As cars evolve toward an electric, self-driving future, one feature hasn't changed: If you get in a car, you expect to sit back and let it to do the work. The word "automobile," after all, means something that can move on its own. But could there also be a future for human-powered cars?
Two new concept "cars" at this year's Detroit Auto Show also happen to be bikes. To get anywhere, you'll have to pedal, but the vehicles also have two of the most useful features from ordinary cars—weather protection and the ability to carry as much as you might in an ordinary trunk.
"Our goal is to create a car-like experience in a vehicle that is human-powered and legally defined as a bicycle," say Cameron and Rachel Van Dyke, the husband-and-wife design team behind the concept.
One of the designs, called the Cyclone, is a "human-powered luxury vehicle" that looks a little like something a 1920s gangster might drive. Inside, two riders pedal, and there's room for two more passengers in the back.
Another, called the Zeppelin, combines pedaling with an electric motor. On flat ground, it travels 25 miles an hour. Because it meets the legal definition of a bike—at least at the federal level, and also in many states—it's street legal to drive without a license, registration, or insurance.
Both designs build on work that started three years ago. The artists wanted to bring the concepts to the Auto Show to help challenge conventional ideas about what a car can be. "Future Cycles offers a challenge to the approach of an auto industry that affirms and perpetuates our current transportation situation," says Cameron Van Dyke. "My hope is to engage everyday American drivers in a dialogue that demonstrates that other solutions might be possible or even preferable."
Though the designers have no plans to produce the vehicles for sale, they hope that they might lead to new alternatives for commuting in the city.
"I think these vehicles would be ideal for commuting in a cold or wet climate that is not too hilly and that uses only city streets," Van Dyke says. "There are many people for whom this would be the perfect solution to replace one of their two cars."
While they might not make sense for long-distance travel now, Van Dyke thinks that at some point that could change. "Speed is very important the American traveler and right now speed is very cheap," he says. "There will come a time, however, when we will need to choose between the value of speed and the value of energy and then solutions like these vehicles may make sense for all kinds of travel."
The designers think it's possible for society to shift to more sustainable transportation like these concepts—like a driving version of the slow-food movement perhaps. "It would take a shift in values that embraces physical labor, accepts less comfort, and is willing to invest more time into travel," Van Dyke says. "For those that do shift, the payoff is huge—a drastic reduction in energy use, better health, and the exhilaration of exercise."