Imagine a bike that can issue a smog alert: Exhaust sensors on the handlebars will be able to detect fumes and transmit the pollutant concentration to headquarters, where hundreds of sensors are feeding information into a pollution map of the city. The bike will then calculate an alternative route that steers clear of the worst pollution.
It's part of a vision called "Smart Cities" that was dreamt up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, a stronghold of high-tech pioneers. Here, engineers who usually spend their time experimenting with artificial intelligence and avatars are now concentrating their efforts on reinventing a bike that will serve as the central feature of an intelligent transportation system in the future.
For now, the smart city is still just a figment of their imagination. But many of the components for intelligent bikes are already in place. For decades, the digital revolution bypassed bicycle design, but it is now finally reaching a domain hitherto dismissed as Luddite.
A Game-Changing Development
This sudden acceleration in development is powered by the boom in e-bikes. This year, some 400,000 electric bicycles are expected to sell in Germany alone, which is 100,000 more than were sold in 2011. Also known as pedelecs, they were initially seen as an option primarily for senior citizens. But these days, even mountain and touring bikes have gone electric.
These new high-performance two-wheelers allow amateur cyclists to raise their game: Even steep mountainsides and gale-force headwinds are manageable on a bike with a 250-watt motor. Professional cyclists, in comparison, can produce 400 to 500 watts.
German bicycle manufacturer Kalkhoff has even developed what is effectively a bicycle helmet for the heart that prevents e-cyclists from overdoing it. It's a chest strap that measures the heartbeat. If it exceeds a set rate, the engine power ramps up to allow the heart to slow down.
Today not even rocky terrain need be a deterrent to cyclists, thanks to completely computerized suspension provided by what is called an e:i intelligent shock system. The rear suspension is adjusted in response to motion-sensors detecting bumps in the front fork.
Automatic transmissions, generally derided as wimpish by car drivers, have also been adapted for e-bikes, shifting automatically in response to pedal speed. The continuously variable transmission developed by US company Fallbrook Technologies is so smooth the cyclist doesn't even notice the shift.
Another innovation set to go mainstream -- at least at the top end of the market -- is a USB port on the handlebars. German manufacturer and bicycle lighting specialist Busch & Müller is set to make production of the USB port with its brightest LED front light standard. This allows the smartphone on the handlebars to receive GPS signals without the risk of the battery running out.
When App Stores Replace the Garage
Michael Lin, a former researcher with MIT's Smart Cities project, is now at the Swiss company MTB Cycletech working on an e-bike that will be operated by an app. The e-Jalopy, expected to cost 2,800 ($3,600), is based on MIT's e-bike concept. But it has one advantage: Owners keen to add electronic functions can simply go the app store rather than the garage.
The bike will even have an integrated immobilizer and will be able to recognize its owners by communicating with their smartphones. As soon as a Bluetooth connection has been established, the question "Start?" appears on the display. And if the connection is broken, a warning signal is issued. Locking the bike will also be a semi-automatic process, operating much like car key remotes.
"The electronic key blocks the bike by altering magnetic fields in the electric motor," explains Lin. This prevents potential thieves from cycling away with it. They certainly wouldn't be able to carry it off very easily -- the e-Jalopy weighs 20 kilograms (44 pounds).