This Device Literally Reinvents the Wheel—Bicycling May Never Be the Same

The Copenhagen Wheel acts like a biking partner, without the awkwardness of tandem riding.

The Copenhagen Wheel, Developed at MIT, Turns Any Bike Into a Zero-Emissions Hybrid Electric Vehicle

(Photo: The Copenhagen Wheel/YouTube)

Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

Conventional wisdom says you can't reinvent the wheel. But that didn't stop Massachusetts-based start-up Superpedestrian from engineering a device that by and large does just that.

Developed by MIT researchers, the Copenhagen Wheel is a hubcap-like disk that attaches to the rear wheel, turning any bike, whether a $10,000 eighteen-speed racer or a beach cruiser—into a zero-emissions hybrid electric vehicle.

The disk’s motor, which automatically kicks in when the device’s computerized sensors determine the rider needs help (think large hills), runs on regenerative braking, with the 48-volt lithium ion battery recharging when cyclists travel downhill or squeeze the brakes. The e-wheel can go for 30 miles at 20 mph before running out of juice.

"The motor integrates itself with the rider's motion very seamlessly," cocreator Assaf Biderman told the Associated Press. "It's almost like having a riding companion riding together with you, making the ride easier, simpler."

Manufacturing of the 1,000 wheels Superpedestrian presold in December 2013 begins this month, with delivery slated for late spring. Since the first Copenhagen Wheels hit the market late last year, the price has risen to $799, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Biderman and cocreator Carlo Ratti of MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory hope it will encourage Americans to eschew four-wheel travel in favor of the two-wheel variety. "It started with this question, 'How can we get more people to cycle?' " Biderman told Businessweek.

Incorporating an interactive user experience probably didn’t hurt. The disk is outfitted with sensors that gather data, such as topography and calories burned, that can later be synced to a rider's smartphone and shared online.

The device’s name is a nod to Denmark's capital city, known for its bike-friendly policies and high number of cyclists: Nine of 10 Danes own a bike, and 36 percent of Danish adults bicycle to work at least once a week.

The U.S. is a bit behind the rest of the world when it comes to e-bikes. Nearly 30 million e-bikes were sold globally in 2012, but only 53,000 in the U.S., according to Navigant Research.

States throughout the country have passed laws regulating the use of electric bikes. New York barred e-bikes in 2012 because of reckless delivery people, Quartz writes. Last April, the Manhattan City Council voted to fine businesses up to $250 for having motorized delivery bikes on their property. While researchers predict that e-bike sales will grow 23 percent globally by 2020, they forecast only a 9 percent increase in the U.S.

The future of the e-bike looks iffy in the U.S., but perhaps this small disk will change the way we approach electrically assisted two-wheel travel—while trimming our waistlines too.

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