Written by Sami Grover, Mother Nature Network
Walking into the headquarters of Organic Transit, a North Carolina-based developer of what it calls “the most efficient vehicles on the planet,” I was struck by a decidedly disorienting feeling.
At first glance it was hard to put my finger on where that feeling was coming from. And then it hit me.
People were actually making things.
In a world where manufacturing is so often automated or outsourced to the other side of the world, it’s quite remarkable to see a team welding, assembling and tinkering with a fleet of futuristic-looking pedal electric hybrid vehicles.
Based out of a former furniture showroom in the heart of downtown Durham, it’s early days yet for Organic Transit, which closed out a highly successful Kickstarter funding drive in January 2013. Orders are coming in, distribution deals are being struck, and there is talk of opening additional manufacturing facilities, both on the West Coast and in Europe.
The brainchild of Rob Cotter, a refugee from the automotive industry, Organic Transit’s inaugural offering is the tear-shaped ELF: a tricycle built with a 45 percent recycled aluminum frame and equipped with a weatherproof 80 percent recycled composite shell, an electric-assist drivetrain, a solar panel for charging the battery, LED headlights, tail lights, turn signals, and even an impressively loud horn to warn people you are coming. (Yeah, I had to try it out.) There’s even a smart phone/tablet app in development that will provide data on battery use, calories burned, route optimization and allow owners to connect with other ELF users in their area.
A product of the times
While the ELF itself may only just be making its way onto the market, the idea has been forming for quite some time, as Cotter explains:
“I was working for Porsche, BMW and Mercedes back in the '80s and was getting disillusioned with the industry. Meanwhile, projects like the Gossamer Condor — the world’s first human-powered aircraft capable of sustained and controlled flight — were being developed just down the road from me. I realized there were opportunities to rethink transportation.”
Cotter began designing human-powered vehicles, including a 62 mph tricycle, and eventually became VP of the Human Powered Vehicle Association. The success of vehicles like Cotter’s trike and the Gossamer Condor may have served as proof of concept in terms of performance, but Cotter says that market demand and potential for adoption were quite another matter:
“We could have built a vehicle like the ELF decades ago, for the most part. Advances in battery technology, LEDs and solar have certainly helped us, but we solved the primary challenge of building really light, durable and functional vehicles decades ago. The trouble was that people had no interest in efficiency throughout the ‘90s. They wanted SUVs, they wanted minivans, and they wanted luxury. Mpgs were irrelevant.”