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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Organic Transit is taking it to the streets 

by Ned Phillips

In downtown Durham, a small group of highly skilled professionals are quietly building the future. Across the plaza from Major the Bull, behind a deep green facade, is an old furniture showroom. Inside there are vehicle schematics and diagrams on the walls. White marker boards are colored with carefully laid out business plans and there’s a workshop area with enough tools to turn on any grease monkey. The leftover furniture has been used to make tables and workspaces, recycling what was once forgotten into something practical and useful. The paint peeling from the immaculate ceiling and the vast spaciousness of the interior remind me of the Ghostbusters firehouse, historic with a touch of shabby-chic.

Organic Transit HQ, #309 East Chapel Hill St, Durham, photo by Ned Phillips

pictured here, Alix Bowman, Director of Strategy, photo by Ned Phillips

This is home of Organic Transit and they are taking their own crack at saving the world. Organic Transit stands on the literal cutting edge of personal transportation; their vehicles are velomobiles with a solar powered battery, filling the much-needed gap between automobiles and bicycles and potentially revolutionizing the way we get around our urban environment. And while Organic Transit seems to have arrived at just the right moment, the road here has been years in the making.

For CEO Rob Cotter, the Organic Transit seed was planted back in the early 1980s in southern California, when Cotter was working with the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. As Vice President of the land division, he interacted with many of the top minds and designs in the field, witnessing single rider vehicles traveling at highway speeds; 55 and 65 mph. Aside from working with BMW and Porsche, he put on the first solar car race in the United States, lectured at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, acted as a consultant for bike sharing in New York City and served as creative director for an international multimedia company, which he credits with teaching him the marketing and public relations side of things. And while it’s been a long journey to Organic Transit, Cotter hasn’t forgotten any of it--- posters and early designs from his SoCal days decorate his Durham headquarters.

The concept of a high tech but efficient, cool but inexpensive vehicle that has the ability to be mass-produced is something Cotter has been working on for quite a while. After years of exchanging designs and ideas with colleagues on the west coast, Organic Transit built their first prototype, called the ELF, in 2010. The exteriors are TrylonTM, a composite of acrylics and a version of ABS plastic. The molds for the plastic body were created at the inventors’ D-I-Y hub, TechShop. The body panels are now being locally manufactured in Eastern North Carolina. The interior of the ELF is almost entirely off the shelf bicycle parts, save the specially designed frame and assembly parts, four of which are in the patent process, with another four or five heading that direction.

CEO Rob Cotter, photo by Ned Phillips

Cotter describes the design of the ELF as closer to an aircraft than an automobile. Decreasing air drag, streamlining and smoothing of components are just some of the concepts applied in the ELF’s design. The riders have the choice to pedal their own way, or use the solar energy stored in the battery pack, which can carry a rider up to 30 miles. The prototype contains a CVT, or continuously variable transmission, a technology used in windmills that provides easy and efficient gear shifting. Current design allows the ELF to carry 350lbs plus the rider. As to its other advantages over a standard bicycle, you have weather protection, lights, visibility on the road, power to get up hills and you can’t fall over and skin your knee.

pictured here and above, Brent Alexander, Logistics team, photos by Ned Phillips

The company already has other designs in development, including a cargo model called the TruckIt, which can carry up to 800 lbs plus the rider, as well as a sleek sport coupe body style. The idea is that eventually, all these body styles will be interchangeable, as well as having customizable interiors, doors, floors and shelves. Organic Transit is already using materials that will be used in future auto production and while the ELF’s exteriors are almost 80% recyclable, the company is moving towards using bioplastics, bamboo, hemp and seagrass. In addition, Cotter has employed local mobile application designers to create apps for speed and calorie monitoring and hopes to hire 35 more people to work in green jobs within the next nine months.

As a community that embraces local business, entrepreneurship and the importance of self-sustenance, Durham is an ideal home for Organic Transit. Here, visionaries such as Cotter and crew were able to get going through the Bull City Startup Stampede and draw on the ever-expanding network of resources in the Triangle. Organic Transit has already built working relationships with and gained the support of Alliance Architecture and Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment, two Durham institutions that share a similar view for the future.

And that is a vision of clean efficiency, Cotter says his team has a moral imperative to work hard and fast. Few things are polluting our Earth as quickly and as badly as our transit structure. At stake are all sorts of issues from personal health to climate change. It’s also financial: having thousands of dollars in your pocket at the end of the year versus handing your money over to large oil companies with their own selfish interests. People are moving back into cities and need new transportation solutions. Gas is expensive. Parking takes up too much space. Traffic is inefficient. Organic Transit takes the position that with human power and solar power, we can do what we need to do, within a reasonable limit.

Organic Transit already has 400 international pre-orders for the ELF, from places as far away as New Zealand. Within the next month, expect to see the first Beta wave of vehicles on the streets of Durham. For Organic Transit, Rob Cotter dreams of a “depot” model- franchised, decentralized, manufacturing cafes in urban downtowns. A community place, where you can have a coffee and visit with neighbors as your vehicle is assembled. It then rolls right out the front door and into the world. Standing in the downtown headquarters, I feel it happening. Children peek through the large windows excitedly at the drawings and prototypes. People stop to take photographs of the recycled furniture sign. Friends pop in to say hello and offer encouragement. I imagine an espresso machine over by the lounge area. Rob tells me they will be having a party soon, to celebrate the launch, here in the workspace. All of a sudden it feels like the future is now.

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This is wonderful and amazing and perfectly timed!
I hope you don't mind, but I posted this article on facebook preceded by the following statement:
"As the dinosaurs breathe their last gasps, it seems the mammals have been busy. Small. Smart. Efficient"
Hi Jean-

Thanks so much. Delighted you reposted it. Let's spread the word far and wide on Organic Transit. Maybe it is not too late for us mammals yet.---Ed.
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