Reader Rides: Test driving the ELF, a solar-powered electric bicycle

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride a solar-powered electric bicycle?  Wonder no more.  A couple weeks ago I saw a unique bike pedal down the street past my office.  It really caught my attention and since the name “ELF” was visibly painted on the side a quick search led me to the manufacturer website.  Better yet, soon afterwards I met the owner who was kind enough to let me take her bike for a spin.

The 100W solar panel charges the lithium ion battery pack. The 3-speed hub is driven independently by pedal power and the electric motor.

The 100W solar panel charges a lithium ion battery pack under the rider’s seat.

The ELF is a 3-wheeled bicycle manufactured in North Carolina by Organic Transit.  It consists of an aluminum alloy frame enclosed within an aerodynamic teardrop shell that is constructed of a composite plastic called Trylon.

The ELF has basic amenities and safety features you’d expect on a car: windshield, roof, lockable storage, rear view and side mirrors, LED headlights, direction signals, brake lights, and an electric horn.  The shell is highly visible, and protects passengers from rain, wind and elements. Doors are optional.  The frame and shell together were designed to absorb impact, making the ELF safer than most bicycles.

The ELF has front disc brakes, and rear friction pads.  The bike comes standard with a 3-speed internal gear hub, with an option to upgrade to an 8-speed hub.

The ELF is a 3-wheeled bicycle made by Organic Transit.

The ELF is a 3-wheeled bicycle made by Organic Transit.

Like some hybrid automobiles on the road today, the ELF also has a separate electric drive train, but the ELF is unique in that it can be powered directly by the sun.  The roof of the ELF is a 100 Watt solar panel that charges a 48 volt, 11 amp hour battery (~ 0.5 kWh storage).  An optional 15 amp hour battery (~ 0.7 kWh) is available.

The electric drive train is powered by a 750 Watt electric motor.  The 11 amp battery is rated for about 15 – 20 all-electric miles at 15+ MPH, with no pedaling, and the 15 amp battery is rated at about 20 – 25 miles.  Of course by pedaling as you ride along you can increase the range of the ELF, and increase the speed up to about 30 MPH.  There is an option to purchase a second battery pack to double the range of the ELF.

The ELF has a lockable storage compartment for backpacks, groceries, bike gear, etc.

The ELF has a lockable storage compartment for backpacks, groceries, bike gear, etc.

The battery pack is made from the same 18650 cells that are currently used by Tesla, and is contained within a small ‘suitcase’ that sits in the frame under the rider’s seat.  The 15 amp hour battery weighs 10 pounds and can be easily removed for recharging indoors on a standard 110 V outlet in 2.5 hours.  OR, you can park the ELF in the sun and the battery will fully recharge in 7 or 8 hours.

The ELF solo is made for one person, but there are also 2 and 3 passenger versions.  A lockable storage compartment in the back can be used to store work items, a backpack, groceries, bike gear, etc.  All versions of the ELF include the storage compartment.

Inside, the cockpit is well designed.  The seat has back support and the driver space is comfortable.  All the controls: parking brake, gear shifter, electric drive, brakes, blinkers, lights, horn, etc, are well laid out and easily accessed on the handlebar, just as you’d find them on a regular bicycle.

To ride the ELF you put the key in the ignition and switch on the bike.  But I decided that first I’d try out the ELF only pedaling.  What’s it like?  Easy, I just sat down and started pedaling.  The ELF weighs in at 160 pounds, so more than my Canondale bicycle that weighs 25 pounds.  But the ELF is properly geared so you start off easily in first gear and then shift up the gears to pedal comfortably.  After one circuit I realized it’d been a while since I rode my bike!

The driver cockpit is comfortable and well laid out.

The driver cockpit is comfortable and well laid out. The display provides info including battery state of charge, speed, and miles traveled.

Next I rode the same circuit fully electric, no pedaling.  To ride in electric mode you simply depress the accelerator with your right thumb.  I was surprised.  As I drove around corners and accelerated down straightaways I thought:  this bike is responsive!  And next I was thinking how unusual to have that impression with a bike…  but the ELF is not your average bike.  I kept on having that sensation of responsiveness, and quickly after that the inkling that this bike wants to race!

Driving the ELF all electric is simple, but it is probably at it’s best when you pedal along with the electric motor.  You get exercise, and with the electric motor assist you can quite easily ride over 25 MPH.

So, what can you compare the ELF to?  To me, even though I was pedaling around, it was nothing like riding a bike.  First of all the shell will protect you from direct rain.  While in college, I rode my bike about 10 miles a day between classes, and later commuted to work on bike for a while in Washington DC and in NYC.  I love bikes, it’s great exercise, but I also remember that when it rained I’d have a wet….  seat.  So no, I wouldn’t compare the ELF to other bikes.

The ELF and the Renault Twizy electric car are similar in size.

The author sitting in a Renault Twizy electric vehicle. The Twizy and ELF are similar in size.

In fact, what the ELF brought to mind was the Renault Twizy, an electric quadricycle / urban vehicle that I test drove two months ago.  Yes, this is perhaps comparing apples and oranges.  But surprisingly, both vehicles are similar in size: 4 feet wide and just over 5 feet tall.  The Twizy is listed as 7 feet 7 inches long, and the ELF is actually longer at about 9 feet.  The Twizy has an electric range of about 50 miles, compared to the 15 – 25 mile electric range of the ELF.  But the Twizy weighs in at nearly 1000 pounds while the ELF weighs 160 pounds.  Robert Llewellyn test drove the Twizy and described it as brilliant fun.  After one hour of driving the Twizy, I agreed.

Both vehicles have their points, but perhaps I’m partial to bikes.  I enjoyed riding the ELF so much more, and love the practicality of direct solar charging.  The owner of this ELF has been using it to commute to work, 10 miles per day, for nearly a year and a half.  She parks it in the sun, which provides enough charge so that she hasn’t needed to plug in the battery at home for recharging.

If you are looking for an efficient city commuter to meet your everyday needs, one that doesn’t make very much – or any – pollution, is fun to drive, AND delivers your daily workout, the ELF might meet your needs.  To give you an even better idea of what it’s like to ride the ELF day in and day out, check out this short video put together by the guys at FallenLeafFilms after a fun day of filming the ELF.

Disclaimer: The author has no financial interest or ties to organizations or companies mentioned in this article.


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  • Farmer_Dave


  • Stephen Noctor

    Starts at 5495. Lots of options. Check out the Organic Transit website linked in the article for more info.

  • Jim Gordon

    My Elf has been my exclusive transportation for a year now. No gas or insurance. So much cheaper than a car it pays for itself in one year if you dump your car addiction. You better like talking to people because it draws a constant stream of gawkers with questions.

    • demand_sider

      I keep reading about the environmental benefits of an ELF over a car, but I think Organic Transit is a little remiss in failing to stress first that the thing will likely save the buyer money in health care costs, insurance, maintenance, fuel, licensing, etc. THAT is what will sell these.

      • Yes. For me, on a pension it is a huge savings over a car. Pays for itself in one year.

  • Doyle Daniels

    How does if fair in snow regions?

    • Stephen Noctor

      You should get an answer from owners here:

    • Canadians love these things. They use studded tires and heated gel seats.

      • Doyle Daniels

        Thank you for your response. It makes me wish I could afford one.

        • demand_sider

          Look for a used one on Craigslist. Even though it was used, mine cost $2500, which is about $500 more than I’m willing to pay for a car. I started to get a paunch, and a triple bypass isn’t cheap, so this was an easy decision for me to make.

          • Doyle Daniels

            Thanks for the reminder of a great idea.

  • Available in Europe?

    • They are being shipped all around the world. Shipping will certainly be a significant cost in any country besides the US, until the distributors are set up.

  • Pingback: This E–Bike Could Be Your Perfect Commuter | Nature Actually()

  • demand_sider

    By the way, for ELF owners out there who would like to extend their range, their is a company called AllCell making well reviewed FORTY AMP HOUR graphite/wax cooled lithium/ion cells in South Chicago for not much more than the German 15 amp batteries Organic Transit sells. It is about .200″ thicker than the German battery, but modification or even replacement of the battery tray would be pretty simple.

  • Theodosia Woods

    How does it do on hills?

  • Jim Whitehead

    They don’t compete with other better electric bikes out there. If they had a real factory and raised money to crank 100 bikes a month, they could cut the price to $3K and 100x the volume. Some other bikes now regenerate on hills. They might want to buy a high-powered low-cost battery module from Tesla/Panasonic to get at least 50 miles range. IMHO, They could become millionaires if they did all of this.