Several people have breathlessly alerted me to the big announcement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the MIT “Copenhagen Wheel” — a rear wheel with hub-enclosed technology that not only boosts a cyclist with a “burst of power” on demand but contains a number of “smart bike” features, including anti-theft “braking” and email notification.
OK, I love all this. But really.
First off, in evaluating any Woo Woo Tech Whiz product, I like to see numbers. In the reports I’ve seen so far, there aren’t any. Battery type. Wattage output. Drive-system specifications. Weight. Volume. Does the hub have internal shifting? Judging from the photo, it’s either that or a singlespeed with a fairly challenging gear ratio. No wonder it needs a battery boost.
Battery technology is improving all the time, so maybe this thing can put out enough power to be meaningful. And the brake-regeneration system works, as the Prius I drive attests to. But you don’t brake bikes the way you brake cars; bikes slow down pretty well on their own on most surfaces. Cars have to be braked far more, with considerably more force.
Further, the press release mentions only “steep inclines” for acceleration boosting. Seattle and San Francisco, to cite a couple of bike friendly cities, don’t have inclines, they have hills. Inclines are something almost anyone serious about cycling can handle without a battery boost. Hills are where you really need an electric backburner.
But auxiliary power is just one facet of the Copenhagen wheel. It’s supposed to be chock full of “cheap electronics” that notify you of friends nearby, how much pollution is in the air, terrain challenges ahead, distance to and from, and other cool stuff. It supposedly will interface with your iPhone as the client, all well and good. The iPhone can do much of this already, but the notion of real-time communication with your bike invites all kinds of fantasizing.
The one that stopped me, though, was the theft-deterrence feature. Apparently the bike will automatically go into brake mode when stolen and automatically send the owner an email that his or her bike has been purloined. Under the “worst-case scenario,” the press release states, “the thief will have charged your batteries before you get back your bike.”
No, under the worst case scenario, the thief tosses your bike in a truck, slaps a lead case over the hub (or simply jams the signal) and drives off to a lab where the electronics are reconfigured to impede any detection of or communication with the bike.
The Copenhagen Wheel is asking a lot in terms of consumer faith, and my skepticism derives from two real-world reality checks. First, this is still a project in development (is there even a prototype?), which means it needs continued funding. And the best way to get funding is to hype something over the ever-gullible mainstream press and eWorld.
Secondly, recall the last time we were promised a huge breakthrough in personal transportation technology. A two-wheeled invention that would prove bigger than the personal computer, and more important than the Internet. That’s right, the Segway.
Yeah, like that worked…
Still, I know a guy who’d be the perfect ambassador for the Copenhagen wheel. It’s Seattle’s new mayor, Mike McGinn. He already rides an electric bike and knows a lot more about its ins and outs than a mere blogger like me. Plus he’s committed to continuing to ride as mayor.
MIT, here’s your guinea pig.