City Cars on a Human Scale: Elio, ELF and Schweeb

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 27, 2014

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—Minimalism is in. I checked in with the Elio booth at the Southeast Alternative Fuels Conference. As most people know, Elio is trying to field a three-wheeled, two-seat car that can achieve 80 mph and sell for $6,800. There’s intense public interest, but Elio needs a significant capital infusion to build its ex-GM factory in Louisiana, and can’t otherwise fulfill its 35,000 reservations.

The Elio in Raleigh: The orders are in, now it's time to build the factory. (Jim Motavalli photo)Elio has raised $55 million on its own, but has its fingers crossed for $185 million from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which still has $16 billion in it. According to Joel Sheltrown, vice president of government affairs, Elio has been informed that its made it through the first of three phases of review, and the application is “substantially complete.” Due diligence is next.

The ATVM program has had notable successes, especially Tesla Motors (which paid off its loan early), but it’s also haunted by the stinging attacks on the $527 million Solyndra loss. ATVM hasn’t made any loans since 2011. Elio is hoping for good news by the end of the year, but it could take much longer—the feds have been sitting on those billions.

Organic Transit CEO Rob Cotter with lightweight ELF bodies. (Jim Motavalli photo)Asked if Elio would consider an electric version, Sheltrown said, “Absolutely.”

Just down the road from Raleigh, in Durham, Organic Transit is building its own minimalist urban transportation. The ultra-low weight ELF city vehicle (160 pounds) is a hybrid of sorts, an aluminum-framed electric bicycle with pedals and an enclosed body that makes it look positively car-like.

Stephen Szucs is driving an ELF from Canada to Key West. Who said it was a city car? (Jim Motavalli photo)Range is fluid; pedal and you can go almost 30 miles; ride along in splendor and 15 miles is more like it. Add extra battery packs (which come in a handy carrying case) and pedal power can take you as far as 100 miles. Most of the 400 sold so far (mostly in the U.S., but also in Canada, Europe and Fiji)  are single seaters, though I rode in a tandem two seater that is coming soon.

CEO Rob Cotter is a car guy going way back, with experience at BMW, Porsche, McLaren and others. He picked me up in a Morris Minor woody with Nissan power. But he’s also a dedicated builder of ultra-lightweight vehicles and bicycle variants. “We view this as a huge opportunity,” he says. “Each ELF achieves 1,800 miles per gallon equivalent, so it’s like planting 900 trees per year, or offsetting six tons of carbon dioxide. You can’t get a parking ticket, because it’s not a car.”

Cranking out ELFs in Durham. (Jim Motavalli photo)Indeed it isn’t. Like the Segway was supposed to be “an alternative to walking,” the ELF can also tow 550 pounds. Though it was intended for running around in cities, people seem determined to drive them long distances.

Last year, Mark Stewart drove one from Durham to Boston. And in Durham I ran into the effervescent Stephen Szucs, who’s even more ambitious. In phase one of his journey (he eventually wants to go around the world) Szucs is traveling from London, Ontario to Key West, Florida. He’s 4,888 kilometers into his trip. Asked what he’d encountered so far, he said, “Nothing overwhelming. A broken spoke and some flat tires.”

I took quick spins around Durham in both the ELF ($5,500, with lots of options) and the Naked ELF, a bare chassis version you can also buy (for $4,000). The naked version feels very taut. The lightweight plastic body and windshield are fairly flexible, so you hear them moving around in the enclosed version, but that comes with the territory.

Like the Segway, it takes about five minutes to be thoroughly conversant with the ELF’s controls. The ELF travels with traffic, like a bicycle. It is a bicycle, legally. There aren’t any airbags, but I felt fairly confident zipping around in Durham traffic—other drivers offer respect and give the ELF a wide berth.

Shweeb's SkySMART combines pedal power and solar electric. Shweeb photo)Coincidentally, I heard this week from the prosaically named Shweeb-Can Corp., which offers “a revolutionary 3-D transportation system inspired in part by The Jetsons.” Shweeb SkySMART consists of ELF-like pods on a suspended track, with solar electric and optional pedal power. In 2010, it won the Google “Drive Innovation Award in Public Transport.” The company claims “23 global prospective customers waiting to buy a system.”

Hmmm. That sounds like…Elio. But instead of a government loan, Schweeb launched an Indiegogo campaign October 26. Here's CEO Rob Cotter on the ELF and those long-distance trips:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter