In late 2016 I began working with Shane Chen, inventor of the Solowheel and Hoverboard
I had been riding the Solowheel for a year before beginning to work with Shane, and my observations were as follows:
- The Solowheel is the most expansive, pleasurable, mind-opening way of getting around I have ever experienced.
- When a rider becomes skillful, it is unique among vehicles in that the space between intention and action is smaller than any alternative:
- With a bicycle, one must become bicycle-human, which is to say pedal, adjust gears, avoid accidents in a particular way…
- In a car, one must internally manage a significant exposure to danger, costly and complex maintenance, traffic, etc..
- On a solowheel, one adopts a centered position and very subtly leans in the direction of travel.
- The experience of entirely electric movement on the human scale transforms the experience of being human
- But, the first and second iterations of the wheel ultimately felt limited to me in several important ways
- Their set of topological choices made the machine not as robust as the robustness of its components would suggest should be possible
- The battery wasn’t exchangeable
- There was not sufficient degree of modularity
- Last, and most important — the concept of the machine was extremely general in nature — “a wheel that knows it’s a wheel” — but was trapped in a specific iteration of the concept.
The wheel introduced me to a vision of the urban future that was dynamic and peaceful, cooperative and exciting, futuristic and humane. It engaged my body and mind, and taught me many lessons about the possibility for grace in every moment.
Shane brought me on board because we was looking to develop a third generation of the wheel and begin working with an engineering firm to manage some of the design for robustness and modularity. We had met several times in Seattle to discuss possibilities.
Unfortunately while I can’t disclose most of my work with Shane because it is under NDA. I can say that we were working on a next-generation version of the Solowheel that used an entirely different internal design that enables significant improvement in the dimensions of weight, range, top speed, and torque. We were also working on other vehicles that provide similar freedom to the Solowheel, at higher speeds, and on the water.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Inventist, Shane ultimately sold the intellectual property to the wheel, and I left Portland to begin a year of travel.
Since my time at Inventist, I have remained interested in the future of personal electric vehicles. Specifically, I wanted to address what I saw as a significant potential for increased modularity in the wheel that could be enabled by pursuing a new topology.
Other companies have taken the same general concept pretty far, like Inmotion, which released the V10 which goes 30mph for 60 miles, which itself is a kind of paradigm shift when you consider what it enables for the individual.
A friend of mine works with their company so they had me down to LA to shoot a couple videos for the company that showcase their new wheel:
Ultimately however, although I liked the increased speed and range, I think this technology has taken a wrong turn, moving from (what was potentially) highly general to quite specific — emphasizing the productness of the thing, and doubling down on a set of topological choices which Shane initially adopted simply for convenience and affordability. The electric wheel could be so much more. It’s actually somewhat hard to really understand unless you have learned to ride.
Thoughts on the Wheel
A brief explanation of the internals of the original machine:
The wheel consists of a radial flux permanent magnet brushless DC motor doing PWM via three phases of MOSFETS controlled by an ARM processor running an RTOS basically implementing a tweaked PID loop. The voltage is ~70V, and the nominal wattage is 1500W.
This means that you can go about 12-15mph, up most hills in a city as steep as San Francisco or Seattle, and travel around.
The idea of an electric wheel is not new. In fact, in 1900 Lohner-Porsche created an electric hub motor. Basically speaking what’s happened since then is the advent of microprocessors, and the fact that battery technology has improved.
Since my time at Inventist, I have been developing some ideas which I believe can be in the public domain insofar as there appear to be no patents strictly prohibiting their architecture, and Shane and I did not discuss these possibilities.
While this motor type, especially in the YASA-type created by the spinoff from Oxford, has greater torque density, the main value for this application is that it can be stacked, especially with two stators surrounding a single rotor, like so:
This creates the possibility that the device can be split at the air gap, which is not practical for radial flux machines like the original Solowheel, which means various vehicles can be created from a set of these modular components, at the human scale, without special engineering. It also enables a new class of exciting vehicles that are unfortunately beyond the scope of this article…
I put together some rough schematics of this concept utilizing dual YASA stators integrated with batteries and control electronics, on either side of a wheel with a rotor using a halbach array to reduce weight, earlier this year: