When it came time to redesign the colorful bikes scattered about Google's massive Mountain View, Calif., campus, the company knew exactly who to turn to for next generation of its GBikes: Googlers themselves.
Last fall, the company launched a competition among employees to replace the 2-year-old fleet of bikes available to workers at the Googleplex to pedal from one building to another. The idea was to come up with a user-friendly, low-maintenance bike.
"We've got an entrepreneurial and innovative culture," said Brendon Harrington, Google's transportation operations manager. "We said, 'You tell us what you think is a cool design.'"
The company listed four design criteria. The bike had to be easy to produce. It needed to be affordable. The bike had to be both comfortable and secure. And, in a nod to its culture, the bike had to be Googley, using novel components, structure, and appearance.
The company got about three dozen designs, every thing from a BMX-style bike to a modern take on the old Penny-farthing high-wheel bike from the 19th century. It chose a far more conservative model -- something of a beach cruiser with coaster brakes and hand brakes. The steel bike comes with a basket and bell. And it features fenders to keep spray off cyclists' backs in the rain, and a case covering the chain to protect their clothes from grease.
"Our design motto was 'Build a user-friendly, safe and reliable, low-maintenance new GBike,'" said David Fork, a renewable energy technologist at the company, who was on the four-person team that won the competition.
Fork said he's fond of the current GBike, a cute and colorful bike that Googlers have been riding for two years. But the bikes aren't universally loved. The 20-inch wheels, which enhance the aesthetic, make them uncomfortable for taller riders.
"We love the GBikes -- especially the Googley colors -- but have also heard from many Googlers about things they wish were different," Fork said.
In their free time, the group tinkered with different component combinations.They built a couple of prototypes, all with 24-inch wheels. They tested different braking and gearing systems. They even tried airless tires, which would have eliminated flats. But the ride quality wasn't particularly good.
"We're all engineers so we've designed lots of mechanical things before," Fork said.
Google debuted its first fleet of GBikes in 2008. That model was a beach cruiser, all blue, and an entirely functional way to pedal around campus. Google introduced the current GBike with 20-inch wheels in 2010.
For their efforts, Fork's team won a $500 gift certificate to a local bike shop.
"We're still trying to figure out how to spend it," said Fork, who commutes to Google on his own bike from his Mountain View home.
Google intends to order enough of the new bikes so the more than 10,000 employees at its Mountain View campus can always find one to ride.
"We shoot for about a thousand," Harrington said. "When people want a bike, we want them to have a bike."