Is This Funny-Looking Tricycle a Commuter's Dream Vehicle?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 17 2013 1:14 PM

Is This Funny-Looking Tricycle a Commuter's Dream Vehicle?

FT-Elf
Organic Transit's Elf vehicle is part bike, part car.

Still from YouTube.

This blog post originally appeared on IEEE Spectrum.

This past summer, Organic Transit, a small company in Durham, N.C., completed construction of the 51 enclosed, electrically assisted tricycles that it sold earlier in the year through a successful Kickstarter campaign. I visited Organic Transit’s founder and chief executive officer, Rob Cotter, to find out more about this intriguing little vehicle—and to give it a test ride.

Advertisement

The company and its new product—the Elf—is certainly something different. Normally, when you say “cycling,” what comes to mind is the classic safety bicycle, which was developed in the late 1800s. While lots of people continue to use this sort of bicycle for getting around town, for many folks, cycling is just not a practical means of transportation, even if they’re not going far. It may be raining, for example. Or they might need to carry more groceries home than they can comfortably tote on a bike. Or maybe the problem is that once they’ve got the bicycle all loaded up, they won’t be able to tackle that big hill on the way back from the supermarket. Or perhaps they just don’t want to risk getting hurt if they wipe out.

Bicycle makers have recognized these problems for a long while, but few companies have attempted to address them. Organic Transit is the latest to take on this long-standing challenge. Its three-wheeled Elf adopts what’s known as the “tadpole configuration,” with two wheels in front and one in the rear. In this respect, it’s similar to many of the velomobiles that have come before it. But unlike most of those earlier models, it wasn’t designed low and sleek to slip through the air. Rather, the Elf’s designers had safety and comfort at low speeds in mind, which is why the rider sits high and why the plastic body of this vehicle is not particularly aerodynamic.

While the Elf is certainly cute and will provide an attractive way to get around for some people, I came away from my visit with Organic Transit a bit skeptical. To me, the Elf, small as it is by car standards, seemed way too big and heavy. (It’s almost 70 kilograms—150 pounds.) So you can’t, say, carry it up a flight of stairs as you can with most any bike. And forget about taking it someplace in or on your car.

It’s also not clear to me how easily you could maneuver something that’s 122 centimeters (48 inches) wide on a typical bike path or on the shoulder of the road. During my short test drive, I kept the Elf in the middle of the lane, as you would a car, rather than trying to hug the shoulder, as I usually do on my bike. Unless you’re keeping to places with very low speed limits, that’s not going to win any friends on the road.

My final critique reflects something that Cotter and his colleagues are well aware of: The Elf seems a bit of a rattletrap. Indeed, this trike is, literally, a “rattle” trap, because each clunk you experience when you hit a pothole, say, reverberates around the cabin. Cotter says that he and his colleagues are working on that problem, but it’s hard for me to see how they’ll be able to find a solution that doesn’t just exacerbate the weight issue.

Organic Transit is planning to introduce early next year a larger pedal-electric vehicle called the TruckIt, designed to carry 227 to 363 kilograms (500 to 800 pounds) of cargo. As much as I applaud its efforts to make cycling serve people’s practical needs, I would have preferred to see the company focus its design talent on something toward the smaller, lighter end. But if they succeed with the Elf and the TruckIt, maybe they’ll do that too.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

Move Aside, Oxford Comma, the New Battle Is Over Single or Double Quotes

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Ben Bradlee’s Fascinating Relationship With JFK

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 11:06 AM The Right to Run If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 22 2014 11:36 AM Casting the Role of Scarlett O'Hara Was Really, Really Frustrating
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 22 2014 11:04 AM Do All U.S. Presidents Look the Same? What About Japan’s Prime Ministers?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 22 2014 11:30 AM Where Does Ebola Hide? My nerve-wracking research with shrieking bats.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.