Friday, November 23, 2012

Super-efficient motor-assisted bicycle: first baby steps

The photo above shows the beginnings of a project that has held my interest for a long time: building super-efficient vehicles.  As you can see, there is a tiny motor mounted behind the saddle that I hope at some point to have driving the rear wheel.  Because this engine displaces a mere 23 cc, it should be very efficient.  In spite of its small size, it generates a very reasonable (for this application) 2 horsepower (1491 W) which could potentially be good for a top speed of up to 80 km/h.

But before I get into the details of how this thing will eventually work, I want to discuss a more pressing issue.  When I get this thing completed, it will be highly illegal on Ontario roads, a situation which concerns me and which should concern anyone interested in improving the environment.  Politicians say that they want improve the environment, but the current state of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act proves that they are not serious.  The definition of a power-assisted bicycle or "e-bike" is an electrically assisted bicycle (it must have pedals) which is limited in power to 500 W and a top speed of 32 km/h.  This is a joke.  They are legal for anyone over the age of 16 to ride (without a license) but why anyone would want to is beyond me.  I regularly pass these things on my (unassisted) pedal bicycle despite lungs blackened by years of abuse with cigarettes.

The standard argument is that the absurd speed and power limitations are for safety.  This is easily debunked.  If this is the case, why are Porches and other super-cars that are mostly engine still allowed on public roads?  For that matter, why is any car?  My parents' bottom-end sedan could easily be driven at two to three times the posted limit on most roads.  It is up to the operator to exercise discretion in the conduction of their vehicle.  In fact increasing the top speed of these things will actually make them safer as they can now keep up with traffic.  As a long-time cyclist, I have always felt safer on tight and busy roads when I am moving at the same pace (or faster) than the surrounding traffic.

The definition of a motor-assisted bicycle (or mo-ped) is a gasoline assisted bicycle (again, it must have pedals) whose engine has a maximum displacement of 50 cc and a top speed limited to 60 km/h.  This is a bit more reasonable.  Ontario, however, has recently changed the rules regarding who can drive these vehicles; a driver's license used to be sufficient.  Now you need either a full-on motorcycle license or an emasculated motorcycle license good for only this type of vehicle.  Way to make driving efficient vehicles sexy!

I remember once boarding a ferry in Schleswig-Holstein.  Shortly after me came two scruffy motor-cyclists riding custom-style bikes with engines big enough to power a small car.  A woman in the passenger seat of a mini-van right next to me was making googly eyes at them the whole trip.  I was riding a bicycle, was dressed in skin-tight spandex and was quite buff at the time, but received nary a glance.  The point of this story?  That large, over-powered vehicles are sexy.  Bicycles and mopeds are not.  If we want people to ride these things we have to lower the bar for entry, not raise it.

The final death knell to the moped as a useful and efficient vehicle (at least in Ontario) comes from this further limitation: "It must not have a hand- or foot-operated clutch or gearbox."  Anyone who's ridden a bicycle knows that under-powered vehicles need lots of gears to be efficient.  This means that in order for the bike to have gears at all, it must be equipped with either a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or some kind of torque-converter, both of which are notorious for robbing power.  On a vehicle that is 1. under-powered to begin with and 2. supposed to be efficient, this makes no sense whatsoever.

Lets be honest here.  Any competent engineer could design a motor-assisted bicycle at least as good as what I am building.  In fact the technology to create such a device has existed a lot longer.  A similar situation, it could be argued, existed in the eighteenth century in regards to bicycles.  The technology was sufficient to create them, but there was no demand because of prevailing social conditions.  For that, we had to wait until the nineteenth century with the rise of the middle class, who demanded cheap and efficient transportation despite not being able to afford horses.  Today, I would argue that the reasons good motor-assisted bicycles are all but forbidden are two-fold:
1. to restrict the poor from having access to cheap and efficient transportation
2. because of the power wielded by the oil and automotive companies
The first, at least, is held only semi-consciously.  The second may well be due to overt lobbying by powerful corporate interests.

I'll step off my soap-box for now.  Stay tuned for the next installment which will discuss the more technical aspects of this creation: design considerations and how I intend to actually build it. The next installment can be found here.

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