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Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives

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

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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.

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

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