Cycle Utility Vehicles

ELF cycle utility vehicle made by Organic Transit

There is a type of recumbent cycle that is almost never seen in this country, known as a velomobile. They have a highly aerodynamic fairing that fully surrounds the cycle, which is usually a tadpole trike. Since they are aerodynamically much, much better than an open cycle, they are considerably faster than any road bike. They also offer protection from the elements. The problem is that they are also much heavier than open cycles, making hills harder to climb. So it is perhaps no surprise that they are so rare in the UK. However, electric assist directly addresses the hill-climbing problem, and opens up a whole new class of practical, low-carbon vehicles.


What do you get if you cross one of these...

Family Cargo Trike

...with one of these (and add some electric assist)?

One only needs to take one look at a typical velomobile to see that it is fundamentally a sports cycle (though strictly speaking all the non-sporty vehicles I'm about to describe are also velomobiles). Most people do not drive a sports car, so clearly a sports cycle is not really what is wanted if people are to be encouraged out of their cars, even if it does offer a more car-like experience than a conventional bike. Some people in the UK, indeed in Birmingham, have opted to buy cargo bikes (with or without electric assist), which can be used for carrying people, but they are far removed from what most people in the UK would consider to be family transport. Our streets are stuffed full of bloated "sports utility vehicles" (SUV's). These vehicles, with their excessive weight and poor aerodynamics, are obliterating the fuel efficiency gains from more economical conventional internal combustion engines, hybrid engines, and fully electric cars. So how about a "cycle utility vehicle" (CUV)? How about using electric assist to create a cycle that is more like a family car? Some people have already had that thought.

The vehicle shown at the top of this article is an Organic Transit ELF pedal-assisted electric vehicle. Depending on the model, it has space for a "driver", two children, and cargo. The fairing improves the aerodynamics, and keeps off the rain. And as you can see, just like a car it has integrated lighting. What you can't see is the solar panel mounted on the roof to help charge the battery. So unless you choose to reduce the charging time by plugging in to a wall socket, this is a true zero emissions vehicle, unlike electric cars. Yes, there are emissions during manufacture that will be greater than for a conventional cycle, but they are clearly hugely less than those associated with the manufacture of electric cars.

Better Bikes PEBLSome people who have bought an ELF have chosen to customise it, by adding more weather protection. However, a more enclosed alternative to the ELF is the Better Bikes PEBL. It also has a windscreen wiper for dealing with heavy rain and snow (the windscreen on the ELF is claimed to shed water by design). Other car-like features are a lockable hatchback and an optional heater, though even in very cold weather people are finding that the physical activity of pedalling combined with the insulation afforded by the bodyshell and warm clothing are sufficient.

The American ELF and the PEBL vehicles are both in production, but other companies are working on concepts. Evovelo mö (below left) is being developed in Spain. Under the bodyshell it is a side-by-side tandem large enough for two adults. Like the PEBL it has a lockable cargo space, and like the ELF it has a solar panel to extend the range of the battery. It is classified in EU countries as a pedelec.

Veemo (below right) is a Canadian company that plans to offer a pedal-assisted electric vehicle sharing scheme. Rather than buying the vehicle outright, users would simply hire as required, leaving the vehicle in any legal parking spot. This may work well in parts of the world where people behave with social responsibility, but one can't but help think of the experience of Mobike in Manchester. However, the vehicle itself looks practical, and like the ELF has an integrated solar panel.

Evovelo mö Double-parked Veemos

All these vehicles are true zero or near zero carbon vehicles, and do not create all the problems I referred to in my first article in this series (on electrified conventional cars). To me, they are a hugely better way of addressing the existential threat of climate change than electrifying cars and SUVs. But would the car-like qualities of vehicles such as those described above be attractive to people who have been brought up with the idea that a car is the only acceptable way to get about? Sadly vehicles like this are never going to get a chance all the while our infrastructure is hostile to cycling. The new A38 and A34 cycle routes in Birmingham would be suitable for use with such vehicles, but people are no more likely to be willing to pedal a CUV along a carriageway with cars, trucks, and buses to reach these routes than they are a conventional bike. So we have another lost opportunity, both for business, and for tackling climate change. When politicians once again kick that opportunity down the road by not getting on with making the changes necessary to allow people to feel safe when cycling, I do wonder if they understand what "existential threat" means.