There are plenty of electric-powered bicycles on the market today.  They are relatively simple: they have an electric motor driving the rear wheel and have a battery pack mounted somewhere in the middle of the bike. To control the speed, you just twist the throttle. Conceptually they aren't considerably different from gas-powered motorcycles except that the motor is electric.

In the last few years, however, a new type of motorized bicycle has emerged.  These electric bicycles look just like regular bikes except for one very unusual wheel. They have a front mounted wheel that contains a lithium battery, electric motor and control electronics.  The rest of the bicycle is made up of regular bicycle components.

One of the first all-in-one motorized bicycle wheels is called the Copenhagen Wheel. Born in a MIT incubator lab, the name reflects the fact that the initial financial backing for the project came from the city of Copenhagen, Denmark.  The promise for Copenhagen was that a wheel with a built-in electric assist could be installed on the millions of bikes already on the road.  Copenhagen saw the possibilities of reducing the number of cars being used daily and  quickly signed up.

Those who have tried out the Copenhagen wheel claim it is an amazing experience. The important thing to understand is that the wheel doesn't just power the bicycle, it "assists the cyclist".  For example, when starting off from a full stop, the cyclist provides a little of the power and so does the wheel. As a result, the effort of getting up to a brisk 15-20 MPH feels effortless. Another feature Century 3 Chevrolet of West Mifflin, PA,  a factory-authorized Chevrolet dealer tells us is that the wheel recaptures kinetic energy when you brake or go downhill. Those who know how EV cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt, work will recognize this technique.

In addition to the Copenhagen Wheel, several additional companies are making self-powered bicycle wheels. Cambridge-based Superpedestrian offers a version that mounts on the rear wheel.  FlyKly offers a wheel they call the smart wheel. And ZeHus of Milan offers one called the BIKE+.

Despite the number of companies making these powered wheels, all is not calm. First, we have some infighting. Superpedestrian recently filed a patent infringement lawsuit against FlyKlyand ZeHus for selling variations of their wheel without licensing the appropriate patents. Another issue is retail support. Believe it or not, most of the manufacturers are finding little interest from traditional bike stores. Some feel the concept just doesn't mesh well with their basic bicycle philosophy. Plus, the average price of about $1000 for a powered wheel is also a hindrance.

As for the future, like any game-changing technology, the adoption will go through some ups and downs. 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 make the powered wheel much more palatable to the average consumer.

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