The Copenhagen Wheel

I hold the possibly idiosyncratic view that hybrid electric bicycles could be a significant mode of transportation in the future. Hybrid electric bicycles add a battery pack and a motor to a standard bike frame, providing a boost to riders as they pedal up hills, haul loads, or just cruise around town. Although bicycle purists look down on them, hybrids seem (to me, at least) to address some of the issues around range and physical effort in a way that could open up cycling to a greater audience.

The con side of this argument is that electric hybrid bikes are too expensive and far too limited relative to cars to appeal to more than a narrow sliver of the population. The fact that 100 million “E-bikes” have been sold in China could be taken either way: 100 million is unquestionably a mass market; on the other hand, most Chinese buyers are upgrading from regular bicycles, not downgrading from automobiles, which are still too expensive for most of the population.

Anyhow. This is a long way around to introducing the Copenhagen Wheel, a project out of MIT to develop a stylish hybrid-electric bike that incorporates a variety of jazzy digital technologies. The Copenhagen Wheel isn’t a bike itself but rather a, well, wheel built around a smooth disk of candy-red plastic containing a three-speed internal hub, a battery, a GPS receiver, and a variety of sensors to monitor ambient conditions such as temperature and pollution levels.

Key to the Wheel’s design is that it requires no cabling, so it can easily be added to any conventional bike frame, instantly turning it into a hybrid electric. You may be wondering how you change gears on a wheel with no cables. That’s where your iPhone comes in.

Wheel owners mount their iPhone (or other smart phone) on the handlebars and use it as a controller via a Bluetooth connection to the hub. Use the phone to lock and unlock the Wheel, to change gears, and to collect and view data, such as miles traveled, noise and weather, etc. Because smart phones are also internet devices, this information can be loaded onto the web and shared via social networking applications or compiled with information from other Wheel owners to create a real-time data map of the urban environment.

The Copenhagen Wheel also captures energy from the brakes to recharge the batteries, a feature that seems to have excited a lot of the gadget press, but strikes me as perhaps not so important. My impression is that there isn’t a ton of kinetic energy worth capturing from a bicycle — they don’t weigh a lot and tend not to travel that fast in urban settings — so this feature may be a bit of a frill. I’d love to be wrong about this, though, and certainly the feature doesn’t seem to be hurting anything.

Perhaps the best news is that Wheel isn’t a mere research project. Ducati will put them into production next year, and the city of Copenhagen may start buying them on a trial basis as a replacement for government cars.

The bad news is that the Wheel will cost about as much a standard electric bicycle. The price barrier still hasn’t been breached, and likely won’t until batteries get a lot cheaper.

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  1. Phoenix Woman - December 30, 2009

    I. Want. This.
    This is very similar to technology currently in use that turns ordinary manual wheelchairs into powered chairs with nothing but a wheel swap required. The cost factor should go down once more of these are made.

  2. Angus - December 30, 2009

    Adam – thanks, nice find.
    Regarding regen braking on bikes, consider where you live. If you climb any of the notable hills in the SF Bay Area using this hub, you will surely run the battreries down a bit. Then the bike wil recharge on the way back down using regen. Bionix makes what I believe to be the only regen hub prior to this, in Canada. It is a great hub, and rding will make you a believer. I know rider with a heavy steel streamliner/freight bike that can climb Berkeley hills in a loop that involves three passes, each with over a thousand feet of climbing, and he does it with a group of fast lycra riders, and does not not deplete the batteries – they come back up on the downhills.
    I have been persuaded by this hub that regen is the bomb. About hybrid bikes, I agree, they are great. I sock two on the floor at my shop. However much you and I agree about how good they are, while fuel remains cheap, americans clearly prefer to drive. Have not sold one yet.
    PS – I can get you a ride on a Bionix if you like. And you can find a bit on the Bionix on you-tube.

  3. Adam Stein - December 30, 2009

    I’d love to test ride a Bionix. I live in New York, though. Where is your shop?

  4. Mark Palmquist - December 31, 2009

    Interesting article. I have a mechanical engineering background and wanted to comment on regenerative braking. Question: How much energy is required to take a vehicle from, say, 0 to 25 mph? Answer: the same amount of energy to take the same vehicle from 25 to 0. If you think about it that way, you realize how much energy we literally throw away when we hit the brakes. It does not matter how much a vehicle weighs, regenerative breaking is a great idea for any powered vehicle. Although, you never recover ALL the energy, at least you are not throwing it ALL away in the form of frictional heat loss in the brake pads. Thinking of ways to save energy is almost as fun as riding my bike!

  5. Adam Stein - January 1, 2010

    That’s true, but: I’m pretty sure most of the energy put into cycling is lost to air resistance and rolling resistance. When riding on a flat surface under normal conditions, you have to pedal constantly to keep your speed up. None of that energy can be reclaimed by regenerative braking.
    Of course, the batteries on an electric hybrid are just providing a boost, so maybe it is possibly to recapture a significant portion of that boost using the brakes. I’m still a bit skeptical, but it would be interesting to see some data.

  6. Phoenix Woman - January 1, 2010

    I’m not looking for a full-on electric bike — just one that could provide a little electric boost without weighing down the bike too much for it to be conventionally rideable. At least one serious cyclist seems to think that this could fill that bill.

  7. Todd Edelman Green Idea Factory - January 2, 2010

    Bikes work best when simple… but, OK, let’s say this works (the wheel regenerates and helps, the smart phone is not shaken off nor affected by weather…)
    We can assume that most people who can afford to spend 2000-2500 dollars on this will already have a smart phone, but not only will this require EVERY user to have a smart phone, I imagine it will also stimulate lock sales.
    Also, a person who gets one of these probably already has a bike which costs at least 800 or 1000 dollars, so then the question is about security for a machine which in total costs 3500 dollars or more. If someone puts one of these on an imported Dutch cargo bike we’re talking upwards of 5500 dollars… if you can’t ride a bike to the the movies, what’s the point?
    Finally, what will people do with the extra rear wheel? If their bike had an external derailleur then the drive train would have been significantly modified so it would not be easy to swap it back, e.g. if the Copenhagen Wheel needed servicing. And what if their phone is not working for some reason…?

  8. Adam Stein - January 2, 2010

    This seems like an elaborate way of saying that this product isn’t for everybody. Which it isn’t. But maybe it’s for some people.
    Also, if you live in Holland, then your Dutch cargo bike isn’t imported, and you probably already have a smart phone. I’m not really sure how well the smart phone interface will work in real life, but it’s an interesting idea, and in general I like the notion of using phones — which are really just mobile, internet-capable computers — as the controllers to a wide variety of devices.

  9. Petr Buben - January 2, 2010

    A vote for recuperation – regeneration here. It is an important principle. For a bicycle, one can recover the energy of the slope, hill. Meaning, recovered downhill energy will help to ride up, which might not be even possible if the hills is steep enough.
    Maybe with recuperation then, we practically ‘flatten’, copenhagenize any surface relief – any hills will appear ‘close to’ flat to a recuperated bicycle. Am I correct?

  10. Shirlee - January 3, 2010

    I have been using an electric motor assisted bicycle for a year and a half. Love it. Am no longer overheated and sweaty when I arrive at work. Of course it must be locked in a secure spot. It cost $1800 for the new 8 speed bike plus motor plus lithium ion battery. It has a range of 40 miles, somewhat less with the cold temps of winter riding. The Copenhagen wheel is an excitng improvement on the existing design, but why wait?

  11. William Lidstone - January 20, 2010

    As for the energy recapture point in your article, isn’t it more the mass of the rider than the bike that would add kinetic potential? Big guys like me would use more energy – the system would recapture it. Is that right?

  12. Adam Stein - January 20, 2010

    Yes, but I think the bigger issue is that not very much of your bike’s energy is lost to braking. Mostly it’s lost to air resistance and rolling resistance, and none of that can be recaptured. It would still be interesting to see some data.

  13. William Lidstone - January 20, 2010

    Thanks for your comment and good points too.
    Any data would have to factor out variables such as differences in wind resistance ( I create a great deal on the bike versus my more slender neighbour)but it would interesting data especially if you’re doing a manufacturing cost-benefit analysis, as in is the recapture technology worth the expense versus the energy savings?
    Anything that would lower the price would lead to greater adoption, so leaving out the recapture capability could actually lead to a ‘virtuous circle’. Lower price,greater adoption and use, means more price reduction with economies of scale, means even greater use and then lower prices etc. All meaning less fossil fuel burned for passenger mile/kilometre.
    So in the end, making it less ‘green’ could make it more ‘green’.