Bombardier's concept for a one-wheeled self-balancing motorcycle-like vehicle called the EMBRIO has been a long time Gizmag favorite. It was envisioned as the type of personal transportation that people might be using 20 years from now. Well, if 21 year-old inventor Ben Gulak has his way, consumers will be able to buy a similar vehicle a lot sooner. His battery electric Uno may look like a regular motorbike at higher speeds, but when it slows down, the wheels realign themselves into a side-by-side configuration – seen in profile, it looks like a unicycle.
Gulak, a Canadian who is currently studying Mechanical Engineering at Harvard, is also the brains behind the stand-up tracked off-road vehicle, the DTV Shredder. Unlike the Shredder, however, the Uno was inspired by a desire to save the environment.
In 2005, Gulak accompanied his father on a business trip to China. There, he saw the huge number of smoky, combustion-engined two-stroke scooters and motorcycles that were on the road. He wanted to create an electric alternative to those vehicles, but knew that it would have to be something pretty special in order to make a name for itself. He proceeded to build his first prototype out of angle iron, wheelchair motors, batteries and gyroscopes, and is now working on commercializing the vehicle through his Massachusetts-based company, BPG Motors.
“Because we’re such a visual society, I wanted something that was really going to stand out and show people that being green can be cool,” he told us. “When I was in China [...] one of the things that seemed to be a problem was the congestion, so I thought if we could make a really small vehicle that could weave through traffic – it had to be the same power and abilities as the larger ones – that would make a lot of sense.”
“I wanted something that you could bring indoors, and charge in your apartment. Right now with electric scooters, one of the problems is that there’s nowhere to charge them, and they get vandalized on the road.”
Not unlike a Segway, the Uno uses gyroscopes to maintain balance at lower speeds – a rear kickstand supports the vehicle when it’s parked. At higher speeds, as it’s moving, the wheels realign themselves into a more traditional, one-behind-the-other motorcycle configuration. This is to provide stability, and to make the handling less twitchy. When we first featured the Uno a couple of years ago, it had two wheels. The version that Gulak is now working on, however, has three. When it hits 15mph (24km/h), the middle wheel moves to the front, while the outer two move to the back and squeeze together.
So, how does it feel to have your wheels rearrange themselves on the fly? “It happens in about one second, it’s a very quick transformation” said Gulak. “We’re still in the debugging stages right now, so I’m not going to say it’s not scary – it’s pretty terrifying, but it’s going to be good... It’s just a matter of time until we get it perfected.”
Unlike the Segway, which was kept under wraps until it was revealed to a rather baffled public, Gulak is constantly seeking public feedback on the Uno, to make sure that it’s something people will want to buy. That feedback has found its way into the vehicle’s current design.
“If you try to sell people on the idea of a self-balancing electric unicycle, [then] that just screams ‘far out there,’ but I think by keeping visual references to things that are familiar, people see it more as an evolution or the next step, as opposed to something that’s just completely out of the blue,” he explained.
Gulak hopes to produce an initial run of 30 bikes, within the next 8 to 12 months. They will be limited to a top speed of 35mph (56km/h) because of liability issues, and will be priced for enthusiasts at around US$25,000. As production picks up, the top speed will hopefully increase, while the price should drop to around US$6,500.