December 5, 2013
There’s a reason why big city mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg have pushed hard for the widespread adoption of bike sharing programs. Getting people to collectively start pedaling, instead of driving, can ease traffic congestion, reduce the strain on the public health system and clear up air quality in one fell swoop.
But try telling that to the sweaty business executive in the three-piece suit who’s straining to pedal uphill to make it to an important board meeting on time.
Now, the Boston-based startup Superpedestrian has an innovative alternative for those who still want to enjoy all the benefits of bicycling, but with a lot less grunting. Their pedal assist device, called the Copenhagen Wheel, can be easily slipped onto almost any bicycle as a lightweight modified rear wheel that provides a motorized boost for moments when riders need it most, like, for instance, going uphill. Sandwiched between what looks like two metallic red hubcaps is an intricate system comprised of a 350 watt electric motor and a 48 volt lithium-ion battery that combine to generate an energy output that amounts to more than four times what an average person can muster by just pedaling.
Though the company is keeping mum on how the patent-pending technology works, we do know that the system utilizes what’s called regenerative braking to continuously recharge the onboard battery. Such systems, typically integrated into electric cars and hybrids, convert the kinetic energy involved in stopping a moving vehicle’s forward momentum, as brakes are applied, into stored power. The resulting output gives the modified bicycle a range of 30 miles and a potential top speed of 20 mph.
In some ways, the Copenhagen Wheel does for electric bicycles what Apple did for mobile computing with the smartphone and tablets, in shrinking down all the necessary components into a compact 12-pound module. The minimalist design eliminates the need for certain parts, such as an external throttle, and even includes enhancements like a sensor system designed to automatically track the rider’s pedaling patterns, the shape of the terrain and other environmental conditions to determine when extra power is needed. The device also features built-in Wi-Fi so riders can access the data via a smartphone app, which displays fitness-related metrics such as distances traveled and calories burned.
The idea for the wheel was conceived back in 2009 when Assaf Biderman, an inventor and associate director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, was tasked by the mayor of Copenhagen to figure out a way to motivate more locals to adopt bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. During his research, he found that many deemed bikes as impractical due to a variety of reasons, ranging from the strenuousness of traveling long distances to not wanting to show up at work covered in sweat.
Pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have gained popularity over the last decade, rising steadily to account for 12 percent of all bicycle sales worldwide. Millions have been sold in Asian countries, such as China, where bicycles often serve as a main mode of transport. But the technology’s reach stalls out when it comes to ardent bike enthusiasts, many of whom consider the vehicles to be too clunky. For them, pedal-assisted riding barely resembles the true bicycling experience, and all its joys.
“So we said, let’s think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal,” Biderman told Public Radio International.
The Copenhagen Wheel is on sale now for $700, with the earliest shipments scheduled for the the beginning of 2014. And it’s only then that we’ll learn whether the technology lives up to its claims in the rockier parts of the real-world.
November 19, 2013
It’s either grossly unfair or perfectly logical. With fuel prices perpetually on the rise, airlines are enacting measures to account for the cost of any additional weight loaded onto each flight. While fees for extra baggage can be irritating for customers, a recent trend toward also metering human poundage risks really rubbing people the wrong way.
For instance, Samoa Airlines courted controversy earlier this year when the company announced that it would start setting ticket prices according to a person’s weight. In an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio, CEO Chris Langton defended the new business model as “the fairest way of traveling.” Past research has found that 59 percent of men and 71 percent of women living in American Samoa were obese. And in 2009, Michael O’Leary, the outspoken CEO of European discount airline Ryan Air, floated the idea of levying a tax on those deemed overweight, reasoning that the obesity problem has gotten so bad that passengers do not want to “tax fat people but torture them.”
Others in the industry are taking a milder, more diplomatic tact. Citing “trends in demographics,” aircraft manufacturer Airbus has given airlines the option of installing wider seats for customers who can’t fit into standard arrangements. And now Seymourpowell, a British design firm, has proposed a concept for adjustable seats that can morph to the space-demands and contours of an individual’s body.
To drum up interest, the design team produced a video that carefully glossed over the more controversial aspects of their idea; it kindly noted that “all people are different” while playing up the seating arrangement’s benefits to customers and airlines, such as “more choice for customers’ and “flexibility for airlines.” Rather than upgrading all the way up to first class, people can simply purchase enough space to feel comfortable or even lie down, which is the biggest draw of business class anyway. There’s even a case to be made that space-tiered pricing would bring down the cost for many passengers overall.
The best way to understand how the “Morph” works is to envision a row of seats as one long bench. In its default arrangement, the system resembles the standard 18-inch 3 x 1 window and aisle seating found on many commercial aircraft. But for each seat to be modifiable, the traditional foam cushions are replaced with a long flexible, yet strong fabric that’s stretched over the bottom part, with another large piece covering the entire back portion. A series of moving parts and mechanisms allows the seat to mold itself to the passenger’s particular shape and preferences. The system has an adjustable handrest and seat divider frame that can slide sideways and clamp down to form the desired dimensions. So, if a family of three purchases a row of seats—one for mom, one for dad and one for a small child, they can share the space accordingly. You can see a few different seating patterns in the illustration below.
Although this is only in the conceptual stage, it’s pretty much inevitable that airlines’ approach toward passenger seats will undergo a sea change of sorts at some point in the near future. Much of the cost-cutting, which began with minute changes, like revoking the complimentary peanuts, has gotten more serious. Some companies are experimenting with thinner seats to allow for additional rows. Ryan Air, with it’s reputation for nickel and diming passengers, has even floated the idea of having a “standing cabin” in place of the last ten rows of seats, allowing more people to pack aboard an aircraft. And considering the finesse airlines take in reframing what can be a dicey and sensitive public relations matter as a way to provide passengers more choice, should anyone be shocked that major manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are already interested?
“One airline told us that if they have an oversized passenger, they make them buy two seats,” says Jeremy White, head of transport at Seymourpowell. “I can’t think of anything more degrading or humiliating than forcing someone to buy two seats because they are a bit wide. Would they rather that, than tune their seats for a few more bucks so it fits them?”
While no one wants to sit next to someone who spills over his or her own personal space, isn’t this new seating arrangement, underneath it all, just an elegantly disguised means to discriminate?
November 13, 2013
Nissan believes that the BladeGlider, its latest vision for an electric vehicle, is so especially revolutionary that it wants to make it clear to everyone that the car is “more than just a concept.”
I know. Besides automobiles, sounds like the Japanese automaker is busy engineering some hype as well.
To be introduced at the upcoming Tokyo Auto Show, the BladeGlider is, to Nissan’s credit, unlike any street-legal car that you’ve seen. There’s the innovative use of space-efficient, in-wheel electric motors installed within the hub of the car’s rear wheels. Also, notice the unusual triangular seating arrangement that makes it that rarest of rare car breeds: a three-seater. This odd configuration, however, is fitting since it makes room for an aggressively aerodynamic redesign that looks to be inspired more by military aircraft like the F-14 jet fighter than anything on the road today.
“BladeGlider was conceived around delivering a glider-like exhilaration that echoes its lightweight, downsized hyper-efficient aerodynamic form,” vice president and chief creative officer Shiro Nakamura said in a press release. “This design is more than revolutionary; it’s transformational.”
To be sure, the BladeGlider doesn’t fly (it’s still essentially a car), though it does things that no other four-wheeler in production can. For instance, the drastic shift from the more evenly proportioned dimensions found in standard cars to an alignment where the rear measures about 6 feet across then narrows significantly to just 3.3 feet in the front reduces drag substantially, enabling faster straight line and cornering speed. It also features a unique lightweight carbon fiber underbody that’s not only sturdy but also generates significant downforce to keep the vehicle gripped to the road, eliminating the need for a rear wing. Such attachments are typically installed to help race cars, like sprint cars, hug the track during high-speed driving, but they consequently create drag, which also slows down the car.
In a way, the BladeGlider can be seen as a potentially street-legal version of Nissan’s experimental race car the DeltaWing. Both were drawn up by automotive designer Ben Bowlby and share a similar weight redistribution ratio with the front comprising 30 percent of the car’s weighted mass and the remaining 70 percent carried in the back. With the DeltaWing project, the development team successfully demonstrated that a dramatic overhaul of a car’s architecture would allow something with a much smaller engine to keep pace with some of the world’s fastest race cars when the vehicle finished in 5th place at last year’s American Le Mans Series season finale. Bowlby has since built upon these accomplishments with the development of the Nissan ZEOD RC, a hybrid electric version dubbed “The World’s Fastest Electric Racing Car” that is slated to make its debut at Le Mans next year.
The fact that the BladeGlider is powered by a pair of rear in-wheel motors (Nissan didn’t detail the specs) allows for greater fuel efficiency, because the nascent technology doesn’t rely on complex mechanical processes used by internal combustion engines to deliver energy to the wheels. A series of lithium-ion battery modules located in the rear fuels the motors. Nissan, again, would like to remind everyone that when the BladeGlider indeed “matures into production” it will be the first mass-market use of in-wheel systems.
Some experts, however, think the automaker may have to curb its enthusiasm a bit. “Translating the BladeGlider from concept to customer could be challenging,” writes Paul A. Eisenstein of the industry publication The Detroit Bureau. “Among other things, it will have to adapt to strict new crash standards that could prove challenging with the unusual shape of the vehicle’s nose.”
That said, he adds, ”Nissan seems as committed to using a Delta design on the highway as it is on the track.”
November 12, 2013
You can’t really overstate the importance of bicycle locks as the first line of defense, and usually, the only deterrent against would-be crooks. As most police departments, particularly in large cities, are often overwhelmed with serious felony cases such as murders and burglaries, investigations into instances of bike theft tend to be treated as a much lower priority. And with such little recourse, the chances of owners actually recovering their bicycles is, sadly, around 5 percent.
“We make it easy for them (bike thieves),” Sgt. Joe McCloskey of the San Francisco Police Department told the San Francisco Bay Guardian a few years back. “The DA doesn’t do tough prosecutions. All the thieves we’ve busted have got probation. They treat it like a petty crime.”
Where there’s such an obvious blind spot for criminal activity, there will be rampant opportunism, naturally. The thievery of individual bike components has become increasingly popular since they don’t have serial numbers and thus represent an untraceable source of profit for black market dealers. ETA, a U.K.-based bicycle insurance company, reports that the the number of claims filed for stolen bike parts in 2011 doubled from incidences in 2010. “When you next park your bicycle, count the number of easily removable components and accessories on neighboring bikes and you’ll get an idea of the haul a thief can expect from a single bike rack,” Yannick Read, spokesperson for ETA told The Guardian.
In a world where high-performance road bicycles can cost $5,000, individual components, such as the saddle, can sell for hundreds of dollars. Professional bicycle thieves know this—and standard bicycle locks won’t stop them from swiping pricey parts.
In light of this, a few startups have developed specialized locks to prevent devious people from stealing the most valuable parts of a bicycle. A British company named Atomic22, for instance, offers a locking system that requires a one-of-a-kind key. However, it also means carrying around another key that you might possibly lose. Now, Sphyke, a German startup, has developed a similar device called the Sphyke C3N that offers security, without sacrificing convenience.
Sphyke security locks are designed to protect the saddle, seat pole, wheels and handle bars—vulnerable components that thieves typically target. This is achieved by replacing the standard mounting bolt screws, which keep these parts fastened to the bike, with a sturdy two-piece metal locking mechanism called a “lock nut.” As demonstrated in the instructional video for wheel locking, once the middle and back end known as the “skewer” and “cone” are in place, the user simply needs to tightly fasten the cylindrical “shield” part of the lock nut into place with a wrench and then slip the combination lock over it to secure the lock. A rubber protection cover is then fitted over the head as an aesthetic finish.
The company’s site says that the lock nut should fit most wheels, but for quick-release wheels bike owners would need to purchase the 4-piece product that includes a Sphyke-specific skewer and cone.
The kits, which vary from €22.90 ($30) for a simple seat post lock to €59 ($80) for a set that secures the wheels and saddle, also come with instructions for how to set your own combination. The important thing, of course, is to not forget the code you choose, otherwise you’ll have a whole other problem on your hands.
November 11, 2013
There are concept cars and then there are concept cars. Toyota’s new lineup of possibilities for tomorrow, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show, shows the broad range, from the conceivable to the almost unimaginable, of one manufacturer’s innovative thinking.
On one end of the spectrum is the Toyota FCV, a hydrogen-fueled “practical concept” that Toyota plans to introduce sometime in 2015. Running on a well-developed clean-energy technology that rivals electric plug-ins, the four-door sedan boasts a driving range of over 300 miles and the ability to fuel up about as quickly and conveniently as gas-powered cars. On the other end is the science fiction-inspired FV2, a Tron-like kaleidoscope of futuristic technologies engineered to, as the company boasts, make cars ”fun to drive, again.” It’s also a car that none of us will be taking for a spin any time soon (if ever).
“This is an imagination piece rather than something that will be seen in production in the next few years,” an unnamed company spokesman told the BBC. “But some of the technologies we’re suggesting could be introduced further down the line—say in five to 10 years’ time.”
This “imaginary” theme is fitting since the Japanese automaker’s aim is to get drivers to momentarily put aside the conventional logic of steering by hand and consider doing so by using the body and its movements as a whole. While the Wall Street Journal has described the FV2 as basically a “four-wheel cross between a tilting three-wheel scooter and a Segway personal transporter,” navigating streets with the dashboard-less vehicle seems more akin to the sport of riding a skateboard in that controlling the vehicle is done through the driver shifting parts of the body to “intuitively move the vehicle forward and back, left and right,” according to the press release.
And like almost all futuristic models, the FV2′s computer systems are designed to be far more brainier than anything anyone’s ever experienced, so much so that it can darn near do our thinking for us. Hence it comes equipped with what Toyota calls an “intelligent transport system” that communicates with other vehicles and reads the road environment to generate optimal safety information, like if there’s a vehicle hidden in a blind spot at an intersection. The car also showcases technologies from the “Toyota Heart Project,” a collaboration between Toyota and other research institutions that led to the creation of twin robots named Kirobo and Mirata, both of which possess voice and facial recognition capabilities. The car adapts this technology to get a better read on the driver’s mood and to analyze each person’s driving history and other behavioral tendencies in order to offer up advice on potential destinations and ways to improve as a driver. The Verge reports that the same augmented reality system that conveys traffic information in the car’s windshield also changes color, almost like a mood ring, depending on the driver’s emotional status.
Of course, there’s a valid argument for “Who the heck needs all this?” Driving with two hands, for one, has worked out fine so far, and the categorical separation between skateboards, bicycles and cars has enabled city infrastructures comprised of dedicated bike lanes, sidewalks and highways to co-exist as a functional, if not perfect, transportation ecosystem. Shouldn’t Segways be enjoyed in less motorized areas and away from where the serious—and sometimes hazardous—business of getting somewhere on time takes place?
“I think in practical terms the FV2 won’t see the light of day,” Paul Newton of consultants IHS Automotive told the BBC. “If you are standing up and leaning to move it, my first thought would be, what if you hit something? The likelihood of it being licensed in today’s safety-conscious environment is zero.”
But keep in mind that as touchscreen devices such smartphones and tablets become constant, almost attached-to-the-hip forms of entertainment, people are continually wanting more and more out of their personal technologies. It isn’t enough that phones can make calls anymore, so it’s also not entirely unreasonable to believe that cars will someday be expected to also cater to our ever-expanding emotional needs. With the FV2, car companies like Toyota have at least shown that they’re hard at work on a contingency plan, no matter how far down the road that may be.