The Elf and Ethics

The Elf is a kind of aerodynamic, electric assist tricycle with solar panels to charge the batteries. It’s a type of vehicle, somewhere between a bike and a car, that a number of inventors have tinkered with over the years.

Good arguments exist for and against this type of transportation. On the one hand it uses far fewer resources than an automobile. But one could also argue, as does the owner of a bike shop in this video, that we’d all be better off with a far simpler and less expensive bicycle. I can see both sides of the argument. Perhaps younger folks should take to bicycles and older people or those with disabilities or heavy cargo could use something like an Elf. Plus the Elf would be better in bad weather.

One issue not brought up in this video are safety concerns during a theoretical transition period from hulking Hummers to lightweight human and battery powered vehicles. Is the greater risk I’m taking (by choosing a lightweight vehicle over an SUV) worth the ethical/ecological benefit? If everyone else is driving a big heavy vehicle don’t I need one too?

Separating bikes and cars partially solves this conundrum to some extent, but not for transitional vehicles like the Elf. I would not want to see an Elf on a bike path and I’d not also not want to be in an Elf vs. auto collision.

I think there’s a future for vehicles like the Elf. But we’ll have some ethical, as well as technological issues, to sort out.

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  1. In the ’60’s, 70’s, and ’80’s my mother, who never drove a regular car, had a license for and drove what was called an Autoette. It was made by a company in Long Beach and was basically a glorified golf cart. (You can Google them) It got her everywhere that 2 or 4 golf cart batteries could take her, and she was able to go shopping and be independent. Of course there were drivers who did not know how to react when they saw her vehicle and the first one was in an accident which fortunately did not harm my mom. Having ridden in one with her many time, it is my opinion that there should be some kind of special access lane just for these types of vehicles. Golf communities have lanes just for golf carts, and I can’t see why we can’t start in the outlying areas to put in such infrastructures to at least encourage people to ditch the car when they are running around town. Many people cannot ride a bike due to physical limitations. Having a cover vehicle similar to an Elf ‘car’ would encourage more people to get out there. A trunk that can be locked would be high on my own priorities. I don’t know if I see such a vehicle happening in L.A. because the city is a terror to drive around in anyway due to its age, narrow streets, and traffic.

    • You’re reminding me – retirement communities in Arizona have a lot of residents who use golf carts for transportation. Those areas tend to have nice, wide lanes that can be shared by golf carts and bicyclists. I wouldn’t mind ELFs on bike paths *if* the paths were wide enough to make it possible to safely pass them. I can’t say I’ve seen a bike path wide enough for that, yet.

      That doesn’t solve the expensive problem of retrofitting urban areas, though. But the urban retrofit is going to be a problem no matter what, whether there are electrified bicycles or not.

      Also, the bike mechanic is avoiding the problem of what happens to all of the cheapo big-box bikes that people buy and throw away two years later because they can’t be repaired. At least the ELFs appear to be easier to repair!

  2. That just looks dangerous if it were on the road with cars. There are people in town who own the Smart Cars, little tiny things that would be no match for any car even going at a slow speed.

    What I want is a bike with four wheels and a bench seat. Some roll down “windows” for rain would be good.

    My perception of these tiny vehicles/Elfs is that drivers lose their sense of vulnerability and take more chances or are less aware of danger.

  3. These guys are made in my hometown, Durham, NC! Love seeing small businesses grow and become successful!

    You see them all over downtown Durham, often parked on the sidewalk. I imagine driving one and figuring out logistics (where to park, how to interact with others on the road) would be very similar to a scooter (something I’m very familiar with).

    • Hey Lauren,

      I checked out your Etsy store– I like the look of your deodorant cream. Great idea!

  4. My own take on this is somewhat illogical, but I feel like drivers would take more notice of it than the slim profile of a cyclist, therefore I — as a bike coward — would feel safer riding one of these than a bike. BUT I also know that if I used one of these in a bike lane I’d piss off the righteous, bad-ass cyclists of LA. And if I took a car lane, I’d get no end of abuse–well, it would be illegal, I suppose. So though it is appealing, it’s a wash.

    • It’s generally *not* illegal to take a traffic lane on a bicycle! Even if there is a bike lane present. I am sure you would face some wrath of impatient people who need to chill out, though.

    • It would be interesting to gauge the difference between taking the lane in an Elf and taking the lane on a bike.

      Yesterday, on the way back from downtown on my bike, two cars “took” the bike lane. One in front of me and one behind me.

  5. I think there are far greater ethical concerns with which to busy oneself. There needs to be intermediaries like these to fill the gaps, and the foreign nature of the ELF is ultimately what will make it safer. The gains far outweigh the costs. The ELF is just about perfect.

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