Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Innovation | University of Toronto students create plug-free electric car-bike

Torstar News Service. Phil Lam, left, and Jonathan Lung have created a startup, Sojourn Labs, supported by U of T's Impact Centre.
Torstar News Service

It’s a car! It’s a bike! No … it’s a plug-free electric hybrid prototype!

OK, so they need to work on the name, but it’s a smart concept: a team of PhD candidates from the University of Toronto has created an electric pedal-powered car-bike that could help beat the traffic snarls that plague our city’s streets.

“The project was inspired by my experiences commuting from Union Station,” co-creator Phil Lam says with a laugh. “But everybody’s experience is bad, right? Drivers get stuck in traffic. People who take public transit never get anywhere on time. Walking is pleasant, but it doesn’t take you very far … Cycling, if not outright dangerous, is certainly uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. Everybody’s suffering in their own way. The answer is reinterpreting how we get around.”

Fitted with wires, bike parts and a few Tupperware containers, the prototype looks like a cross between a recumbent bicycle and a homemade sci-fi space pod. Within the lightweight aluminum chassis, however, are the seeds of a vision for healthier, happier, and more sustainable urban transport in increasingly dense cities.

You charge the vehicle’s battery by pedalling. The intensity of pedalling controls its 500-watt engine’s throttle. The engine itself is fully programmable, which means that you can easily adjust the pedal-to-engine-power ratio. Rushing to an important meeting? Let the engine do most of the work, so you don’t show up sweaty. In need of a little exercise? Pedal the roughly 45-kilogram vehicle until you feel the burn.

The three-wheeled vehicle is tall enough to be seen by other traffic, yet narrow enough to manoeuvre through congested streets. It even has a windshield to protect you from the elements and a small trunk for parcels and groceries.

“We’ve built a prototype of a vehicle that tries to combine the benefits of driving a car with all the good things that come with riding a bicycle,” Lam says. “This vehicle will get you around in a way that has a minimal impact on the surrounding environment, infrastructure, and the people that you have to share the road with.”

Lam and vehicle co-creator Jonathan Lung say that they complement each other beautifully: Lam, the team’s spokesperson, is finishing his PhD in industrial engineering, while Lung is finishing his in computer science. Their startup, Sojourn Labs, is supported by the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre — a cross-disciplinary institute that seeks to foster social entrepreneurship.

It took Lung and Lam 18 months to design and build the prototype, and if they get the six-figure investment they’re pining for, the vehicle could be commercially available in the next year or two.

The final product, they say, will have lights, a horn, a semi-enclosed cabin, a range of 30 to 40 kilometres and a maximum speed of 32 kilometres per hour. It will be completely smartphone-integrated, which means you’ll be able to control things such as pedal resistance and monitor charge levels and burned calories from your mobile device. They also hope to make a two-seater model, and the planned addition of a roof-mounted solar panel means the vehicle might never have to be plugged in.

“You could leave this in front of your workplace at 9 o’clock in the morning, and even on a cloudy day, when you come back, chances are pretty good that the battery would be full enough to get you home,” Lam says.

Legally speaking, the vehicle will be classified as an e-bike, which means it won’t require registration, a licence or insurance. And although they won’t divulge an exact cost, affordability is one of their main goals.

Simply put, Lam says their creation is “good for the rider, good for the planet, and good for the city.”

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