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MIT unveils new 'smart' bike wheel

The institute's new Copenhagen wheel can store energy to make riding easier and can also talk to an iPhone to monitor its rider and keep tabs on traffic.

The clever folks at MIT have developed a smart wheel that could give bicycle riders a 21st century boost.

The new Copenhagen wheel
The new Copenhagen wheel Senseable City Lab

Unveiled Tuesday at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, MIT's new Copenhagen wheel is trying to do its part to help the environment by making bike riding easier and more enjoyable.

The wheel's battery can store energy as you step on the brakes and then return that power back to help you climb a hill or boost your speed. A sensor inside the hub measures your effort when you ride. As you pedal forward, the sensor tells the wheel's electric motor to give you a boost. When you hit the brakes, the motor regenerates, slowing you down and recharging the batteries. The goal behind this design is to encourage people to bike farther distances, relying less on gas-guzzling transportation.

"Over the past few years we have seen a kind of biking renaissance, which started in Copenhagen and has spread from Paris to Barcelona to Montreal," said Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Laboratory and the Copenhagen Wheel project, in a statement. "It's sort of like 'Biking 2.0'--whereby cheap electronics allow us to augment bikes and convert them into a more flexible, on-demand system."

Senseable City Lab

Beyond giving you an energy boost, the wheel has other secrets in its bright red hub. Using sensors and a Bluetooth connection, the wheel can talk to an iPhone mounted on the handlebars. Through an iPhone app, you can check your speed, direction, and distance traveled. The wheel can also monitor traffic conditions and smog and even keep track of your bicycling buddies.

The Copenhagen wheel embeds all the required electronics inside the hub, so no other gadgets need to be added to the bike frame. A special spoking method devised by the team also lets you install the hub on any rim.

Any existing bike can be retrofitted with the wheel. In fact, the MIT team sees it as a plug-and play-device, one that any bike owner should be able to easily install as a back wheel.

The Copenhagen wheel is targeted to hit the market within a year and will be sold by online retailers, consumer electronics vendors, and possibly bike stores. The wheel will cost as much as a standard electronic bike--somewhere between $500 and $1000.

MIT's SENSEable City Lab developed the initial prototype of the wheel for the city of Copenhagen, in cooperation with Italian company Ducati Energia and supported by the Italian Ministry for the Environment. The first orders will likely come from Copenhagen itself, which hopes to retrofit bicycles as replacements for city employee cars.

"The Copenhagen Wheel is part of a more general trend: that of inserting intelligence in our everyday objects and of creating a smart support infrastructure around ourselves for everyday life," said Assaf Biderman, associate director of the project, in a statement.