Friday, January 23, 2009

Analysis : "This Way" Commuter Bicycle Concept

'This Way' Commuter Bike : Pictures Courtesy of Bicycle Design & T.Dohmers

In October last year, the Bicycle Design blog hosted a competition called "Commuter Bike For The Masses". The theme of the competition was centered around designing a 'transportation-oriented' bicycle to try and reel in (or attract) the vast "blue ocean" of people out there who don't ride at all, and have zero prior interest in cycling. Design and form factors were entirely up to the designers. The idea sounded fun, and Cannondale sponsored the competition. Winners would get a grand prize equaling a free Cannondale Bad Boy Bike, valued at 1000 US dollars.

The 7 jurors were :

Out of 65 total entries, it was announced that 6 made it as finalists. They had some interesting, and creative concepts from a bike that would become a lock when folded, to bikes that had a car like feel to them, both from a design standpoint and other specific elements such as the idea of using 'keys' to get something unlocked.

Yesterday, the winner was announced and it was the "This Way" commuter bike concept from designer Torkel Dohmer. Congratulations!! Man, I fail to see how you can't enjoy that grand prize!

Here are my thoughts on the design, and you can think about them too :

1. ALL CAR DRIVERS? : It appears it was taken for granted in the competition that all non-cyclists drive cars. How about those who take the public transport system in cities (many are happy with public transport) ? What about the many others who're much satisfied with walking? How about those who don't want anything to do with cars at all? Will a design that looks and feels like a car answer all the questions?

2. JURY : Close to 60% of the jury I mentioned before consisted of people who ride bikes or are in the bicycle business. How can you avoid a selection bias or be able to get information from people who don't ride, like through a survey?

3. SOLAR PANELS? : In the design rendering, there are no solar panels depicted at all on the roof. Just a mere glass like structure. That doesn't say much, does it? Moreover, while solar power isn't necessarily bad, it could be expensive. In 2005, the price of solar panels averaged about $3-$4 USD per watt of installed power. The designer of the bike has to calculate how much power all his electrical equipment in the bike would need and justify the costs of buying, and installing solar panels to run the calculated watts and amperage. Then compare those costs with batteries. Whats a better option?

4. WEATHER PROTECTION : By weather, I take it that this bike can be ridden in the rain. The bike has a roof, so it is supposed to have that weather protection. But does rain only fall directly vertical?

The bike also has solar cells on the roof, which, according to the designer must power the bike's built in LED lights. How do you protect all that equipment when it rains? Attention must be also put on the fact that the sun isn't directly overhead all the time. Solar panels in the real world are able to tilt and position themselves correctly relative to the sun.

5. SNOW : Conventional bikes can be ridden on the snow using different tires and many commuters ride to work in the cold. Due to This Way's low rider position and small wheels, I highly doubt whether it'll be possible to achieve this.

6. DRIVE TRAIN : The bike has a "belt drive". Belt drives don't work with multiple gear sprockets. You could, however, pair them with an internal geared rear hub but you probably won't be able to enjoy some things. That may also cost more than simple sprockets.

7. SAFETY : Will a rider be really safe with a low center of gravity? What if consumers think aerodynamics is not as important as safely getting somewhere. Will he or she be visible to the traffic? When its time to brake and stop, how do you get out without tumbing either way due to a loss of balance? And finally, a few things about the windshield :

1) I'm not sure how the designer aims to make the windshield. If it is some plastic or polymer, then the issue of scratches on it comes up.

2) If its going to be made of glass, there's no telling when the rider can impact his head on it in case of an impact or accident. My next question would be : Should a seat belt be provided to the rider? What would be the industry standards that have to be followed for vehicles with windshields?

3) The viewing range of the windshield can be restrictive to observation. Notice how its not only narrow, but the windshield frame itself can block the rider's view ahead. This may or may not be an issue, but still something to consider.

8. RIDING POSITION & COMFORT : I like the concept of a recumbent riding position for a commuter's bike for the masses, but it seems to me as if in this winner's concept, the rider's arms will be outstretched at the handlebars. How comfortable will turning and maneuvering the bike be in corners and in climbing on hills? In conventional bicycles, a rider can stand and pedal to generate more power on hills. However, no such provisions are on the This Way bike.

Also note that from the rendering, the design of the handlebars makes it possible for them to strike the windshield frame on turning.

9. PARKING : Without a stand or a stable support point, how do you park a two wheeler such as this? And what facilities are there on the bike itself to use with existing public bike racks?

10. BIKE TRANSPORTATION : Will this bike fit into a bike bag or an aftermarket vehicle rack for transportation? I don't see that happening knowing what exists in the market today. in high density urban areas, cyclists are seen placing their bikes onto trains or buses. Given the big dimensions of the This Way bike, I hardly think that's possible.

11. MATERIALS OF CONSTRUCTION : The concept is to be made out of carbon fiber or flax fiber, and hydroformed aluminum. We all know that bicycles and velomobiles made out of carbon fiber are not cheap.

12. PRICE POINT AND LIFECYCLE COST : The judges think that to keep costs down, this concept could borrow ideas from toy and boat manufacturers and be made to sell under 500 dollars if volume took off. Pay attention. "IF VOLUME took off". Otherwise, they think selling point will be around a 1000 dollars. Now, none of the judges have talked about a certain element called 'Risk Assessment'. By using composite materials and having solar panels on your roof, is it guaranteed to attract consumers? This isn't simple to answer in a day or two. Its all too simple to sit somewhere and say, 'My idea is going to be great. Lots of people are going to buy it. My competitors will be dum as well. They won't figure out a cheaper, easier or more innovative way to do things.'

Keep in mind that the materials of construction, solar panel and electrical transducer equipment, wiring and the extra cargo attachement that goes with the bike can all bump up costs. To rely on manufacturing methods for toys and boats can also have its own set of agendas to follow, such as having to follow different sets of standards or testing. Considering all this, if it can still be sold for 1000 dollars, great. But is 1000 dollars what everyone wants to pay for a commuter bike? And over a period of its life, how costly will it get for the average Joe to maintain, replace and buy new parts due to damage, wear and tear?

In the summer of last year, I saw a concept very similar to This Way. It was a solar powered bicycle designed by Miroslav Milijevic based at Z & Co. Design in London. It was called Cycle Sol (Sol may be short for Solar). The only differences I see are that Cyclesol has an electric assist motor, the handlebars are positioned at the sides, the seats look a little less comfortable and wheels look more solid. Even though such a design was shown months earlier, even it seems like it didn't transform into reality till now. Yet, the design renderings have substantial detail in them, which is how I think a proposal should be submitted.

14. WILL IT TAKE OFF? : For all the publicity that surrounded this competition, what I'm really interested in is will the concept see the light of day? Congratulations to the winner, but there appears to be a need to have a reality check put on the design. I hope you can work and build upon the apparent practical disadvantages I and many others see in this concept.

At the end of the day, ask yourself the question :
Is poor bicycle design really the culprit in keeping people away from cycling, as opposed to safety problems, poor infrastructure, poor riding facilities and poor advocacy programs by governments and other authorities? If it indeed is, by how much (like a %) ? What amount of role does it play in discouraging cycling? Because if it is indeed a tiny % compared to other factors, then maybe the best efforts to get people on bikes can be achieved through strategies trying to improve those other factors.


Tony Grenzer said...

Excellent analysis.

One reason most bicycle companies don't pursue projects such as this is thats its too risky. The price is high, the bikes are heavy or clunky, and for the most part they don't end up attracting a lot of people into riding.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ron,
Why dont YOU run a competition then ?
Then you can set your rules !!!

Such negativity is unbecoming and not cross-polinating !!

SprintBug said...

Cozy, if you don't say it no one will!

Anonymous said...

Ron : Someone above talked about your negativity. Such negativity is hardly anything new. The conflict at work between conceptual designers and engineers are seen even in the car industry. The designers will freely play around with form and create clay models, but whatever they come up with irks the engineers who're really the ones who build this thing up, and put life into it. I think what would be needed in good bicycle design is a team of people, not just one. Communication is very important.

Anonymous said...

The design is not viable.
A similar incarnation was attempted in the 70's and failed miserably.

Does any designer actually do any research before they start on stuff like this?

- Ryan

Chris Pikulski said...

To all who commented here and the author : This is a first step concept. It will take lots of work to make it practical. There's no point in arguing that its a horrible design. The designer most likely knew that this is just a rendering of his idea, not something that he should provide someone with to ride immediately.

Anonymous said...

Carrying on from annon 11:16

Jonathan Ives (Apple designer) said recently [paraphrased] that new concepts at apple are like precious new green shoots, and need to be protected or they are easily trampled on by the mass of opinion with no vision. I think this applies to any new concept - it is so easy to trample on. But by understanding it is still very young and at a very early, even embryonic stage of development, he with the help of Steve Jobs feeds and grows it in sealed incobaters - to emerge later as the sorts of products that apple is renowned for.

Apple design is staffed by creative people both creative engineers and creative designers.
They recognise that engineering can also be a creative activity, even though not all modern engineers are creative ... by understanding the need for new ideas they make a positive contribution.

Ron said...

James : Thats good to hear. If Torkel has the resources to get something underway, great. Hopefully he won't fail to take into account the majority of practical disadvantages we all see from his initial renderings.

Speaking of Apple, I'm reading a book called Apple Confidential 2.0, a history of the Apple company. So far its been very good.

Anonymous said...

I like your point about Life cycle cost. Thats something consumers hardly think about. It would be great to have a "Cradle To Grave" cost assessment of this bike and compare that with alternatives. Thats the way I would do it.

LockHeed Martin

The Man Commuter said...

Its interesting how design concepts can be so out of touch with reality. For example, how is the proposed belt drive transmission going to fit in this bike? I suppose the frictional drag caused by a curved and twisted transmission line will far outweigh any benefits I see in the design.

Anonymous said...

I think the concept is great. Sure you can pick a million and one reasons it might not work, but it sure throws some possibilities into the ring. Why should it need to be a practical idea that could be manufactured tomorrow? It's a concept...

So many of the points you raise are possible problems, but could so easily be engineered out of it or may not even be a problem.

Disappointingly negative post, what ever happened to creative criticism.

Ron said...

Anon : No where have I said Torkel should drop his idea and just walk away. But even you won't deny it - the questions I have posed is something every rider will ask.

It also depends how you define "creative criticism". I'm a pretty straight forward guy. So if you mean I should sugar coat criticism, sorry I can't do that well enough. Maybe I should try harder.

Anonymous said...

Jimmythefly - thanks for your great post, it teaches us by example creative critisism.

And James for reminding us this is a concept competition to effectively brainstorm how to bring in the vast majority 160m into using human powered transport a shocking figure compared to 13m bike users.

I am glad apple was mentioned above as they brought the iPod without following Market research, and this competition could be thought of as how would apple approach bicycle design ?

Beretta said...

Ron : I came to this blog looking for something different. And I just love your insight. Keep up the good job!

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if this was done as a tadpole trike, with 2 front wheels, giving it much better stability to counteract the wind torque the wind/rainshield could add. also make it much easier to maneuver in the city.

I agree that the handlebars need to be more convenient/lower to the normal position of arms. USS is the way to go.

Original design and these improvements are all very good and insightful. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Your comment on a steering wheel is hilarious. After the next few ideas remaining for this design like a bumper, a trunk, and a sunroof for the roof, I think it'd just be better off buying a car instead of riding a toy for adult daycare.

Anonymous said...

At the end of your article you said "Is poor bicycle design really the culprit in keeping people away from cycling, as opposed to safety problems..."

Sorry, the only safety problem keeping people from bicycling is that they THINK it's dangerous, partly because articles keep telling them so. Any unbiased look at real numbers shows that bicycling is safe.


Anonymous said...

At the end of your article you said "Is poor bicycle design really the culprit in keeping people away from cycling, as opposed to safety problems..."

Sorry, the only safety problem keeping people from bicycling is that they THINK it's dangerous, partly because articles keep telling them so. Any unbiased look at real numbers shows that bicycling is safe.


Ron said...

Anon @ 6:17pm : I welcome all kinds of sarcasm but I was only trying to offer ideas for improvement in this design. If you want to downgrade every single suggestion put forth go ahead. Whatever floats your boat.

Anon @ 7:27pm : Yes, I agree that perception to a degree is responsible for safety concerns. These may be right or wrong perceptions. However, they are present and real and in most cases, there is solid reason for it. Can you argue that the NEED to dissolve wrong perceptions are insignificant and unimportant compared to the VITAL need to keep producing more varieties of bikes? What good is that going to do?

Root cause prevention is better than cure my friend.

I have problems with your website for a few reasons. Remember, statistics can play with your mind if you don't do some critical thinking :

1) No links to actual citations.

2) Outdated data for our times. Think : the number people may have doubled, the number of vehicles on the roads may have quadrupled from 1990 to 2008! That could increase the odds of drunk driving and crime. New technology, bad companies, bad manufacturing methods can all cause failures in bikes. The injuries, or fatalities from these events aren't explored either. So whether you're skilled or not doesn't mean cycling is necessarily safer. There are lots of variables to consider.

3) Where's the data for the rest of the world? Do people only bike or have perceptions about it in USA?

4) What is the cutoff for these rates between urban and rural cycling, road and off road cycling, and just different types of cycling? These are not evident in your data. It may very well be that these numbers pertain to a safer form of cycling while discounting others.

4) People not only bike for utility purposes, they also compete on it. Competition is an extreme case scenario you can't under rule, where ever it may be.

5) Other subtle things like increase in popularity of cycling may also increase the rates of injury. These aspects aren't explored by your site.

4) While your website puts actual numbers to injuries and fatalities, its sort of downplaying it by comparing it with other more dangerous activities. So isn't there a value to these numbers??? Keep in mind that a leg bruised, an arm lost, or a shoulder broken can put you off work, lower the quality of your life and may decrease your privileges in society. Whether a cyclist injures himself lesser than a motorist is not the question. The question is 'HAS THE CYCLIST INJURED HIMSELF?' If yes, its bad and somewhere, something is wrong.

Cycling is a great and healthy activity but the society at large and the environment within which we bike is the problem. Perceptions are a product of this environment. They don't just come out of no where.

Woland said...

Interesting link. I think roof is IMPOSSIBLE without going into
tricycle - and crosswind would make that bike to crash. But trike
with solar panels and A LOT of cargo space - that sound like a
possibility. Weight is a bit of a limiting factor as far as
transporting but perhaps there is a way to tow a big trike behind
the car?

DanKMTB said...

Solar as a whole is still more complicated and expensive than it needs to be. I'm currently looking into a solar charge system for a sailboat I'm restoring. My options seem to be spend way more than I consider reasonable (and even then options are quite limited), or patch together an equally efficient and far more cost effective but more bulky and cumbersome system on my own. One would think complete, reasonably priced solar systems would be more common than they are.

Lighting a bike with it? No thanks, Ive got my hands full trying to light my boat where weight is no concern.

Werehatrack said...

Until there's a prototype that's actually practical to build, buy and use, it's vaporware. Today's commuters need something that they can buy and use *now*, and this isn't it. Whether it ever will reach the point of being a real product is somewhat worse than just debatable; too many of the "apparent practical disadvantages" are in areas which are well-known to be nontrivial.

My prediction: This concept will not prove as horribly profitless to
investors as Moller's flying car, but it will ultimately be nearly as
unsuccessful, for some of the same reasons. In the case of this
project, the prototype may well be fully functional, but will prove
both impractical to build and less useful in real-world environments
than expected; given that similar attempts have been made many times,
there is no reason to expect that the results will be different in
this instance. If it reaches production, there will be a small
specialty market for it, but the overall response from the marketplace is unlikely to be enthusiastic.

Anonymous said...

The windshield is a BIG issue. Polycarbonate is hard to mold in way that does not have severe optical distortions, and is easily scratched.Sailplane canopies overcome this by being hideously expensive and handled with extreme care on the ground. A glass windshield can overcome these problems, but at a significant cost on weight. Defogging the windshield in poor weather is also a major problem.

I suspect this is why a lot of velomobile designer have gone to the "exposed rider's head" design.

Goon said...

65 total entries??

Where are the rest?

greg said...

to your last point/question - I don't think it's design, or safety or infrastructure that limits people's participation in cycling as an alternative means of transportation. I think the majority of people are just lazy.

Anonymous said...

I think its also an image thing - some folk just have a negative view of cycling . period . such as .. 'for folk who cannot afford a car', 'for athletes', 'for enthusiasts', or for nerds ? .... I am non of the others so I guess I am a nerd :-)