Velomobiles have been around since before the First World War. A cross between a car and a recumbent tricycle, they provide an enclosure for the rider to improve aerodynamics and offer protection from bad weather.
The design makes it possible for a rider to take longer trips with less strain that a bicycle requires. Velomobiles are heavier than bicycles, so they require more effort to accelerate.
So someone got the idea to add an electric motor. An electric velomobile can accelerate and climb hills better than a standard bicycle. Until very recently, most were one-off contraptions built by hobbyists. Now small manufacturers have started to market and sell them.
Some velomobile manufacturers
I saw a demonstration on TV of a velomobile called the ELF (for Electric, Light, Fun). It’s made in Durham, North Carolina by Organic Transit. Upon further investigation, it turns out to be one of a number of similar vehicles. Others include the IRIS and the PEBL.
The term motor assisted tricycle would describe most velomobiles I have read about. These three call themselves pedal-assisted electric vehicles.
They have two wheels in the front and one in back, enclosed in a shell that offers protection from the weather. Riders have a choice of pedaling them or using a motor. Or both. Legally, these vehicles count as bicycles, not cars, which means that operators do not need a driver’s license or car insurance.
The ELF, IRIS, and PEBL differ in detail. They use different materials for the body work and have different batteries. The ELF comes with a solar panel; someone can drive it to work and let the panel charge the battery during the day. The IRIS, an English product, is fully enclosed.
All include room for cargo, so they’re suitable for grocery shopping. They all have headlights, back lights, brake lights, and turn signals. All of them can climb hills and operate in all weather. The PEBL was developed in western Massachusetts, which gets a lot of snow.
They cost much more than a bicycle, but much less than a car. Whoever can afford the initial cost will probably recover it quickly from not having to buy gas for it.
Uses for velomobiles
Velomobiles will never supplant the automobile, but they can conceivably take over many of its functions, especially for commuting and shopping.
Most Americans live within 25 miles of where they work. Some people take public transportation, but about 86% of commuters drive their cars. Some people carpool to work, but about 76% of commuting workers drive back and forth alone. The average commute takes about 25.4 minutes.
Except for people who live in rural areas, most of us do most of our shopping much closer to home. Shopping trips can easily add up to no more than a five-mile round trip.
For these uses, velomobiles have theoretical advantages over even electric cars. If all American commuters drove velomobiles to work on the same day, charging the batteries would require about 25% of the energy output of the number of wind turbines the US had five years ago. That many electric cars would require about 20 times the same energy output.
Although electric velomobiles appear more sustainable than any other motorized vehicle, I do not expect to see them make a big impact any time soon.
So far, the ELF is hand-crafted, not mass produced. Its distribution network is very small. As of this writing, the PEBL and IRIS are in production, but have not yet been sold.
Whoever buys one still needs a car for longer trips, to transport anything very heavy or bulky, or to take passengers. In that case, the price tag of several thousand dollars may put velomobiles out of reach for many consumers.
Bike paths may be too narrow for these vehicles.
Still, I hope these companies will be successful and will eventually scale up operations to become more easily available. Economies of scale from mass production would probably drive down the price tag.
23 commute statistics to know before you go to work / Rebecca Lake, Credit Donkey. Updated November 16, 2015
30 iconic velomobile designs from the past 85 years / Dillon Hiles, Icebike. [October 2014]
Better Bike home page (PEBL)
Bikelyf breakdown: PEBL vs ELF / Bikelyf. October 20, 2016
Electric velomobiles: as fast and comfortable as automobiles, but 80 times more efficient / Kris De Decker, Low-Tech Magazine, October 24, 2012
Meet PEBL: the ride that will revolutionize commuting / Tom Popomaronis, Inc. July 25, 2016
Organic Transit (Elf) web page
The truth about Elf solar powered tricycle––bottom line / Tim Wilkeson, Bold Solar Solutions––Go Green Energy. July 17, 2016