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There are plenty of electric-powered bicycles on the market today. They typically have an electric motor driving the rear wheel and have a battery pack mounted somewhere else on the bike. Twist the throttle and off you go. They are pretty much like gas-powered mopeds except that the motor is electric and they are a lot quieter.

In the last few years, however, a new type of motorized bicycle has emerged. These bicycles look just like regular bikes except for one major difference: a very unusual front wheel. The front wheel has a large circular module in it containing a lithium battery, an electric motor and control electronics.  It is the propulsion unit for the bicycle.

The first of these new types of motorized wheels is called the Copenhagen Wheel. The name reflects the fact that the initial financial backing for the project, believe it or not, came from the city of Copenhagen, Denmark.  As it turns out, the city planners of Copenhagen had quite an interest in this project because of the promise is of a high-tech wheel that could be installed on the millions of bikes already on the road.  You can just imagine how this could reduce the density of cars on the roads.

Those who have tried out the Copenhagen wheel claim it is an amazing experience. By design, the wheel doesn’t just power the bicycle, it “assists the cyclist.” For example, when starting off from a full stop, the cyclist provides some of the power and so does the wheel. As a result, the effort of pedaling is augmented by a motor and seems effortless. Another nifty feature, Junction Auto Sales of Chardon, OH, tells us is that the wheel recaptures energy (recharges the battery) when you brake or go downhill, like a hybrid car does. Combined with the fact that you can control the Copenhagen wheel with your smart phone and you’ve got quite an interesting propulsion system.

More than six years after the debut of the Copenhagen Wheel, several additional companies have joined the fray. Cambridge-based Superpedestrian offers a version of a motorized bicycle wheel as does FlyKly of New York and ZeHus of Milan. However, the story of all these competing products is one more example of how tough it is to turn a new concept into viable product. First, we have some infighting. Superpedestrian recently filed a patent infringement lawsuit against FlyKly and ZeHus for selling variations of their wheel without licensing the appropriate patents.

Another issue complicating the adoption of the motorized bicycle wheel technology is the retail support of the devices. Believe it or not, many of the manufacturers are finding some lack of interest from traditional bike stores. Many are claiming that the concept just doesn’t mesh well with their basic “human-powered” product philosophy. Another issue is that the average price of these wheels is some $1,000 which is, in many cases, several times more than the value of the bicycle being used.

As for the future, like any game-changing technology, there will be fits and starts as the product becomes better accepted by the general public. As quantities increase, prices will go down and this may be one of the most serious obstacles of all.  One would think that a price point of just a few hundred dollars would open this product category to the general public.

Earthgarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet.