In a perfect world, someone would invent a small personal vehicle that runs on nothing but sunshine and calories – and carries a week's worth of groceries, for good measure.

Don’t look now, but it’s already here. The Elf, manufactured by Organic Transit, based in the US state of North Carolina, is the brainchild of inventor Rob Cotter, Organic Transit’s founder and chief executive officer. And it evokes nothing less than the love child of a recumbent tricycle and a Messerschmitt bubble car.

The Elf’s car DNA is visible in features such as its tadpole-like polycarbonate shell, which shields riders from the elements and – abetted by LED headlamps, taillamps and turn indicators – makes the impish vehicle more visible on roads than a traditional two-wheeler. Its bike pedigree shows up in its control scheme; its narrow front wheels, equipped with disc brakes, are steered and stopped by hand grips rather than a car-style steering wheel and brake pedal.

Equipped with a standard three-speed internal-hub transmission or an optional NuVinci continuously variable planetary transmission, the Elf moves by pedal and/or electric power; its one-horsepower electric motor is powered by a lithium iron phosphate battery pack, which is fed by a 100-watt rooftop solar panel. The pack takes seven hours to charge by sunlight or 1½ hours when plugged into a standard household outlet.

Speeding tickets likely won’t be an issue. The Elf tops out at 20mph on electric power alone, 30mph with pedals pumping. Ideally suited to quick urban jaunts, the Elf is less useful for long-range travel, unless you happen to be an ultra-marathoner. Its motor-only cruising range is a modest 18 miles, although pedalling can bump range to as much as 40 miles.

Classified as a bicycle and measuring just 8ft long, 4ft wide and 5ft tall, the Elf is small enough to park on a sidewalk or drive on a bike path. And despite its generous 350lb payload capacity, the Elf weighs just 150lbs, which helped it achieve a manufacturer-estimated MPGe rating of 1,800 miles (in other words, it can travel 1,800 miles on the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline).

The ELF is aimed squarely at the millions of local commuters who don’t ride bikes because they’re worried about things like safety, bad weather, limited cargo capacity and co-workers with little tolerance for sweat-soaked colleagues. The market potential is there, Cotter asserts, and US Department of Transportation data backs him up: half of all the domestic trips Americans take are three miles or less, yet people use cars to make 72% of those trips. Cotter, the former vice-president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, firmly believes the Elf could change that autoholic mind-set.

“Wherever the Elf goes, users become healthier, cities become more livable and environments improve,” Cotter says. “We call this environmental prosperity and that’s part of our mission.”

The Elf’s starting price is $5,495, though with an options list that includes such upgrades as a second battery ($600), fatter tires that deliver a smoother ride over broken pavement ($100), and carbon fibre body panels ($600), a fully loaded example can top $8,500. That’s some serious scratch – until you consider that the average car-owning US household spends more than $9,000 a year for things like fuel, insurance, registration and so forth, Cotter notes.

Organic Transit, which raised $225,789 through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, produced 350 Elf cars in the last 14 months and hopes to soon boost production to 1,200 a year.

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