This week, a new company called Superpedestrian has debuted from "stealth" mode by announcing $2.1 million in venture capital funding and a promise: the long-awaited Copenhagen Wheel will be made available to the public in late November.
For years, cyclists have been taunted by the prospect of the Copenhagen Wheel, a prototype wheel from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab that can make any bike electric. It was everywhere: On the news, in magazine articles—the wheel even had a story arc on Showtime's Weeds, when a character launches a business selling the product in (where else?) Copenhagen.
Ever since the wheel first received attention in 2009, researchers at MIT's SENSEable City lab have been refining it. "The project touched an exposed nerve somehow. Aside from news coverage and design awards, people were wanting it. Over 14,000 people emailed saying 'I want to buy it, sell it, make it for you,'" says Superpedestrian founder Assaf Biderman, who is also the SENSEable City lab associate director and one of the creators of the wheel, along with lab director Carlo Ratti.
At the end of 2012, Biderman decided it was time to spin off a company to make it happen. MIT filed all the relevant patents, and Superpedestrian acquired exclusive licenses to the Copenhagen Wheel technology.
Biderman won't reveal too many details about the wheel until the official November launch, but here's what we do know: The wheel can be fitted to almost any bike, and it has a power assist feature that doesn't require any work on the part of the rider (the wheel is automatically controlled by sensors in the pedals). Its range "will cover the average suburban commute, about 15 miles to and from work and back home," according to Biderman.
A regenerative braking system stores energy for later use in a lithium battery. And while the wheel comes with an app that locks and unlocks the bike, selects motor assistance, and offers real-time data about road conditions, an open-source platform called The Superpedestrian SDK will let developers work on their own wheel-related creations.
It's hard to discuss the Copenhagen Wheel without also mentioning its newly-hatched rival, the FlyKly Smart Wheel. The Smart Wheel, which has raised over $150,000 on Kickstarter so far, is extremely similar to the Copenhagen Wheel in most respects—though it will be hard to compare details until Superpedestrian does a full launch.
"It's actually a coincidence, the timing. We're getting out of stealth mode now after months of working together to build a team and continue engineering," says Biderman. "I don't know their product. I haven't seen or ridden it, but from the outset, it looks awfully similar." Of course, the Copenhagen Wheel has years of brand recognition and the MIT name behind it—two big advantages.
Biderman says that the primary audience for the wheel isn't just cyclists, but city dwellers everywhere looking for alternatives to their four-wheeled vehicles. "If you're an urbanite, you can use it to move all around, and go as far as the edges of most cities with this quite easily. You overcome topographical challenges like hills. The point is to attract more people to cycling."
No word yet on exact pricing, but the wheel will have a price point that's competitive with today's e-bikes.