Reinventing the wheel - Metro US

Reinventing the wheel

Bikes are great, but have you ever tried commuting on one? Does your commute happen to have an incline, or many? Are you not fond of sweating through your button down shirts?

TheCopenhagenWheel might be for you, sweaty July commuter; or, for that matter, anyone who’s route is a little too long or arduous for human-powered travel. The wheel is a robotic motor, situated in the hub of the back tire, that uses sensors to apply a boost when one is needed, amplifying effort and making the rider feel as though gravity’s been turned down a few notches.

“What we decided to do is to say, lets make something that allows the rider to become stronger, instead of making this an exercise in making a cheap motorcycle,” says Assaf Biderman, founder of Copenhagen Wheel developer Superpedestrian, which spun off from MIT’s SenseableCity lab, where the wheel was designed. “Let’s make something that preserves the experience of cycling.”

We headed to Superpedestrian’s Cambridge office to give the wheel a spin. (As can you: hour-long demos are free on Friday afternoons, and for $15 you can take a wheel with a 30-mile range out for a full day.) Upon arriving, we’re given a Copenhagen Wheel-powered bike with a mounted iPhone equipped with the Superpedestrian app. Wirelessly connected to the wheel using Bluetooth, the app logs speed, torque and route data and controls the wheel’s setting: eco, standard and turbo modes provide progressively more assistance and less range. Back-pedaling recharges the wheel, much like braking recharges an electric car, and the app displays power expended and taken in.

For a half hour, we took the bike up and down Massachusetts Avenue, through MIT, across the Charles and back again. The first thing you notice is the stop-starts. Even when taking off at a green light at the bottom of a hill, the bike accelerates with the touch of a pedal, no strain required. When we move from standard to turbo, we blow past a confused manual cyclist like he’s standing still.

The wheel caps the bike at 20 mph, but that’s Bugatti speed in the bike lane, and it’s maintained on inclines. After 30 minutes, we haven’t broken a sweat. It’s clear that someone could bike at this effort level all day, and it does feel like biking, albeit while being towed along by an unseen piano wire.

The Copenhagen Wheel could make bike commuting practical for many for whom it isn’t currently. It’s understandable, then, that Superpedestrian isn’t the only company pursuing this technology; they are, however, the only one with a license for it, and earlier this year they brought lawsuits against FlyKly of New York and ZeHus of Milan, Italy, for selling variations on the Copenhagen Wheel.

“If you’re not protecting your rights, you could go belly up before you even release the product,” says Biderman. “The market is really big and we’d love to see more activity in it, but not if you come and take our product.”

Whether the wheel becomes a success, or whether Superpedestrian decides to make their patent open-source, as Tesla did with theirs in 2014, remains to be seen. For now, anyone with a Copenhagen Wheel can keep leaving human-power pedalers in the dust.

If you go:

Fridays, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Free group demos
Weekdays at 10 a.m.
84 Hamilton St., Cambridge
Bike for a day, $15, register atsuperpedestrian.com

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