December 11, 2013

Ever missed a meeting while waiting for a wayward bus? Or cycled through a couple of audiobooks while being stuck in traffic? 

If so, we may have the invention for you: the Copenhagen Wheel. It's a motorized back wheel kit that attaches to any bike, giving you an extra boost of power to cycle over hills or go for long distances. We asked Assaf Biderman, MIT SENSEable City Lab Associate Director and co-founder of Superpedestrian, which makes the kit, how the Copenhagen Wheel could revolutionize your commute.

What was your inspiration for the Copenhagen Wheel? Was there a certain number of times you were cut off in traffic before thinking, “You know what, this is the last straw?”

I wish it was that serendipitous! This started with a partnership with the mayor of Copenhagen back in 2009, who has joined up with our lab at MIT to ask a simple question: how do we get people to cycle more? When you look into it a bit deeply you realize a certain distance is a strong cutoff – if you live too far from your work, for example, you’d rather take motorized transport. Age is a limit. So we decided to ask: how can we make distances feel shorter? How can we help people overcome those physical limitations using, basically, electrified bicycles?

We realized that electric bicycles are a great solution for helping people cross those large distances or maybe climb up hills. But they’re quite heavy, quite clunky, and the cost is quite high. If you want to get a middle-of-the-range electric bicycle it would cost around $2500. And they go up to the high thousands.

So we decided to focus on the back wheel of the bike, keeping the natural experience of cycling -- really allowing people to just pedal, still allowing them to enjoy the benefit of motorized transport. Hence: the Copenhagen Wheel.

How does it work?

There’s a system inside the wheel that just reads the amount of power that comes out of your feet and interprets it, mashes all this data up, and tells the motor what to do, dependent on a certain level of push from your feet. The experience is very seamless. The motor really integrates with your motion. 

Rather than feeling like someone is pushing you or that there’s wind behind you, you feel like you’re so strong, or that the hill disappeared, or that you’ve lost half your weight. It depends on your psychology.

Is there a way to control when the motor comes on? Say you want a tougher ride to work off all those Christmas cookies you’ve been eating this season (asking for a friend).

I’ve been using it for quite some time, and it’s quite an exercise. The point is you always have to pedal. It’s actuated by your feet. The result is: if you want to sweat, you can sweat. On the other hand, we have modes. You control it with your smartphone and we have these apps that you ride to, that allow you to basically change the way the motor behaves. We have exercise mode, where you basically have the motor working against you. We have one mode we call “flatten my city” which basically makes hills feel flat.


You've said the Copenhagen Wheel learns your behavior. But let's say you’re not exactly Lance Armstrong, and you’re trying to improve the behavior you already have.  Can you use it to help you build up your speed or endurance?

You could be Lance Armstrong with this bike! I think that could be a funny campaign, now that you mention it…[Laughs.]

The wheel learns how you ride and supplements you. We wanted it to be just like riding a normal bike. You get to it, you get on it, you ride. It feels great. You just walk away, it locks up. You lock it like you lock any other bike, but the whole electronic part of it becomes deactivated as soon as you walk away. When your phone comes back, it becomes activated again, to really preserve the experience of biking.

If you want to customize your ride, you can go into the app and change the assist levels, or the braking threshold, etc. Now the other thing is, through these apps that drive the wheel, you have options to create cycling routines and different regimes, progressing through different routines of challenging yourself physically, whether it is by distance and elevation change, or through this exercise mode where you really have to work against the motor. So the options are quite limitless. It’s all software, after all.

The mobile app is a huge component of the Copenhagen Wheel. How do you see social media playing in to the experience? Do you think people will get as competitive with cycling as they are with, say, Words with Friends or Fruit Ninja?

There is something very personal about biking, and there’s also a very social element to it. When you ride around, you experience the city in a different way. You’re much closer to the street, to the pavement, to the storefront. You can hop on and off, you can ride slower so you can ride together with other people, you can talk together when you ride. If you think about what the apps can give you, on the personal level: yes, I can quantity myself, get information about my physical performance, about how many calories I burned, how many miles I ride, average velocity, elevation change, altitude change. But I can also challenge you, challenge my friends, and set goals for each other. When it comes to physical performance, you can start to compete.

Even more excitingly, I think, is when communities form around cycling and decide to go after a certain cause or after a certain target. For example, we gave 12 bikes to bike messengers in Copenhagen. They decided to put nitrogen oxide censors inside the wheel and have tweet data sent in real time to the cloud, creating these beautiful bottom up maps of air quality. 

People can really hack it and decide what they want to do with it for their own purpose, following their own initiative. Maybe detecting air quality in Copenhagen is quite benign, but do it in Beijing and it becomes polemic. And you don’t need any infrastructure for that. The bikes are almost a mobile infrastructure: a social network of people and censors and bikes.

Are there other barriers, like inclement weather or unfriendly roads, that you can see solutions for in the future? Are there any innovations in the pipeline to help you, maybe, fly over the Mass Pike and avoid tolls?

[Laughs.] I like that. Sweat is major. It’s hard to start your day when you’re covered in sweat, if you work in an office, or you just don’t like sweating.

When it comes to bike lanes, especially in this country, infrastructure will really come with popular demand. And the Copenhagen Wheel can provide quite valuable data for that infrastructure, because once users share with each other their location, the next step is to share that data anonymously with a city if they wish. 

You could aggregate data about how people move around, in order to create a sense of: where should the next bike path go? What are the biggest nodes in terms of origins and destinations of cycling? What are the safest routes to go by if you’re a cyclist? Where are the bottlenecks? Where are the most starts, stops? You can track the condition of the road. You can do many things quite easily when you have that connection between the wheel, empowered by sensors and energy, and the phone, the GPS, the accelerometers online always online connected to the cloud. You can start to map these kinds of data out quite simply.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Still curious?

transportation, Sci and Tech, infrastructure, Body and Mind, Green, cycling, commuting, bikes, biking

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