Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bike-onomics, or, What Succeeds the Bike?

Here's a link to an article in the Week in Review section of last Sunday's New York Times. It's an article about technological advance and the "creative destruction" of capitalism (a timely topic, you might concur.) It starts with the (to me) exceeding provocative statement, "By some logic, there is no earthly reason why bicycles should still exist." It's a very interesting article, and (as is often the case with the NYT) so very timely on many fronts. (So go on, read it, don't worry, we'll still be here when you're done..)

The author, Catherine Rampell, makes the statement that "older technologies have survived by recasting themselves as luxuries and by marketing their sensory, aesthetic and nostalgic appeal." I wouldn't disagree with that, exactly, but Ms. Rampell does miss (or perhaps chooses to ignore) the point that bicycles do have a straight-ahead economic advantage: they are greatly less expensive to operate than automobiles for trips of a certain length, say daily commutes of 10 miles or less. There's just no comparison, and commuting bicyclists' blogs are replete with stories of how much money they've saved, ad nauseaum. Ms. Rampell might make the argument that such extra modality makes no sense, even if there are savings to be had. I would respond that I know of people who (even today) find cross-country driving more economical than flying, and do so for that very reason.

But I think the article raises an interesting question: what would it take to render the bicycle obsolete, at least as a practical means of transportation, or to marginalize it to such a degree that its only practical use is as a "fresh-air exercise machine"? I say this knowing full well that there are those of us "hard-core" individuals who will let you take our bikes only when you can pry our cold, dead fingers, etc., and it can reasonably be argued (by someone who lacks the personal daily joy of same) that bicycle commuting is inherently a fanatic kind of activity, even if economical.

Well, here's a candidate for a vehicle technology that might someday render the bicycle obsolete except for us fanatics: the Twill Wicked. What if you could have a highly safe personal transportation device, freeway-speed capable, extemely efficient (450-mpg equivalent, say), and capable of existing totally "off the grid", for which a solar panel of less than 4 square meters would suffice to supply energy for a daily 30 mile commute? What if this vehicle cost $12,000 (the price of a high-end carbon racing bike)? Such are the promised specifications of the Wicked.

To be sure, the Wicked exists right now somewhere between the gleam in the eye of an engineer and a partially-working prototype, no more. But the imagination displayed in this project is remarkable. (Allow me to step up on my soapbox a moment.) It is precisely the lack of this kind of imagination on Detroit's part that is at the root of their current death-throes. I mean, look at the ridiculous Chevy Volt, totally hobbled by the fact that it's designed around a superstructure based on cheap oil. As long as a car is assumed to be a ton-and-three-quarters hunk of metal, the battery requirements to get any kind of decent range will be excessive and costly. The problem is that, since this is what Detroit's "best and brightest" can come up with, this is what the public takes for an "electric vehicle". I don't assign any form of conspiracy theory here along the lines of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", rather I just think it's gross incompetence. (end soapbox) Maybe the the Wicked is what will replace the car, maybe the Aptera. Or a vehicle being brewed in any one of a thousand garages right now.

But I'm not worried about them replacing the bicycle. No time soon, anyway.

1 comment:

godscountry said...

I think if more people knew a little about aerodynamics and what happens when you wrap a bicycle or motorcycle in a enclosed aerodynamic streamlined body things would start to change.A streamlined bike ,was pedaled to 82 mph,when you wrap a standard motorcycle in a streamlined body it doubles the fuel range.A enclosed motorcycle or a narrow 3 or 4 wheeled tilter are the holy grail of fun commuting, around town shopping or that long awaited cross country tour.Comfort,safety,ultra high mileage or range in the case of a electric version.I'm hoping more and more people see the incredible advantages in streamlining.I like fast vehicles,but it sure would be nice to have someone sit behind you in your streamlined vehicle telling you how comfortable and how well it handles and stops,and you say ,and it gets 300 mpg USA tool.We could cut fuel consumption in half and make electrics a viable choice,just with streamlining.