John E. Lisman, a summer resident of Woods Hole, received a solar-electric tricycle for his 70th birthday two weeks ago. Residents and visitors got a good look at the tiny vehicle Sunday, when Dr. Lisman drove it in the Fourth of July parade along Water Street.
The vehicle cost $6,000 and was manufactured by the North Carolina company Organic Transit. It is named “the Elf,” which is how Dr. Lisman refers to it.
Sitting outside his summer cottage Tuesday morning, Dr. Lisman said he had been dreaming of a vehicle like the Elf for many years. The desired criteria: “It needs to be fast enough to be on a back road, and it should be protected, so I don’t need to be in the rain, and a place for my briefcase, and it should be safe,” he said.
Dr. Lisman is a professor of neuroscience at Brandeis University outside Boston; his primary residence in Watertown is eight miles from Brandeis. He said he has long envisioned a covered electric bicycle as the optimal commuting vehicle both from an ecological and a health perspective. “Why go to a health club and sit on a stationary bike when you could use that effort to actually get somewhere?” he asked.
Attempts to build such a vehicle himself over the years did not work out, Dr. Lisman said. “It rapidly became clear it was too difficult in the time I had available,” he said. But then the family discovered the Elf, and Dr. Lisman’s wife, Natasha C. Lisman, gave it to him for his birthday.
Dr. Lisman is pleased with the trike’s performance. A solar panel on the roof of the vehicle charges a battery that powers a 600-Watt electric motor. The Elf runs at a top speed of 20 miles per hour. “And it has a lot of power to get up steep hills,” Dr. Lisman said. Getting up the hill to Nobska Lighthouse the other day was easy, he said.
However, Dr. Lisman feels the Elf’s manufactures “did not do a good job on safety.” He plans to install a seat belt, and wishes the vehicle were built to better withstand a collision. “This is first of its kind,” Dr. Lisman said. “I think we’ll rapidly see a diversity of these vehicles” with better safety and other improved features.
Dr. Lisman walked over to the trike, and showed that the controls look very similar to a bicycle, with a hand brake and circular gear shifter on the handle bars. There are also headlights, a parking brake, blinkers, and side mirrors; but no speedometer, and no reverse.
Dr. Lisman allowed a reporter to drive the trike around the block, including up and down a hill. The throttle is peppy, but also sensitive enough to allow the driver to dial back the motor and contribute appreciable pedal power at any grade, flat or uphill. The hand brake squeaks loudly. The Elf weighs 150 pounds.
So far Dr. Lisman has just been driving the Elf around Woods Hole. But soon he plans to venture to downtown Falmouth via Oyster Pond Road and Surf Drive.
Dr. Lisman said he considered taking his Elf on the bike path to get to downtown. The website for the Elf says the vehicle is legally a bicycle and can be driven on public bike paths, as well as parked on sidewalks. But Dr. Lisman is dubious.
Lieutenant Sean F. Doyle of the Falmouth Police Department said opting for the roadway rather than the bike path is probably “a good common sense decision.” However, Lt. Doyle said he is not currently aware of any laws or statutes that prohibit Dr. Lisman from using the Shining Sea Bikeway. “It’s a new technology” and “we’re not certain” if laws exist on its proper use, Lt. Doyle said. Public officials will “continue to look into” the matter, he said.
According a company official, the first Elf was sold in March of 2013, and the company has since sold over 300 vehicles.
According to Dr. Lisman’s daughter, Nora L. Zimbler, when Dr. Lisman’s family gave him the bike two weeks ago, his granddaughter Natalie J. Lisman said, “Boy, Opa sure did get an unusual-looking bike!”