination of some 30 years to experimentation with human-powered vehicles that was inspired in the late 1970s by the ground-breaking work of Dr. Paul McCready and his team at AeroVironment in developing the first successful human and solar-powered aircraft: the Gossamer Albatross and the Gossamer Condor.

While he has developed numerous two and three-wheeled vehicles over the intervening years, often working in collaboration with Michael Lewis, the developer of the popular Electrathon racers, it would take the convergence of a number of global trends to convince him that the time was right for the creation of the ELF, which began just over a two and half years ago.

What has resulted is a remarkably capable and surprisingly practical electric vehicle able to carry both a passenger and as much as 500+ lbs (226 kg) of cargo. Equipped with its lithium-ion battery and propriety mid-motor drive, the ELF can be driven on battery-power alone up to 30 miles, and further if you help pedal. Let is sit in the sun for seven hours and the 100 watt solar panel on the roof recharges the battery for another 30 miles of range, effectively eliminating the need to plug it into to grid.

At 160 lbs (72.5kg), the ELF is classified as a 'bicycle' by US law, meaning it can't go faster than 20 mph on electric power alone. It's large wheels, also unique in the field, brings the rider up to the same eye-to-eye height as car drivers. And because you can also pedal the trike, it's finding use in physical therapy, Cotter told me, explaining that he recently heard from a customer whose doctor told her she'd never walk again due multiple leg fractures. Initially she'd lower herself into the ELF from her walker and use the electric drive only to get around. Now she's up to 23 miles using the hybrid electric drive and pedal system.

Organic Transit has sold some 400 of the 'tadpole' designed ELF into 8 countries. Many of them are being used for food and package delivery on business and college campuses. It's Cotter's plan to stabilize the North Carolina production at around 100 units a month. Beyond that, he's planning to set up decentralized production facilities to minimize the cross-country shipment of vehicles. Instead, the company will supply the 100-or-so parts that are unique to the ELF and drop ship all the rest to manufacturers. He is right now working with a native American tribe and a group in Fiji, the latter wanting to produce them for the island nations of Oceania in the Pacific.

The company has other models in the work. It just released the 'Naked ELF', a bare-bones model sans the vacuum-formed plastic cabin enclosure. Starting next month, the ELF will be available in 12 performance bike shops on the US West Coast. Current owners also make their trikes available for locals to ride as part of a 'test pilot' program.

The base price of the original, fully-enclosed ELF is $5,495; the 'Naked' model is $3,995.

The MP3 interview with Cotter is just under 30-minutes and packed with more details than covered here, so be sure to listen to it and/or download it.

Times Article Viewed: 12569
Originally published: 24 Aug 2014

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