Copenhagen Electric Bicycle Wheel
The Copenhagen wheel captures energy dissipated while cycling and braking and saves it for when you need a bit of a boost. Photograph: Max Tomasinelli /MIT Senseable City Lab
The Copenhagen wheel turns a normal bike into an electric cycle, but it also adds extra weight and screams out to be stolen
File this cycling invention under "solution in search of a problem". A team of design engineers at MIT, led by Christine Outram and Carlo Ratti, last week won the US national round of the James Dyson award for their "Copenhagen wheel".
Effectively, it's a wheel that turns a normal bike into an electric one and throws in some "cycling 2.0" web elements, as Jack Schofield described it when it was unveiled during the Copenhagen climate summit last December. It stands to win £10, 000 if it goes on to win the international prize of the design engineering awards, and production versions will appear next year.
I love gadgets and technology, but the Copenhagen wheel feels like part of a wider trend to overengineer bicycles and shoehorn in the web for the sake of techno-fetishisation rather than any genuine need. The result: more profit for makers of accessories and bikes; higher prices and more maintenance for cyclists. Just take a look at the evolution of modern cars from mechanical to digital beasts, or the electronic gears launched by Shimano last year (gears shifted by a button and electric circuit rather than good old mechanical action).
Besides, this so-called "smart" wheel seems surprising dumb to me. The battery in the hub stores energy from your braking and then theoretically gives you a boost when you need it. But electric bikes, which I'm a fan of, need big powerful electric motors and batteries like those on the Wisper models to be useful. The hub here looks potentially small enough to be underpowered but heavy enough to slow you down.
It can also lock the wheel using your phone. But you still need to lock it to something, so what's the point? More pertinently, surely a big red gadget like this would be a siren call to opportunistic bike thieves?
But, say its designers, if you have a Bluetooth phone: "It connects you with the things a cyclist wants to know: upcoming traffic congestion, road condition and pollution levels." Now, if you have a Bluetooth phone, you probably already have access to the free web apps that tell you how polluted cities are (for iPhone users, there's "Pollution" and "London Air", to name but two). And I don't need an intelligent wheel to tell me that I can usually nip around congestion and that the roads are full of potholes.
Dyson's judgment is usually spot on, from his own products (the energy efficient fan and Airblade hand dryer, for example) to the ultraviolet water steriliser that won the UK round of the James Dyson award. But Dyson, who called the wheel a "21st century upgrade to the bicycle", is wide of the mark this time. The clincher, surely, is the $600 price (£385) – for the same price you could get yourself a whole brand new bike instead of a fancy wheel.
• This article was amended on 19 August. It originally said James Dyson was a judge for this round of the award but in fact he only judges the final round. However, he did release in statement praising the Copenhagen wheel.