After riding among a caravan of bright blue bikes up Oakland's O'Hara Street Thursday, University of Pittsburgh senior Micah Toll said he wasn't surprised by the attention from onlookers. Especially considering that they were gliding up the inclined roadway at about 15 mph without pedaling.
"People have been really impressed, said Mr. Toll, the 22-year-old CEO of Pulse Motors and co-creator of the 2012 Pulse PEVO, a hybrid electric/pedal bicycle featuring the throttle and battery life its creators say can transform travel in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Toll and co-creators, 27-year-old Pitt graduate Thorin Tobiassen and 22-year-old Pitt senior Max Pless, started work on the vehicle two years ago and unrolled the most recent prototype last year. In October, the trio and a team of beta testers began taking the bikes through the city's streets.
As beneficial as the attention from the tests has been in drumming up potential business, it hasn't done much to help the team's punctuality, said Mr. Tobiassen.
"We had some issues last semester when we were trying to rush off to class and we'd be late because of all of these people stopping you at lights or when you're at the bike rack, trying to find out more," he said with an appreciative smile. "It helped when we put the website on [the bikes]," he added.
The idea to create a two-wheeled electric vehicle designed to be "the ultimate Pittsburgh commuting vehicle" had been in Mr. Toll's mind for several years. It didn't take form until he teamed up with Mr. Tobiassen, who has experience working on electric vehicles, and Mr. Pless, who has expertise building bicycles.
Once the crew came together in 2010, they were able to identify issues such as battery life and speed that have complicated efforts to market other electric bicycles.
Rather than adopting a battery that uses dedicated charging stations to recharge, such as those for larger hybrid vehicles, the crew opted for a lithium ion phosphate battery with an onboard charger that plugs into a traditional 110-volt outlet found in most homes. With a motorcycle-like hand-grip throttle that allows users to speed up to 20 mph, the PEVO can travel about 30 miles on a full electric charge -- and that's only if the rider forgets he's on a bike.
"When we say you can make 30 miles, that's with no pedaling at all," said Mr. Tobiassen, "and some of our models have been able to go much farther than that even without pedaling."
Testing on Pittsburgh's terrain has given PEVO's creators an advantage over electric bikes that weren't designed to tackle the hills leading to the Petersen Events Center, said Mr. Toll.
"We've had to source parts and motors that are wound to be extra torque-y, and they're designed to take these hills," he said. "We've had beta testers driving up some of the steepest hills in Pittsburgh, and we've been really impressed with the results. There's some drop in speed, but the fact that you can fly up South Negley Avenue without having to pedal, we think, is pretty impressive."
"That's a big differentiator between us and other just-electric bicycles that are in the market. Those vehicles simply can't take those kind of hills. The motors overheat, and they're not designed for that type of driving. They're really pedal assist, where what we've built are actual electric vehicles where, oh yeah, you can pedal as well."
Nathan Fuhrman, a 21-year-old Pitt senior and beta-tester, said he took the PEVO from his Squirrel Hill home to the North Side, up the intimidating slope of Federal Street, and made it back to Squirrel Hill on a single charge. He said a similar ride up the length of Mount Washington's Sycamore Street gave him no problems.
Tester Jonathan Weisberg, a Pitt senior, has made a game of racing -- and beating -- his bus-riding roommates to campus.
"My roommates and I will be at a bus stop. They'll get on, and I'll wait until they get out of my view and then I'll go. And I beat them every single time," he said.
Becca Yasner, a 21-year-old Carnegie Mellon University senior testing the product, said using it has saved both time and money, compared with commuting by car.
"The first time I was beta-testing, I didn't buy gas for, like, a month and a half," she said.
The local push has revealed a strong market among students and jealous roommates, but PEVO's creators say they're working to sell the product internationally.
The team is seeking $100,000 in angel funding to create a research and development unit in Israel and to start work on ideas for vehicles that can carry multiple users. They also are forming partnerships with local businesses to sponsor advertisements on the body of the bikes.
Mr. Toll said they chose Israel for research and development because of its growing prominence as a source for technological innovation, but also because its citizens are already open to the idea of electric vehicles and there are several projects related to electric vehicles under way in the nation. The partners haven't decided where they will manufacture, but said they plan to keep those operations in the United States.
Mr. Toll expressed excitement about the product's prospects in Israel and in European countries where scooters and bikes are already popular forms of travel. While Pittsburgh and other American cities are embracing the idea of bike trails and alternative means of transportation, he admitted the company faces an uphill battle when it comes to getting the nation off the highway.
"In the United States, it's going to be a little tougher but we're excited for the challenge," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us to show people you don't have to travel around in a 3,000-pound vehicle for one person."
If reactions from the first few months of tests are any indication, getting Americans interested might not be as difficult as Mr. Toll anticipates.
"The market exists," said Mr. Weisberg. "Everyone I talk to, everyone who I explain what this thing is to, is like, 'Wow, I need to get one of those.' "
Pulse Motors will begin leasing the 2012 Pulse PEVO this spring for between $30 and $40 per month. They are using feedback from beta tests to create next-generation vehicles, which they plan to launch en masse by summer 2013 and sell for around $2,000 and up, depending on the model and its features. For more information, visit www.PulseEV.com.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published February 7, 2012 5:00 AM