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Why not?

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As I indicated in my last post, I have been really busy lately. I subscribe to quite a few magazines and I usually read the articles that interest me as the issues arrive. Lately though, my magazines have been just been stacking up on the corner of my desk. Well, just last weekend I finally got around to reading an interesting article in the January issue of Wired titled The Race to Build the 100mpg Car. Some of the information in the article about teams vying for the Automotive X prize may not be as timely now as it was 6 months ago, but it is still a pretty interesting read. One particular quote from the article jumped out at me. S. M. Shahed is a Honeywell corporate fellow and a past president of the International Society of Automotive Engineers who also serves as an adviser to the AXP. In explaining the expectation for the winning entry (to be safe, comfortable, mass-producible, etc.) he said, “We do not want toys.” The writer of the article elaborates saying, “in other words, a one-off, carbon-fiber-ensconced motorized recumbent bicycle isn’t going to cut it.” Ok fine, I agree, but what about a comfortable mass-producible pedal powered velomobile with electric assist? That seems like a pretty good transportation solution to me.

Before I go on, let me say that I fully realize that not everyone is going to ride a bike for transportation no matter how high fuel prices go. The biggest reason that I like to ride to work has to do with the fact that I just love to ride, period. With a busy schedule, commuting is basically free riding time, so I take advantage of it when I can. That love of riding may not be a consideration for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean that human power should be discounted entirely as a viable transportation solution for a pretty large segment of the population. Lets face it; human power is very efficient. If someone builds a light enough enclosed vehicle with some cargo carrying capacity, I don’t see why a portion of the power cannot come from the person inside. Electric bikes are gaining in popularity in parts of the world, so I don’t see why velomobiles with an electric motor assist can’t do the same. Another statement from the article that favors human power is worth pointing out; “AXP organizers decided that teams would have to account for upstream carbon emissions as well as those from the vehicle itself.” Since electricity, the production of hydrogen, or most other potential power sources you can think of generate pollution at some point along the way, this distinction should give a real advantage to a vehicle that is partially powered by its driver. I don’t know if any of the X prize teams are using the driver to generate even a small portion of the vehicle’s power, but it seems like something that could provide an edge when the efficiency per unit of fuel input is calculated.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will probably recognize the aerodynamic velomobile pictured here. Greg Kolodziejzyk built it with speed in mind, but I can certainly imagine it a little bigger with lights, a cargo area, and an electric motor. With those changes, it probably wouldn’t look all that different from the all-electric Aptera car that is currently entered in the X prize competition. If the Aptera team could just consider adding some pedals to that thing, it could be the perfect urban car. Makes sense to me; any thoughts?

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  1. Adam Rice April 18, 2008 at 1:40 pm -  Reply

    Agreed. The Leitra is a fully enclosed recumbent designed more for comfort than speed. Admittedly, a fully enclosed bike in a hot climate would be unpleasant at best, and AC would be impractical.

    The other big obstacle I see is traffic space. A bike and a car can, perhaps uncomfortably, share a lane briefly for the amount of time it takes for the car to pass the bike. Trikes obviously have a bigger footprint, and enclosed ones might psychologically seem bigger still; if there were a bunch of them limited to, say, 30 mph on the roads, they’d probably generate a lot of car-driver resentment and quite possibly new regulations.

  2. James April 18, 2008 at 3:25 pm -  Reply

    Thanks for the comment Adam. I agree that the speed difference with automobile traffic is a big issue for velomobiles. If an electric motor could bridge that speed difference in traffic situations though, I think vehicles like that could have more mass appeal. Obviously you are not going to take a human powered/ electric vehicle on the interstate for a long trip, but why couldn’t it hit 50mph in urban traffic while operating under electric power. If the almost 1,500 lb electric Aptera can hit over 85mph, a lightweight 50+ mph electric/ human powered hybrid seems doable.

  3. armb April 19, 2008 at 4:24 am -  Reply

    A 50mph vehicle isn’t going to count as an assisted bike in most legislations, so it’s going to have to go through type approval, need insurance and a licence to drive, need to be fitted with standard motor vehicle lights, and so on. And a typical utility cyclist only produces enough power to run the lights on a car, so getting a utility vehicle with a bit of luggage space and the weight of a battery pack up to 50mph as well is out of the question – something like a Varna Streamliner isn’t really an urban vehicle, it’s for racetracks only. So realistically I think you’re talking about a plug-in electric vehicle with maybe a little bit of range extension from human power in some conditions.

    Are you familiar with the Twike – ?

  4. Ron April 21, 2008 at 4:30 pm -  Reply


    The company Alternative Vehiclesfocuses on selling pedal powered solutions to clients, be it folding bikes or 4 wheeled cycles. They must be making good business.

  5. bikesgonewild April 22, 2008 at 4:13 am -  Reply

    …it’s an interesting time…w/ major environmental concerns & rising fuel & food costs plus an economy ultimately designed to benefit the few, greater numbers of people are looking at alternatives to many facets of their lives…

    …in regard to transportation, the opportunity of utilizing funneled down military & aerospace technology paired up w/ the present crop of diverse & talented cycle designers, might perhaps bring about some interesting solutions…

    …i am willing to assume that both battery & electric motor technology will ultimately evolve to a point of greater output & less initial energy investment but i may be naive in my expectations…

    …but maybe in another 10 years, i’ll be pedaling my streamlined battery-assist cycle truck in the lane dedicated to human & human/electro powered vehicles…

    …not really that far fetched an idea but it will require more than existing & even new technology…it’s going to require a different mind-set to match new tech…present thought processes need a major educational overhaul as regards safety & acceptance issues…
    …we’ll only see a sociological change when enough people begin to understand & embrace the validity of alternative transportation…

    …& yes, i agree, james, that even under the best of circumstances, not everyone will be able to ride but w/ the right equipment, certainly the numbers could vastly improve…

  6. fred April 24, 2008 at 8:23 pm -  Reply

    Adam and james, I respectfully suggest that your viewpoint of velomobiles (and bicycles as well) on the roadway might be inaccurately skewed by “motor-think.” I have been operating my pedal-only WAW velomobile on local roads using vehicular cycling practices. Most of the roads on which I travel are what the state considers to be sub-standard width (under 14 ft) and as such are unsafe for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to operate side-by-side.

    On these roads, I operate my velomobile in the center of the lane, to provide for my own safety. This is permitted by the laws of the state of florida. In most cases, this happens on four- to six-lane roads, so traffic is free to pass me properly.

    I also had an AAW velomobile with an electric assist, but I was not a vehicular cyclist at the time. The additional speed (up to 35 mph) was of no real use to me and I don’t miss e-assist in my current velomobile.

    It’s more about educating the driving public than it is about matching speeds. “Car-driver resentment?” Drivers behind me are delayed no more than a driver behind a city bus, a refuse-collection truck or a USPS vehicle, unless (here’s the kicker) the driver is not suitably skilled in the first place! That brings it back to education.

    Just my opinion and experience as a vehicular cyclist.

  7. jack April 25, 2008 at 1:48 am -  Reply

    What Fred said is right. In most cases people do not really need electrical assist. Except of course when they are have physical issues or perhaps extreme hills. The hills are no problem i found with my Quest. On various trips such as the Eco trip in very-hilly-Northumberland the 3 quest riders were amongst the fastest group. This was also the case in the touring trips during the WC in France. People were surprised that they were overtaken with their light bikes by a velomobile.
    I still cannot really explain the effect though. In most calculations only weight is accounted for, but in the case of a velomobile there must be some other thing that helps the rider. In the magazine Velovision a welsh Quest rider described it as static energy i thought.
    In general for velomobiles the added weight of electric assist motor and batteries rules out the benefit of the extra speed.

    Jack, editor
    and writer of

  8. Ron April 27, 2008 at 8:34 pm -  Reply

    I don’t know about electric assists. But certainly velo-mobiles can be mass produced that run on human power. It seems to me as if someday the question won’t be ‘how fuel efficient is this or that’ but ‘do we have space on our roads for this stuff’.

  9. James April 28, 2008 at 3:59 pm -  Reply

    Fred, thanks for the comment. First, I want to say that my thoughts in this post were about getting more people, including those average people who have no real interest in cycling, to use human powered vehicles. Personally, I ride an upright bicycle for transportation, so really I feel the same way as you about vehicular cycling; we just happen to use different types of vehicles. Like you, I operate my bike according to the laws that apply to vehicles, which includes taking the lane when I need to. I agree 100% that driver education is the key. Still, I think Jack hit it on the head when he said that MOST people don’t need electric assist. Some do and others just think they do. Either way, it would be great to get more of those people pedaling, even a little bit. Maybe at some point they would graduate to a completely human powered vehicle. The question is not really what people need, but what they want. How do we get them to WANT to pedal to work or the store or wherever if they are already physically capable of doing so. I am going to continue to ride and so are you. It is getting the masses to do so that is real the design challenge.

    By the way, I noticed a comment on the Bent rider forums that said I seemed to slam the door when someone commented about velomobile design in the past. That was certainly not my intention. This blog is just a hobby, so occasionally I don’t have time to reply to every comment. I wish I could, but I am sure that quite often comments or questions get lost in the shuffle. Trust me though; I am interested in velomobiles and recumbent designs. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on either one, but that is exactly why I value comments from those of you who are experts in those areas. Please keep the comments coming; the door is always open.

  10. H@rry May 1, 2008 at 7:22 am -  Reply

    I’d like to add that especially in Holland and Germany, more and more people are recognizing that a velomobile is really a good alternative for commuters. You stay out of traffic jams and arrive fit at work.
    It will totaly depend on the route if it’s really a good idea. Sometimes it’s better to have dedicated bicycle lanes but many times I ride between cars without problems.

  11. Underhill May 2, 2008 at 8:38 pm -  Reply

    I am all for pedal powered velomobiles. But it seems odd to me that very few are discussing the obvious transition… a gas assist motor. With even a .5 hp motor a velomobile could reach sustained speeds of 30mph on the flat and 150 mpg should be easily managed.

    As battery technology gets better and prices comes down, they may make more sense. But I don’t think we’re their yet. And for most people, peddle power alone is just not enough.

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