…Regarding e-EVerything

Don’t forget, we could still use volunteers at the 2014 EV Grand Prix this Saturday (and some setup Friday).  Just check off a SignUpGenius entry, and you’re all set.

As cozy as the electric GP racers are, there’s room for improvement.  E-bikes, by comparison, can be taken on Metro, or via the front racks of buses.  Still, sometimes I just don’t feel like bothering with a regular, 20-lb bike (and a good lock, all my biking gear, etc.); let alone a much heavier e-bike.  It is just these situations where a car is the lazy solution, and a huge barrier for urban living and public transportation (or even Zipcar/Car2Go).

Enter the Inventist Solowheel, debuting about a year ago.  It’s hardly the first personal-sized, electric-powered, gyrostabilized solution; it’s a competitor to the Focus Designs SBU V3, and a “son-of-the-Segway.”  I met Marc Fisher in New York to discuss the Solowheel, and where it’s going; he’s an independent retailer for Inventist.  Marc, formerly of the Maryland suburbs, now lives in New Jersey.  There, he carries his Solowheel down three stories, rolls to a mass-transit stop, and heads to his day job in New York City… where he rolls the rest of the way, then sticks his EV in a corner.  Exactly the sort of thing he could have used to and from his Montgomery County Metro stops.  He’s even got the range (7-10 miles) for lunch and errands.33y

The other four questions: it charges from a standard household NEMA 5-15 outlet, in 1.5 hours.  It can go… about as fast as you’d want without risking serious injury.  It costs just shy of $2,000 at the moment.

That’s Marc’s biggest beef.  The Solowheel range is already enough for what a person would normally do with it; when I mentioned newer battery chemistries on the horizon, he was unimpressed.  However, the price could improve significantly, as Marc knows the technology inside is no longer cutting edge.  He thus feels the price could not simply fall, but plummet.  A shrewder supply chain, he claims, could get this into customer hands much more aggressively by going after these price cuts.  As it stands, today’s price is pretty much that of a full e-bike.

Marc figures, unlike e-bikes, the Solowheel’s natural niche is college or corporate campuses.  I’ve found that in such dense, close quarters, parking and locking a regular bike (let alone a $2000 e-bike) is the big hassle, and an even bigger risk.  This EV you simply tote inside like a briefcase as Marc does.  At about 25 pounds, it’s not a light briefcase, but hardly impossible.  He has already toured many Northern California tech firms, and offers a student discount.  Students then act as his models/evangelists.  As we have found, the best advertisement is simply to get out there, using your EV successfully and fielding the five questions from onlookers.

Other solutions to this problem exist, of course.  I floated the idea of electric skateboards (which one EVADC member rides), and e-razors (assisted kick scooters).  Marc didn’t rule out a razor version, and in fact sells non-electric kick scooters.  But skateboards appeal to skateboarders- members of a clear subculture.  If you wouldn’t have bought a wooden one, then a lithium board is not an option either.

Like electric skateboards, the Solowheel is in a legal grey area.  Marc prefers taking New York City’s many bike lanes, but because it’s handy, not because it’s explicitly allowed.  But it’s not explicitly banned in New York, either, like e-bikes are at this moment.  And yet, I saw about one e-bike per restaurant that delivered.  While there were many such restaurants with purely human-powered delivery vehicles, there were also some with two or three e-bikes.  The police simply have bigger issues.  Marc claims- seriously- that the one time he was questioned by cops, they wanted to know where they could get one.  Regarding the whole legal question, Marc compares it to mountain resorts attempting to confine and ghettoize the first snowboarders.  Eventually, there were simply too many snowboarders to hold back.

Yes, you can add training wheels

Yes, you can add training wheels

Marc claims the Solowheels have held up well in a year of use.  This appears true; the only visible wear or grime is the soft rubber of the shin rest, which is what hits the ground if you hop off.  Marc also claims to have experienced little range loss in the winter, which I find hard to believe.  He did qualify that, stating he didn’t ride it on truly bitter days, and the range was already plenty to begin with for his purposes.

For our purposes, a bridge vehicle of some sort is handy.  If the nearest charging station isn’t really convenient to your office, errand, etc., then something else in your trunk could be a lifesaver.  The Solowheel does a good lifesaver impression; Marc charged his from a 12V inverter in his Subaru while touring California tech campuses.  We at EVADC have already discussed Capitol Bikeshare as bridge vehicles, and one of our members keeps an e-bike in the back of his e-car for this very contingency.

If you doubt some flavor of bridge vehicle is desirable, both Honda and Toyota disagree.  They have not just displayed the Honda UNI-CUB and Toyota Winglet (personal transport solutions closer to the Segway).  Honda is on version 2 of its electric CUB, and Toyota has announced limited Winglet production and sales.  The two companies, like BMW and Ford, know that as populations keep urbanizing (including the USA), cars start to become burdens instead of freedom.  Should convenient parking turn out to be unavailable, you would pull out your CUB or Winglet from your (ideally Honda or Toyota) trunk, and finish your trip.  The UNI-CUB and Winglet, though, may have gentler learning curves, with three wheels or two wheels and a tall thigh-rest, respectively, instead of the Solowheel’s lone tire and two shin-rests.  If even that’s beyond your balancing skills, a Winglet handgrip more like a Segway is available.  Perhaps the central column lets you roll the Winglet behind you like luggage after you dismount.

We’ll see which of the personal, electric transport solution gets traction- maybe multiple ones.  As it stands, the Solowheel is in the same price class as an e-bike, winning on convenience but losing over longer distances and with less-adept buyers.  As its price falls- which Marc certainly anticipates- the sheer handiness after dismounting becomes a bigger and bigger sell.

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