Monday, January 4, 2010

Second Thoughts on the Copenhagen Wheel

The last week of the Copenhagen Climate Conference saw a lot of buzz for something completely unrelated to climate change. While world leaders tried and failed to put together a sensible plan on climate change (who am I kidding, there is nothing sensible about anything related to politics) an announcement out of MIT's SENSEable City Lab basically stole the show for many in the bicycle community. The Copenhagen Wheel combines hybrid technology (think Prius), connectivity through the use of a smart phone, and the best, most reliable, and technologically simple form of transportation to yet exist... the bicycle.

This really is a great idea, for more information watch the video here, but after my initial WOW reaction to reading about this invention, I started to think about how I would find the Copenhagen Wheel practical to use in my everyday journey by bike and I came instead came away with two concerns.

First, the Wheel main means of generating energy to be stored is when a rider uses the coaster brake. This goes against the basic operation of a bicycle where a person attempts to conserve as much forward momentum as possible and braking makes up a very small portion of a person's time on a bike. In the attempt to conserve forward momentum cyclists blow through stop signs and even red lights (I'll admit to doing exactly that when there is no traffic to worry about).

It's highly doubtful that people would significantly change their behavior just to get a little charge. Unlike with a hybrid vehicle, whereby people changing their driving behavior to fit the dynamics of a hybrid and thus driving becomes more efficient, changing behavior to fit the mechanics of the Copenhagen Wheel would seem to make a ride less efficient.

However, Christine Outram, a research associate at the SENSEable City Lab informed me that the Copenhagen Wheel does take these facts into account having an additional "exercise" mode that can be switched on. In this mode, excess energy from pedaling is used to charge the batteries. Of course, this mode is meant for those who like to ride at a fast clip and so may not be of much utility to those cyclists whom prefer to take a leisurely ride.

The second concern is the distraction of operating everything through a smart phone. A large debate surfaced this summer surrounding the safety implications of texting and driving, and I see no difference here just because the bicycle is a few thousand pounds less. Texting or talking on a cell phone while biking is extremely distracting and dangerous, I can attest to this by witnessing plenty of people attempting such feats and thereby swerving all over the place, losing their balance, and generally becoming unaware of their surroundings.

While the Copenhagen Wheel smart phone interface is integrated into the handlebars of a bicycle, this system still requires that a ride look down and take one hand off the handlebars to operate; creating a distraction and making the bicyclist take their eyes off the road. Its not hard to imagine someone fiddling with their smart phone and wondering into a busy intersection.

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