This Wheel Will Make Bike Riding a Breeze

Photo: Michael D. Spencer

Ever since the idea of the Copenhagen Wheel debuted in 2009, cyclists have been waiting to buy one — and turbocharge their rides. The smartphone-controlled wheel is designed to replace the back wheel on any two-wheeler, immediately transforming it into a motorized bike capable of reaching 20 miles per hour. This year, it's finally going into production. Thousands of people have already ordered one. Soon riders of otherwise ordinary bicycles will have the power to zoom up that impossible hill or breeze across town, without breaking a sweat.

In 2012, the Copenhagen Wheel's inventors founded the company Superpedestrian. We recently spoke with co-inventor and CEO Assaf Biderman about where the product stands, why it’s needed, and what precisely it can do.

The Copenhagen Wheel came out of SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT. What is the mission of the lab?
The past two decades, we’ve seen small network elements become smaller and cheaper and readily available and almost leaching themselves into objects around us, into infrastructure. So you can start to think of the city as if it was a computer in the open air, and that’s a dramatically different condition from what we’ve had in the past. Our assumption as researchers was, if the city can be programmed and be responsive, we can start to make quality of life better in the city.

And why Copenhagen?
Copenhagen was one of our partners, and the question we asked there was, how can we get more people to cycle? We thought it was an interesting question to ask, because Copenhagen was already one of the places where people cycle most. If we can do something there to increase adoption, we can probably do it anywhere.

Why the interest in cycling?
All over the world, people are realizing that our cities have reached some sort of capacity in how many cars they can accept. We spent so much time in traffic that it’s not only the environment that suffers, it’s lifestyle that suffers. People want a viable alternative to driving and there’s nothing.

What about traditional bikes?
The average distance between home and work is too much for non-motorized transport. We’ve stretched our cities too big, because we can, because of the automobile. So we asked ourselves, What is the average distance between home and work? What is the average topography of a city? What does the average person weigh?

We said, let’s not reinvent the bike. There are many great companies that can make great bikes at great prices, but when it comes to propulsion, we can really make a dent. We almost had a sticker in mind, something you can throw on any bike and transform it into a hybrid electric that’s geared up for today’s big cities.

This project was unveiled in 2009. Why has it taken so long to get into production?
The average time to market of lightweight electric vehicles is five to seven years, so we’re not in any way slow. This is not an app. There was a lot of research that went into inventing the technology to get it to where we wanted to be and to get it to be attractive. The right weight, power range, batteries — all these things took time to develop, and to do that we ended up building a robotics company.

Why do you need robotics?
Because we wanted to make this thing seamless. Imagine something you put on a bike and it makes you stronger, but you don’t even know what happened. You don’t even deal with technology. The way to do that was to put a whole bunch of sensors in there that would chart the pedaling to the most minute detail and use that to tell the motor how to ride just like you.

How has your original goal of increasing bike riding in Copenhagen expanded?
When we studied in Copenhagen what gets people off of bikes, the big drop happens when distance grows between work and home. There are a lot of other changes that are needed — cycling lanes, cultural perception. But that’s low-hanging fruit. When it comes to urban form, there’s not much you could do. You can’t shrink the city. You’ve gotta stretch the bike. That’s why it’s not a project for Copenhagen anymore. It’s a project for the world.