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The solar-powered bike-car thingy we’ve all been waiting for

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Okay, sure — you could buy a Smart car, and it costs $13,000 just to drive it home, plus no matter how cute it is it’s still burning gas and if you want to go to a gig with your guitar and your girlfriend, one of them is going to be uncomfortable. Or you could buy a Volt or a Leaf or, I don’t know, an OrganoEcoloSocioEconoGreenoPod, and it’s designed in Delft and assembled in Korea and by the time you’ve shipped it to your city you might just as well as spent your time engaging in a little relaxing mountaintop removal coal mining. Plus — no matter how eco friendly it is, it’s still just another stinkin’ car.

Or you could do this. You want to see my next vehicle? I’m going to get a TruckIt, a tiny little recumbent-bicycle deal with an electric motor — it’s called a velomobile, if you want to know. It costs $5,500, recharges its battery with its own rooftop solar panels, can legally take you on the road, on the sidewalk,* and on greenway trails, and has a 30-mile-per-charge range. Then you can either rely on those solar panels or you can take the little battery out and plug it in. And though it’s designed to carry me and up to 800 pounds of payload (guitar, amp, and groupie?), I can retrofit a little jumpseat so I can just haul around the groupie if I need to. You can read all about it in this story by the News & Observer of Raleigh.

And hokey smokes, it’s made right here in the U.S.A., by Organic Transit, in a renovated furniture warehouse in downtown Durham, NC.

The thing — and the Elf, its more carlike little sister — is limited to 20 mph on pure electricity (to remain classified as a bicycle), but it can take you up and down hills with or without your pedaling. Every New Urbanist, transit focused downtown renovation should all but give these things away for free. If you live and work in a walkable downtown that lacks — as so many do — a grocery store, instead of needing a second car, all you’ve done is given purpose to your workout. “Going out for a ride, dear — got that grocery list?”

So let’s count the wins: it’s solar powered, saving fuel and emissions; it’s basically an enclosed bicycle, which means you’re burning calories rather than oil plus enjoying your life while you’re inside it; it’s tiny, though you sit at about the same level as car drivers; it’s street legal — but also sidewalk(ish) and trail legal; it’s built in a startup company helping its town by employing people in a rebuilding downtown.It doesn’t throw candy to children as it drives, but I suppose you can do that.

The whole thing is just warming up, currently raising funds with the obligatory Kickstarter campaign for the first vehicles and so forth, but for a world where most of our trips are local, single-person jaunts to get groceries, run errands, or commute to work and back, the TruckIt and the Elf look like staggeringly good options. Like I said — when our 2004 Corolla starts to give out, look for me in one of these.

* Thanks for notes — sidewalk riding, though largely practiced (and apparently sometimes legally practiced), is often illegal. It’s the subject of considerable debate in the commuting/green community, a debate in which I do not wish to engage.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hayduke2000 3:35 pm 12/17/2012

    It won’t appear on any sidewalk in my community! Sidewalks are for pedestrians, not wheeled vehicles.

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  2. 2. tmb lsn 5:43 pm 12/17/2012

    “when our 2004 Corolla starts to give out”

    So, in 2035?

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  3. 3. fixerdave 8:25 pm 12/17/2012

    I was thinking about this a few years back… electric assist bicycle (legal as a bicycle in my province of BC… and all the rules that entails). Basically, a small commuter vehicle that keeps me dry without requiring insurance to operate. Had it all figured, except I realized I wouldn’t have insurance… hmmm. Insurance. By the time I got enough insurance to deal with avoiding having my financial life destroyed, well, I might as well move up to an electric car. Never bothered with either.

    Put another way, the only reason to really keep the “bicycle” in the design is to avoid legal/insurance regulations. But, then, if you do that, well, you know… they have those regulations for a reason, right? Safety equipment for yourself, insurance for other people… something to think about. Sorry for the cold water.


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  4. 4. karenalcott 8:31 pm 12/17/2012

    OK, now we have Karrah hawking whatever it is Madeleine has been. I wonder if that means SciAm got around to getting rid of Madeleine?
    Anyway, I think that’s cute as heck. I might go for one of those. I’ve been missing my bike since my COPD got bad.

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  5. 5. Carlyle 9:52 pm 12/17/2012

    Looks like fun. Good luck to them.

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  6. 6. TreeDiversity 9:52 am 12/18/2012

    In Organic Transit’s video for their smaller model – the ELF – you can see the beat of foot pedals beneath the floor board, obvious that it is a partially-enclosed electric-assisted bicycle. The TruckIt is the same idea.

    I look eagerly at all the effort to come out with something marketable, but where I live there’s plenty of road splash, so I’d like to see how that is resolved.

    It looks designed for communities without much concern about theft, or have a security guard at the workplace parking lot.

    Is there a giant bike lock for this thing?

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  7. 7. huler 10:20 am 12/18/2012

    @david — can’t say i agree. to be sure, you don’t need to buy car insurance for a bike vehicle. but you’re still insured under various policies in case you hit someone or are hit. plus, i’m sure if these vehicles become popular the insurance industry will quickly develop tables and policies for them. i hardly see that as a problem. @tmb ism — lol. exactly. @treediversity, the organic site has a FAQ that addresses various antitheft measures. thanks for comments!

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  8. 8. joenn 4:34 pm 12/18/2012

    KarrahBrathwaite: What does that have to do with the subject of the car?

    Sciam: Why are you allowing stupid commercial and irelevent comments on your comments section?

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  9. 9. ddrmaxgt37 5:30 pm 12/18/2012

    It is a common misconception that the Smart FourTwo is a fuel efficient car. It was actually designed to have small footprint that is suited to small European cities. Its aerodynamics are horrible and it isn’t very fuel efficient given how small it is.

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  10. 10. jerryd 6:25 pm 12/18/2012

    I like the shape, size but rather have a moped version that goes 30 mph on electric for 50-100 miles. To do this wouldn’t be much more cost as small EV’s paerts are about the same as larger ones.

    I drive a ‘moped’ which is a Golfcart transaxle using Rabbit car tires to force more power from the motor and more voltage which does the same. With just 48vdc nom of 100amphr, 12vdc batteries I get about 40 mile range.

    The title comes from the Moped front end, front frame and VIN number though one can use a MC to do the same for up to about 45-55mph depending on which GC transaxle you get.

    Or use a car rear end and put whatever size EV motor, I like Forklift ones as you can get them for scrap prices and plenty powerful if you pick the right ones for what ever spped you want and more batteries for whatever range you want. Just if going faster than 30mph much you need an aero body like the example isn’t bad.

    Next yr I’ll build a body like the example just to sell it for more money as I’m going to a 2wh aero cabin MC for long range, high speed cruising.

    Lightweight EV’s like this are cheap to build, run like $.03/mile for battery electricity, tag, etc. And under $1k to nbuild, I did mine for $500.

    I wish the example well and hope they make higher speed, longer range versions which will sell even better.

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  11. 11. gkeeler 2:15 pm 12/21/2012

    Hi JerryD. Do you have any photos or videos of your EV moped? How about any more detailed descriptions or websites for more information. THANKS!

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  12. 12. bones37 7:36 am 12/22/2012

    Regaring jerryd comment about making higher speed. That should be saved for intercity/town transports. For around town you only need about 20 mph. That’s safer for pedestrians and everyone. The current speeds of automobiles in cities is too high. Enclosed electrically assisted bicycles could go a long way to alleviating congestion and vehicle danger in our communities – a community oriented transport, so to speak.

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