A space on the northern edge of downtown Winston-Salem has been transformed into a local hub for developing light electric vehicles and e-bikes; it's a multigenerational effort.
Behind the purple door of what was once a downtown tobacco warehouse is a workshop crammed with rows and rows of bikes.
They look different from typical two-wheelers. Many are custom-designed and built using parts of other vehicles. Some are tricycles. A lot of them are surrounded by roll bars or long rods for safer riding. Others have colorful aerodynamic shells.
“This is what's called a Skunk Works,” says Don Gerhardt, who runs his company Gerhardt Cycles in this space. “A Skunk Works was developed during World War II, to develop secret vehicles and aircraft. So a lot of what we do in this warehouse is to advance research on future vehicles.”
Since retiring as an executive at major vehicle manufacturers including General Motors and Ford Motor Co., Gerhardt has changed his focus from cars to what he sees as an expanding market in the United States: light electric vehicles and e-bikes.
American consumers are taking to these forms of transportation — those with a battery, less than four wheels and usually weighing under 220 pounds — in big numbers.
The Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA), an industry trade group, found that imports of e-bikes to the U.S. surged during the pandemic, to nearly 800,000 units in 2021.
That was a 70 percent increase compared to 2020 and even surpassed the number of electric cars and plug-in hybrids sold domestically that year in the U.S., according to research provider BloombergNEF.
There are a lot of hotspots for innovation in certain parts of the country for these types of vehicles. But the Southeast isn’t one of them, and that’s what makes this endeavor stand out, says Mark Smith, an adjunct faculty member with Wake Technical Community College’s Transportation Technologies division.
"If you were in New York City, [you'd] probably have a half a dozen such resources. If you're in the Baltimore-Washington area, have four or five. And so yeah, for our population base here, there's only one other store even close to resembling what Sol Mobil and Don do.”
The “Sol Mobil” that Smith mentions is also part of the warehouse hub. Thirty-year-old Ryan Gillespie runs Sol Mobil Electric Vehicles, with some mentoring from Gerhardt.
“We come from really different backgrounds," Gillespie says. "I come from more of like a music, and like creative expression background than Don. Though we have some different skill sets, and obviously a few generations gap, we kind of struck up a good rapoport and just really enjoy working together.”
Gillespie went to Appalachian State University with plans to study biodiesel fuels. He changed gears when he decided electric vehicles were closer to what he had in mind about environmentally friendly ways to travel.
Part of that move was based on his experiences riding a traditional bike in college.
"I got into e-bikes when I lived in Boone for reasons — for vertical reasons," he says. "When you're going up the mountain, you know you're going like two or three miles an hour if you're lucky enough to not have to walk it. And people hate that.”
Gillespie makes his current living through a mix of repairing and selling e-bikes. His long-term goal is creating solar-powered bikes as a greener alternative to standard cars.
“If I wanted to go to Atlanta, I think a Tesla is a great option," he says. "But I think if I want to go down to the farmers market, or to Pilot Mountain or to Greensboro, no, it's kind of a garbage option.”
The work being done by Gerhardt and Gillespie is getting noticed by other environmentally conscious vehicle advocates.
Last month the Solar Butterfly made a stop at the Mixxer Community Makerspace, just down the street from the warehouse. It’s a roughly 30-foot car-and-trailer caravan powered by the sun.
The caravan’s trip began last year in Geneva and it’s scheduled to conclude in Brazil for the 2025 international climate meeting sponsored by the United Nations.
Noël Heinz is a volunteer on the project from Switzerland. He says Winston-Salem was chosen as a stop in part because of the creative work being done by people like Gillespie, who share the same goal of finding clean energy solutions.
“Nowadays, we are caterpillars," he says. "We are eating the fossil fuels. And we should become butterflies, spread our wings, use clean power, and get away from fossil fuels. That is what it is all about.”
But there are some barriers to making that shift. For lightweight electric vehicles and e-bikes, one of the factors restraining growth is the perception that they’re not safe, Gerhardt says.
That’s why so many of his vehicles have protective gear around them. For example, a three-wheeled hybrid Gerhardt designed and built from a retrofitted scooter that has an unusual feature for a bike like this: The rider can lean in either direction. That makes turning easier and safer.
“That vehicle is being designed to withstand a 50-mile-an-hour crash," he says. "And you can walk away from it.”
Gerhardt says he’s going to continue working to expand knowledge within the industry, both locally and beyond. He’s written a manual on electric vehicle batteries that he continuously updates and travels the world running training courses.
Gerhardt and Smith are also working on turning that knowledge and experience into courses for the electric vehicle curriculum at Forsyth Technical Community College and Wake Tech.
It’s all part of preparing the next generation of riders. Among them, Gerhardt’s grandson, Jonathan, who serves as chief technical officer of the company.