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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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