It’s part bike, part car, part solar power, part human power. And—thanks in part to a massively successful Kickstarter drive that ended this week—it’s headed to a street near you.
The Elf is what’s called a velomobile, a pedal-powered mini-car, typically in the design of a recumbent tricycle with a shell over it to protect you from the elements. While they’re fairly popular for commuting and biking with cargo in bike-obsessed parts of the world like Northern Europe, if you haven’t heard of them yet, don’t sweat it.
"The U.S. market is really unaware of this type of vehicle—of velomobiles—and we are kind of bringing it to the masses," explains Alix Bowman, director of communications at Organic Transit, the startup behind The Elf. The novelty—combined with the high price of gas, and need for more diverse solutions to environmentally friendly commuting—made the Elf a hit with the Kickstarter community who threw $225,789 at the product, more than twice its goal of $100,000.
The design boasts a bevy of features that could have persuaded urbanists, design enthusiasts, environmentalists, and cyclists to open their wallets. Like other electric bicycles, the Elf lets riders effortlessly switch between 100% pedal power, 100% motor power, or some combination of the two. "I like to get going a little bit with the motor, and then I start pedaling, and let the pedaling takeover," says Bowman. Or, you might let the motor kick in if you’re headed up a hill or "if you don’t want to arrive looking like you just biked there," she adds.
While the pedals work just like any old bike, the motor is activated by a hand throttle similar to a motorcycle. And it runs on a 480-watt lithium battery that recharges quickly—in two hours when detached and plugged in to the wall—or slowly, over the course of the day when left in the sun, thanks to the Elf’s roof-mounted solar panels.
A fully charged motor will move the Elf 30 miles. Its recycled aluminum frame supports a whopping 350 pounds of cargo in a rear compartment. And since the Elf is technically a bike under federal law—its electric motor maxes out at 20 miles per hour to meet the definition—riders can use it on bike lanes, trails, and anywhere else bikes are allowed (although your state or city might have its own rules).
Produced by a team of designers led by CEO Rob Cotter, The Elf will be made in downtown Durham, North Carolina— for now. "What we’re trying to do here in Durham is develop a model … ‘a-bike-factory-in-a-box’ model, where we are trying to design a facility capable of producing 1,000 units a month. Once we see what that looks like, we want to be able to replicate that anywhere," Bowman says. From Durham, the goal is to expand to a network of workshop-cum-dealerships assembling Elfs (Elves?) across the country and possibly the globe.
It’s an unusual business model, and the financial details haven’t been worked out yet, but Bowman says the Elf is easy enough to assemble, that "you don’t need big robots and huge assembly lines for it to work. And the components are all easy to drop ship to any place." Other parts come off the shelf at a bike shop.
"On a daily basis we get letters of interest from people who are interested in setting up those dealerships," everywhere from Oregon to Florida to Australia to Denmark, says Bowman, adding that "we also see huge potential for these vehicles in developing countries," where, in remote areas, the Elf could help shave hours off tasks like collecting water. "We think the ability to ship in one shipping container all the components to manufacture 50 vehicles … has some pretty major implications for a lot of NGO work."
But first, the Elf will ship in March to Kickstarter backers who gave more than $4,000.