Two thumbs down for The Copenhagen Wheel

(Heavily edited 7 December, 2013, on the occasion of the wheel’s commercial release). 

I wrote a scathing review of a prototype of The Copenhagen Wheel that I saw in 2011. However, now the wheel is available commercially, it seems churlish of me to leave that text here when, on balance, the wheel is a good thing for cities and cycling.


The prototype was too weighed down with sensors, with the idea that every copenhagen wheel in a city would contribute to a data cloud so the next rider could avoid bumps and air pollution. I explained my concern with reference to the prisoners dilemma, arguing nobody would fit a heavy hub to their bike, to benefit others, but with only disadvantages caused to themselves. Technical advice I received from a boffin friend also caused me to doubt the value of regenerative braking on bicycles. But from what I can gather, the commercial version is lighter and stripped of a lot of excesses.

The story of this wheel’s development is a case study in web-based self-promotion—that I’m also involved in. Before it was ever perfected, the wheel enjoyed waves of viral attention on coolhunting blogs, and was even the subject of ridicule on television (Weeds, series 7, episode 6.) But now real customers (like you, I presume) are considering buying the marketable version, it’s time my own mockery of the prototype got pulled from the web. If you’re considering buying one, because they look cool, are dead-easy to fit to a bike, and will be an incentive for you to ride more and drive less, then don’t be a cheapskate. You will recoup the purchase price by spending less on driving, gym fees and heart operations.

Another option you might consider, is a plain old e-bike conversion kit. The Copenhagen wheel puts the weight of the battery into the wheel, turning your bike wheel into a fly-wheel, with energy-use implications each time you want to get it spinning again after stopping. You will also have to brake a lot harder. Remember too that batteries on e-Bikes don’t last forever. After two years, when the battery dies, the one in the Copenhagen will be harder to replace than one attached to your pannier rack.

Note: the comments below pre-date my major edit on 7 Dec. 2013. There are more old comments over at my livejournal site, that I no longer maintain.

12 Comments

  1. Are you in Copenhagen yet???

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks for your comments, always interested in discourse, but I thought I should clear a few things up too 🙂

    1. The SENSEable City Lab imagines what the future (10-15 years from now) will be like living with technology and we believe that controlling everyday objects through our phones is incredibly likely (internet of things anyone?)

    2. The sensors are about 100gms – definitely not weighty.

    2b. The wheel is designed as a modular system – don’t want the sensors? don’t add them. Want your wheel to last longer? Spec it out with more batteries. (Oh, and just in case you are wondering, we designed the wheel so that the batteries are stationary – no rotational mass).

    2c. Everyone from the Economist, to the New York Times, to IBM’s Smarter Planet Campaign is saying that “Data is the new oil” and I don’t believe we should ignore the potential of data or this global trend!

    2d. Perhaps you would be interested in our academic research papers on the value of small sensor systems distributed in the city and collecting real-time environmental information. We have been published in many places, including the International Journal of Environment and Pollution – you can find more details here:
    http://senseable.mit.edu/papers/publications.html

    3. Regenerative braking and electric motors on bikes: Not sure how to reply to this! Except to point out that electric bike sales are up by 400% this year. The average cost of an electric bike is between $1500 and $3000 and these units are flying off the shelf. (In comparison – we estimate the price of the Copenhagen Wheel to be $600 retail).

    That’s it for now! Any other comments can be posted to
    senseable-cph[at]mit.edu

    All the best,

    Christine Outram & The Copenhagen Wheel Team

    • Anonymous says:

      January of 2015, and no product yet. Maybe it will be ready for the city 20 years from now.

    • Dav says:

      January of 2015 and no shipping product. Now we know why they are planning it for the city 20 years from now.

    • Anonymous says:

      Still working for Copenhagen Wheel, Christine? Five years later, no wheels. I think the wheel was invented in less time.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Censorship

    Bloody ridiculous, MIT pulling the plug. You could add the film on this blogpost: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/12/copenhagen-wheel.html about the wheely bad idea.

    Looking forward to you coming to Copenhagen

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting to read your thoughts about this. I saw this bike/wheel in action last year. The explanation for how it worked did not make sense to me. I live not far from MIT and wanted to visit the research group, but they were not interested.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Did seem over-engineered.

    As a way of showing off interesting ideas, it is, ahem, interesting. However, it seems a huge engineering effort for very little actual return. If everyone had one of these tomorrow, it would certainly be a good way to throw away many of the benefits of cycling, without seeing many benefits to replace them …

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yeah.
    Looks like shit, too…

  7. Anonymous says:

    I agree

    I’ve been following this since its inception. Ambiguity is the word I think of with this “MIT” group. First, I doubt it will be able to deliver what they promise. It may get rolling, but distance is equal to the battery’s power. To push a 200lb person the miles they claim, can not be done from the size of a battery that will fit in a wheel hub. Unless they’ve developed kryptonite.

    I’ve felt this was a bogus, attention getting idea that will never come to fruition. If they have a purchase order from a city government, then it’s a maybe. It’s all PR at this point.

    • Steven says:

      Re: I agree

      they will say they are exploring ideas for the city 20 years from now, but in the next breath say to place your order now, or come talk turkey about being a distributer. I feel sorry for anyone holding off buying a bike because they have their eye on this hub, or worse still anyone planning to order wholesale.

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