An innovative way to bridge the gap between bicycles and microcars, velomobiles are human-powered vehicles with an enclosed shell. With the addition of an electric motor, the latest models promise sustainable mobility in cities and urban settings.
By Thomas Wagner.
Innovations don’t grow on the tree of creativity; neither do they appear like a bolt from the blue. Often, they stem from an idea which had been shelved because its potential was not yet apparent. Sometimes, they emerge to fill gaps that had been left between established solutions because there was previously no good reason to fill them. As soon as the circumstances and parameters change, however, these mothballed ideas suddenly seem not just possible but even attractive and promising.
That is more or less what has happened with so-called velomobiles. Since traffic gridlock, emissions figures and the climate crisis forced us to revisit the question of what a future mobility mix could look like, these vehicles – which are lighter than a car and more comfortable than a bike – have become much more attractive. A growing number of manufacturers, both large and small, are developing concepts and presenting designs for a means of transport defined as a human-powered vehicle with an enclosure which, ideally, should be streamlined and protect the rider from wind and rain. For a long time, this cross between a recumbent and a lightweight shell was considered a crackpot means of transport for a handful of tree huggers. Now, with the help of electric motors, the time seems ripe for velomobiles to evolve beyond ‘Wacky Races’ and into a credible vehicle.
An alternative for commuters and couriers
Velomobiles primarily offer an alternative to cars in inner cities or conurbations – either as vehicles for delivery drivers and tradespeople or as a more comfortable and safer version of an electric bike or pedelec for commuters. Velomobiles can help to prevent gridlock in cities and improve urban spaces for pedestrians and residents alike. A manoeuvrable, zero-emission vehicle that takes up little space and protects the rider from adverse weather seems an almost perfect fit for a society where a radical rethink is needed. Lots of different steps must be taken to achieve climate neutrality. Reducing energy use and emissions in our day-to-day mobility choices is one of these. There are only a few models on the market as yet, but there is already no doubt that velomobiles with the right usage concept, design and features have the potential to bring about a long-term shift in the mobility habits of urban nomads.
Zipping through the city on three or four wheels
Three or four wheels, one or two seats, an enclosed shell or at least a protective canopy, a boot … At first sight, some velomobiles look like cigars on wheels or even microcars that have shrunk in the wash. The difference is that their bodywork houses neither a combustion engine nor an all-electric motor. Instead, these vehicles combine a bicycle with an electric motor – and that is what makes them special. Protection from the elements and the use of pedal power (which is good for health and fitness) make velomobiles comfortable, stable and safe. Depending on their specific concept, they can also carry a far heavier load and travel faster than a pushbike or electric bicycle. Some can even outstrip a pedelec.
Bio-Hybrid: a new type of vehicle
Schon auf den ersten Blick fällt auf: Dieses As soon as you clap eyes on this velomobile, you will notice that it bears no resemblance to a bike or even a recumbent. The rider sits more or less upright and has a backrest; there are four wheels and a roof which defines the cabin. It looks like a completely new type of vehicle. “Four wheels, a roof, electrically assisted” and “stylish, contemporary and digitally interconnected” is how Bio-Hybrid GmbH describes its velomobile of the same name. It has been accepting online orders for its vehicles, which are officially classed as pedelecs, since December 2020. Customers can choose between two models priced from €9,490: a compact two-seater and a cargo bike. Designed with the future in mind from a digital perspective too, the Bio-Hybrid can also be connected to an app allowing users to view the routes they have taken or check the battery status. The 48-volt portable battery has a capacity of 1.2 kWh and can be charged using a standard domestic socket. It helps riders to reach speeds of up to 25 km/h. “People want vehicles that work with them in an interconnected, systemic fashion to achieve a high degree of flexibility while taking up little space. That is precisely what the Bio‑Hybrid offers,” says Gerald Vollnhals, Managing Director of the company.
A few days ago, it was reported that Bio-Hybrid GmbH had applied to Nuremberg Local Court for insolvency. This goes to show that the road to marketability and series production is far from smooth for innovative vehicle concepts of this kind and things seldom go to plan. Series production was due to commence in mid 2021, but this is now in doubt. The firm broke away from Schaeffler under new ownership after the automotive OEM sold its subsidiary to Micromobility Services and Solutions in mid-October 2020.
Ono Pioneers Edition: the cargo transporter
When it comes to e-cargo bikes, the delivery company Hermes is using Onomotion vehicles as part of a long-term 12-month trial. An e-cargo bike is classified as a bicycle for legal purposes, but designed for small-scale deliveries with a payload of 220 kilos. The pedal-assisted three-wheeler from the Pioneer Edition has two electric motors and offers protection from the weather. Ono offers its Ono Pioneer Edition via a lease with a range of flexible terms. Amongst other things, the lease covers servicing, fully comprehensive insurance, repairs following wear and tear, and access to battery-changing machines. E-cargo bikes mean that only very large, bulky parcels need to be delivered using a van. According to Hermes, the aim is for an e-cargo bike to replace a conventional diesel van.
The Podbike Frikar: aerodynamic and functional
In terms of design, the Norwegian manufacturer Podbike is taking a different approach to Bio-Hybrid. Its velomobile, the Frikar, is clearly a blend of a car and a recumbent. The result is a low-slung, futuristic-looking, aerodynamic capsule. Classed as a pedelec, the Frikar is powered by an electric motor which helps the rider to reach speeds of up to 25 km/h. It has a range of 60 to 90 km per battery – a considerable distance, thanks to its consistent lightweight construction and low air drag. All in all, the Frikar E-Bike by Podbike is ideal for commuters. After several years of development work and extensive trials, series production began in early 2021. Frikar electric bikes are due to be delivered to customers in the EU later this year. The glass-domed electric recumbents can be pre-ordered on the manufacturer’s website for around €5,000.
Canyon’s Future Mobility Concept: an urban microcar
Bike manufacturer Canyon’s vision of a premium velomobile bears a strong resemblance to a microcar. With that in mind, the development team at the Koblenz-based firm was keen to come up with a timeless design. They certainly succeeded with the Future Mobility Concept. Viewed side on, the vehicle looks like an extremely stylish, urban microcar. Only when you see the narrow, 83-centimetre front does it begin to dawn on you that this could be an electric bike. Canyon’s concept vehicle is not only different from other velomobiles in terms of its design. It is also powered differently, offering considerably more electric assistance than its pedelec cousins. This bike is designed to enable speeds of up to 60 km/h rather than ceasing to provide assistance at 25 km/h. To achieve this, it has two electric motors with 1,000 watts of power each and a battery with an approximate capacity of 2 kWh to deliver a range of some 150 km. It is as yet unclear when Canyon hopes to put this futuristic vehicle on the market.
Not all projects make it to the production stage
The category of human-powered vehicles also includes the mö by Evovelo, which was developed in Spain. This velomobile combines solar energy with muscle power, meaning that the little urban runabout doesn’t need to be recharged using a socket. Unfortunately, the manufacturer recently announced that work on this concept has now been discontinued after eight years of development. The project is up for sale. The purist interior of the mö has space for two people, who can both pedal. A 1,500-watt electric motor is fitted to the rear wheel, helping the riders to reach speeds of up to 45 km/h. The mö has a range of 70 kilometres thanks to lithium batteries behind the seat and solar cells on its roof. Designed for a price point of under €5,000, the mö’s bodywork consists primarily of plywood and non-scratch plastic windows. Customers would have ordered it as a construction kit and assembled it themselves without the need for special tools.
The PEBL: a cute little bubble
Reminiscent of a bubble car, this velomobile has windscreen wipers, cruise control and a horn. The PEBL – described by Betterbike as “a microcar e-bike”, has a range of 160 kilometres with electric assistance and can travel faster than 40 km/h. It can accommodate two adults or one adult and two children sitting in two rows. With its “full enclosure package” including rain protection and vinyl windows, the PEBL is delivered ready to roll. The ECO version also comes with solar cells on the rood. The entry-level PEBL model works out at approximately €9,700.
The Qlio Velo: pure nostalgia
Qlio’s take on the velomobile proves that it is possible to combine future-proof mobility with a generous dose of nostalgia. Its technology was developed in 2020, but its exterior design could easily be a century older. If you believe the hype, the Qlio Velomobil is more comfortable and safer than its rivals. Two padded leather seats arranged one behind the other dominate the interior. There are also seat belts, an air cooler/heater, a portable Bluetooth speaker and a rear-view parking camera. The electric motor provides the pedaller with assistance for up to 120 kilometres. With a maximum speed of 45 km/h, the velomobile can be classed as a pedelec. Its makers plan to offer four motor options with power of 250 to 1,000 watts. The entry-level model is to cost around €5,500. As the Qlio team needs support to start production, it is appealing for crowdfunding on its website.
TWIKE: the electric vehicle with a difference
The Twike, has been on the market longer than its competitors but is closer to a car than a bike. However, many of its details are reminiscent of an enclosed recumbent. The TWIKE has been around since 1986. The name is a combination of “twin” and “bike” and is a reference to the original idea behind this vehicle: the three-wheeler is basically a covered tandem with two seats side by side. Consequently, two people can sit inside the three-wheeler, which is steered using a wooden joystick between the seats. The smallest battery option allows the TWIKE 3 to travel at speeds of almost 100 km/h with a range of 160 kilometres. According to the manufacturer, about 1,000 TWIKE 3s have been delivered to date.
Its successor, the TWIKE 5, demonstrates how the vehicle can go even faster and resemble an electric microcar even more strongly. A prototype of this model was unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show in 2019. Conceived as a limited edition of 500, the TWIKE 5 (when equipped with the highest specifications) will apparently be capable of up to 190 km/h and a maximum range of 500 kilometres. It should be ready to hit the market this year. A 150-kilowatt synchronous motor with up to 290 newton metres is the main source of propulsion. Travelling at urban speed levels, the two occupants can deliver up to 20% of the energy needed, if they pedal hard. A TWIKE 5 is expected to cost between €39,900 (250 km range) and €49,900 (500 km range). A quick glance at the car tyres and aluminium frame is enough to tell you that this 495-kilo vehicle has little in common with a tricycle, which just goes to show that there is space for all sorts of concepts in the gap between bikes and cars.
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