As an avid bike rider, I’ve always been intrigued by electric bicycles. Not for racing or exercise, of course -- that would be cheating -- but to expand the range for commutes and cruises, especially in areas with hills or urban sprawl that would otherwise discourage casual bikers. Unfortunately there are few electric models to choose from, and they tend to be heavier, clunkier, and more expensive than regular bikes. So I’m excited for the Copenhagen Wheel, from MIT spinoff Superpedestrian, to hit the market.
As the name implies, the Copenhagen Wheel is not an entire electric bike. It’s a replacement for the rear wheel of many standard bikes, which converts them into high-tech hybrids. Inside the red plastic hub is a motor and battery, of course, along with a Bluetooth radio and a slew of environmental sensors.
The wheel is designed to blend into the normal biking experience. Instead of a throttle, there’s a torque sensor to allow the wheel to automatically provide “pedal assist” -- the harder you’re working, the more power the motor will contribute. You may still huff and puff a bit to get around, but you’ll go farther and faster, and hills will be less of a challenge. Like a hybrid car, the wheel collects energy through regenerative braking when you’re coasting, though you’ll still need to plug it in for a full charge.
A smartphone app isn’t necessary to use the wheel, but doing so unlocks other features, like the ability to map your rides, track usage statistics, change the wheel’s power output, and even monitor air quality via embedded sensors. An SDK will allow developers to exploit the wheel’s full potential by harnessing its sensors and data or customizing its behavior. With enough people using the bikes, cities could start to collect lots of useful, real-time, crowdsourced data about traffic conditions, road usage patterns, and the urban environment -- ideas that Christine Outram, who worked on the project at MIT, discussed in a previous Q&A with us.
At 13 pounds and $800 for preorders, the Copenhagen Wheel weighs and costs more than some of the bikes it might be installed on. But the chance to add dozens of miles to your range or finally take on those big hills will be worth it for some riders. And any technology that encourages more people to ride, especially in cities, is a good thing.
Check out the video below to learn more.