Dispatches from theCopenhagen Climate Conference—Smart Bike Unveiled



A new hybrid “smart bike” technology that can push you up hills and warn you of pollution hot spots was rolled out today in the heart of this city of cyclists.


Called the Copenhagen Wheel, the sleek, circular device is packed with a Swiss army knife of motors, GPS, modems, and sensors that represent a revolution in tailoring bicycle trips, according to an engineering team at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Senseable City Lab.


Inspired by Formula One race cars, the wheel stores your kinetic—or moving—energy in its batteries as you pedal, and then burns up that fuel when you need a boost going uphill.


MIT engineers asked, “How can we use technology to augment an existing, extremely streamlined object like the bicycle?” team member Carlos Rotti said a news briefing.


The result is a seamless experience that makes hilly cities seem flatter and big cities seem smaller, organizers say. And with more than half of the world’s population now packed into cities, the Copenhagen Wheel would attract more people to adopt pollution-free cycling, they added.


Smart Riding


The small red machine can be installed on any existing bicycle without any extra accoutrements—though users do need a smart phone, or at least a Bluetooth connection via a mobile phone, mounted on the handlebars.


The smart bike allows the user to “drive by foot”—when you pedal forward, a torque motor built into the device supplements your speed, and when you pedal backward to brake, the motor reduces your speed and adds a jolt of energy.


An application on your phone will tell you speed, direction, and distance traveled, or help you map out a route that’s not clogged with pollutants.


And you can even send that more desirable route to friends via social networking sites such as Facebook, or track your cycling buddies’ location in real-time.


Copenhagen Lord Mayor Ritt Bjerregaard announced at the briefing that the city may replace company cars with Copenhagen-Wheel-outfitted bicycles when the technology hits the market by the end of 2010.


The initiative would be part of Copenhagen’s quest to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, she said.


Erasing the Simple Beauty of Bicycling


The Copenhagen Wheel will cost U.S. $500, said project manager Christine Outram—which some may find a hefty price for a lighter ride.

There’s also the safety concern of squinting at your smart phone while you’re negotiating city traffic, said Paul DeMaio, a Washington, D.C.-based bike-sharing consultant. (Related: “Bike Sharing on the Move in the U.S.”)

“Texting and manipulating the radio are big causes for car crashes, so it seems to me that cyclists need to be even more alert when they’re riding,” he said by email.


MIT’s Outram said that the smart phone application only gives the rider small pings when there’s relevant information, so it’s not a constant distraction.


DeMaio also wonders what riders would do in the rain—if you leave your smart phone at home in bad weather, “would you be riding just a heavier bike?”


He’s impressed by the bike’s ability to store energy, and said there will be a market—albeit small—for the invention.


“But,” he added, “it seems to erase the beauty of the simplicity of riding a bicycle.”

–Christine Dell’Amore


Photograph courtesy Max Tomasinelli

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.