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A whole new role for the wheel

December 15, 2009

Don’t be surprised if, in a few years time, you start seeing mysterious red circles rolling around cities across the U.S. A new device called the Copenhagen Wheel has the potential to make bicycle commutes easier, and build a database of major urban pollutants for city planners.

The red rear wheel disk is called the Copenhagen Wheel, a hybrid electric motor and pollution monitor designed in MIT's 'senseable' city lab.

An 11-person team from MIT is revolutionizing the electric bicycle, packing a motor and bank of climate-monitoring sensors into a red disk that fits inside a normal-sized rear rim. There are no wires. Everything is controlled through the rider’s smart phone, which can be mounted on the handlebars.

Project leader Christine Outram and Andrea Cassi traveled from MIT to show off their latest prototype as part of the Hopenhagen campaign, an effort by the city of Copenhagen to push for carbon neutrality.

Suited delegates and fresh-faced activists wandered by the display all day, spinning the back tire and staring at the mysterious red disk that looks a lot like an oversized M&M.

Nearly every other person that stopped by asked, “Have you ridden it?”
“I have,” Outram would reply. “You turn on the electric motor and it feels like you’re taking off.”

Senseable city project leader Christine Outram explains the wheel as co-developer Andrea Cassi looks on.

The self-contained motor builds up charge pedaling, or when the rider applies pressure to the fixed gear pedal break. Outram said she wants to make the so-called Copenhagen Wheel available for almost any standard-sized bike.

Certainly an electrically powered boost up hills and through long commutes is a kick in the sustainable behind. But built-in sensors have the most to offer for broad-based sustainability.

The wheel, in different configurations, monitors road conditions, carbon monoxide, NOx, noise, temperature and even humidity. It can recognize friends’ wheels and tell you how close they are. The data’s updated live through a wireless connection, and constantly visible on the smart phone’s screen. No alternative control display exists yet, Outram said. They’re working on it.

By collaborating with city planners, wheel developers have added an optional data sharing mechanism. Bike riders can forward sensor readings to cities, anonymity available. A steadily building, real-time data bank of all those urban pollutants could steadily fill out city databases.

If I have $500 to spare when and if these go into production, I’ll be seriously tempted. They look great. The novelty and physical relief are great selling points.

But, more importantly, this creates a chance for cities to look at the most polluted districts and respond accordingly, while promoting something sustainable the Danes take as second nature — cycle commuting.

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