Power to the Pedal

Entrepreneurs in Asheville take green vehicles to a new level, utilizing mechanical engineering and electronics to create an electric-assist recumbent vehicle.

FLETCHER — The hot, new mode of transportation that the tech and cycling magazines are all writing about is housed in a garage in a non-descript office park in Fletcher, North Carolina, about 10 miles from Asheville, N.C. There’s a tiny sign on the office door that is adjacent to the large garage door. You would most likely never notice the location of Outrider USA, unless you happened to be outside when an Outrider ultralight adventure vehicle happens to roll out the door.

“We wanted to take the advantages of both sides of the spectrum,” explains Tommy Ausherman, Outrider’s Technical Designer. “That means combining the speed and convenience of a motorcycle and car with the exercise of a bicycle. If you do that, it becomes a really compelling vehicle to get somewhere quickly but also to get in shape.”

And that explains the thinking behind the unique human-electric hybrid vehicle that is rolling across the parking lot in front of you. The Outrider could also be described as a pedal-electric recumbent. And as you continue staring at this incredible looking contraption, Ausherman continues to explain the design.

“In America it’s important to be able to travel long distances because we have long distances between cities,” says Ausherman. “It’s also important to travel at a high rate of speed. The vehicle must have good performance and good acceleration, and it also needs to look good. And that’s how we came up with this.”

The company’s founders, Ausherman and Jesse Lee, began brainstorming the design while trying to think of a faster way to ride to college and be able to keep up with traffic rather than get pushed off the road. The design achieves that. The top speed of an Outrider is 40 miles per hour.

“I think that there are a whole lot of people who, if they open their mind to the benefits of a different transportation platform and to a unique means of power, such as human power and electric power, they would have a whole lot of fun,” says Lee, as he climbs into the seat of an Outrider to explain the design.

The Outrider follows the design of a traditional recumbent, with two wheels in the front and one in the back. The frame is designed to weigh less than 100 pounds. The rider sits in a cloth-covered bucket seat. The upright, right hand control takes care of the one-through-nine gearshift, which operates just like on a traditional bike, as well as the brake for the right wheel. The upright left hand control takes care of the brake for the left wheel, along with the throttle.

That’s right, the throttle.

There are three different power levels on the Outrider, which are all controlled through the tiny computer screen that is mounted in front of the driver. The screen also displays the battery life along with speed and distance. Remember, the Outrider is a human-electric hybrid.

“The lithium-ion battery sits on the bottom of the frame and it takes about 90 minutes to charge,” explains Lee, as he points to the flat, black box just behind and under the rider’s seat. “But the real genius with Outrider is the motor, which is about the size of a soda can and is right behind my back.”

“That’s the motor,” says Ausherman, and he squats down next the vehicle and points to a cylinder just behind the seat. “It is incredibly small but very powerful. It puts out about six-horse power and spins at 8000 rpm, so very high rpm, and low torque.”

Torque is a measure of how much force acting on an object causes that object to rotate. The Outrider’s designers aligned the motor, belts and gears to increase torque.

“So to increase the torque, we run it through two stages of gear reduction; so what that essentially does is it uses leverage to convert the rpms — the high rpm, high power motor into a lower rpm, high torque motor,” explains Ausherman as he points out the different gears. The wheels and belts are about the same size and one sits slightly behind the other. “So here are the two gears and here is the first stage of the belt reduction and here is the second. The end result of all this is that we can get the performance of a much larger motor from a very small motor.”

There are also front and rear taillights and a seven-foot, lighted LED antenna with a flag attached to the rear of the vehicle. The rider peddles until the speed reaches four mph and then the battery assist motor can be engaged. While the battery charges in 90 minutes, the range of how far the Outrider can go on battery power depends on how much the rider uses the motor. The vehicle was designed to keep up with traffic, which is why the top speed is 40 mph.

The question, of course, is where to ride.

“Many of our customers use the Outrider to commute to work, and it’s certainly able to be on the road because you can keep up with the flow of traffic,” says Matt Godfrey, Outrider USA’s sales manager. You can tell he’s answered this question before. “There’s three different power levels you can program in through the controller. On low, you can ride anywhere in the United States and it is legally considered a bicycle. If you ride on medium or high, it depends on your state but here in North Carolina the limit is 30 mph and it is considered a moped.”

Drivers must wear a helmet in every state. All Outriders are shipped with a low power setting and a top speed of 20 mph, so the vehicle can be driven anywhere a bicycle is allowed to travel. Power can be increased depending on local laws, but Outriders would no longer be considered a bicycle. 

“Basically what we want to do is take the lightest possible vehicle, we want it always to be under 100 pounds, we want it always to be less than the rider’s weight, and we want to give the rider the opportunity to go on an adventure," adds Lee, as he hands me a helmet. I climb into the Outrider’s seat. “Whatever an adventure might mean to that rider, we want to let them experience it. Whether it be commuting to work and getting a thrill getting there or going out on the weekend and camping out and getting that experience, our goal is to enable the use to experience the adventure.”

About 200 Outriders have been sold in the past five years. The starting price for the base model is $7900.

After a quick lesson, Jesse and I were off and rolling. We turned around in the parking lot and pulled out on the side road in front of the garage. Peddling a recumbent takes a bit of getting used to, because you are riding much lower to the ground, yet the vehicle’s design makes riding much easier on the back and the rider’s field of view is also much wider.

Jesse yells to me that we are travelling at above four mph and I could engage the motor. A slight twist of the left hand turns on the throttle, and suddenly the Outrider is accelerating. It is smooth and easy. When I ease the throttle back, the Outrider slows down. The brakes are independent, which means I could slow the tires individually, but I slightly squeeze both brakes and the vehicle slows. Turning is push-pull. I leaned into the turn and made a circle at the end of the road to head back to the garage.

Overall, I found the vehicle very responsive, very smooth and quiet, and incredibly easy to drive. And it was really fun. So fun, I wanted to keep going to start an adventure, but I’m not sure Jesse would have agreed.

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