EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 24, 2013

Solar car makes it debut in Newburyport

Solar-powered car makes its debut in Newburyport

By Dyke Hendrickson

---- — Autumn, approaching the Halloween season of the light-hearted slogan: “My other car is a broom.”

How about, “My other vehicle is an Elf.”

Conrad Willeman recently began operating an Elf, a solar-powered vehicle that can travel close to 20 miles per hour.

It’s said that there are only seven other Elfs in Massachusetts, and Willeman appears quite pleased that he is one of the early owners. Cost is about $5,000.

“I can take this to Market Basket and put the groceries behind the seat,” said Willeman, a resident of Barton Street who is an advocate of most things green. “I can drive around local streets, like a bicyclist except this has more protection and goes faster.

“It’s early in its development but it’s appealing because of solar power and your ability to pedal it yourself. You can let the battery do the work or you can pedal - or both.”

The vehicle is made by Organic Transit, a fledgling manufacturing firm in Durham, N.C., that touts the Elf as offering “eco-urban mobility.”

The founders of Organic Transit are as green as the infield at Fenway Park, and their three-wheeled product appears to be appealing to customers who are interested in reducing their use of fossil fuels.

One slogan on the Organic Transit website refers to it as, “Elf, electric pedal car” and another marketing slogan is “Rides like a bike, drives like a dream.”

The vehicle weighs about 150 pounds, and comes with headlights, direction signals and a state-of-the-art braking system. It is considered a bike, and does not have to be registered or possess a license plate. Insurance companies appear reluctant to insure it.

The Elf, about five feet high, carries only the solitary driver and Willeman says it can travel 20-25 miles without requiring the battery to be recharged.

That can be done by leaving it the sun for four to five hours, or by charging the battery by using an indoor electrical outlet.

To launch the year-old company, founders used a kickstarter.com campaign initially to raise more than a quarter million dollars.

In recent months they have generated close to $1 million from investors. Managers reportedly are developing a second assembly plant in San Diego, and Elf appears to be emerging as the new thing among the alternative energy crowd.

At an organic festival called the Common Ground Fair in Maine over the weekend, an energy-conscious owner demonstrating an Elf there said, “I live in Bath, and drive to work in Freeport. It’s a 19-mile commute, and the only problem I’ve had is people pulling up to me in their cars, and wanting an explanation of what I am driving.”

The Elf travels about 20 miles per hour when being propelled by the battery, but those pedaling downhill can reach almost 40 miles per hour, drivers say.

One selling point appears to be that the driver can get a workout through pedaling, or a pleasant ride while permitting the battery to provide the power.

It shields an operator from the rain (mostly) but it’s unclear how comfortable it will be in winter.

The manufacturer is reportedly developing “doors” for each side that might shield the operator from the elements. Numerous new features, including a kid’s seat, seem to be evolving each month.

“I’ve taken the Elf out on a flat landscape here, and it’s perfect for toodling around the town,” said Elizabeth Marcus, a green activist and partner of Willeman. “I have been pleased with my first rides.”

The can-do mentality of a long-distance bicycle rider appears to be part of the operating ethic.

“I ride my bike in winter and if it snows, I don’t go out until the snow has been plowed or disappears,” said Willeman, a retired teacher who has owned his vehicle for about two weeks. “We’ll see what happens in the winter but right now this is working fine.

“We had a second car. Now our only car is a Prius, and the Elf is our second vehicle. You can drive across the city; you can pick up and carry goods. I think the Elf has a big future.”