The world of transportation is shifting before our feet. While people are starting to become better at agreeing what the causes of the problems facing us are, there are a multitude of opinions and ideas of what the solutions are.
I’m a big advocate for bicycling as a means of replacing automotive trips over short distances. For short trips, the bicycle provides a clean, calorie-burning form of transportation that provides travel times competitive with cars. Even better, bicycling is accessible to a large percentage of the population and is incredibly affordable.
One of the problems facing biking as an alternative to driving is that bicycling is typically not time-efficient on longer journeys. So what’s the solution for efficient, long-distance bike travel? Some would suggest the velomobile is the perfect fit. This hybrid vehicle takes the best features of the bicycle and the car and combines them into a lean, mean energy-efficient machine.
A velomobile, also known as a human-powered vehicle, is essentially a three or four-wheeled bicycle with a shell built around it. It’s designed to be fully powered by the rider(s) pedalling, often with additional power assistance from an electric motor. The cage provides protection from the elements, and can also enhance the aerodynamics of the vehicle so that there is actually less drag than a standard bicycle.
There are some really exciting developments being made in this field, all of which will contribute to the velomobile’s success in the years to come.
Aerodynamic Efficiency – AeroVelo
A group of passionate young people operating in the city of Toronto, Aerovelo is an organization which strives to push the limits and cause people to think twice about what is possible. In 2013 they were awarded the Sikorsky prize for building a human powered helicopter which could hover for 60 seconds.
This group is also making waves on the high-speed human-powered vehicle scene. Their beautifully-designed declined bike shell competed in September at the World Human-Powered Vehicle Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada. This vehicle, propelled only by the cyclist enclosed inside, reached a blistering speed of 126 km/h. Considering competitive road cyclists don’t typically average more than 30 mph, this pushes way beyond what was thought possible in bicycle travel. The difference? These mechanical engineers know a thing or two more about aerodynamics – their vehicle experiences so little drag, you could cross Canada with it and use the equivalent of just ¼ tank of gas!
While their vehicle is certainly not the most practical to the average traveler, they offer hard proof that humans can travel automobile speeds with their own energy. Extending this knowledge about aerodynamics is essential in order to produce a low-power vehicle capable of reaching high speeds.
Comfort and Practicality – Organic Transit
Located in Durham, North Carolina, Organic Transit is an inspired group of individuals dedicated to making travel as efficient as possible. They produced the ELF, a three-wheeled hybrid human-electric velomobile that is 2.5 times more efficient than a standard bicycle. This vehicle is designed for maximum practicality, handling payloads of up to 350 lbs. and travelling up to 30 mph when pedaling is combined with the electric motor. The range of the battery is over 15 miles, and the vehicle even has a 100W solar panel on the roof for charging on the go.
Hundreds of ELF’s have been sold to date and trikes are on the roads in seven countries. The base model starts at $5,495 – just over half the annual cost of owning a car. And the ELF costs only as much as a bicycle to operate – no licence, registration, or insurance is required!
Seamless Integration with Technology – Superpedestrian
The perfect retrofit for a commuter bike, the Copenhagen Wheel is an all-in-one wheel-motor-battery assembly that simply replaces the existing back wheel on a bike. The 350W motor can reach speeds of up to 30 km/h and the battery has enough juice for 50 km on one charge. The user can recharge the battery on the go via regenerative braking and backwards pedaling, thus recovering all possible energy to maximize the range.
The coolest part of the Copenhagen Wheel, however, is its use of technology. The wheel detects when the user has to input extra effort, such as when they’re riding up a hill, and automatically throttles higher, allowing the user to use a more consistent power input. The wheel also connects to the user’s cell phone via Bluetooth where the user can monitor their stats, lock/unlock the wheel, and control the level of power assist. The inventors have gone one step further by opening up the programming interface to third party developers to make their own apps for the wheel.
The Copenhagen Wheel, priced at $949, is currently being manufactured and pre-orders made today will be available Spring 2015.
Put them Together and What Have You Got?
There you have it – aerodynamics, practicality, and technology. These three factors are remarkable even on their own, but once combined, the velomobile may finally achieve the mass market penetration it’s been waiting for. Maybe ten years from now, even our highways will be full of velomobiles, travelling the same speed as cars and operating on less than 1% of the energy.