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Riding Onewheel in NYC


Inventions that disconnect


Riding Onewheel in NYC

Gary Gurevich

At 6pm on a Thursday, I’m riding a Onewheel in a NYC bike lane on a narrow street in Chelsea. It's December and dark already. Shifting my weight to decelerate, I stop at a red light. A yellow taxi SUV stops at the light alongside me. I hear a window roll down and the driver leans out. 

Excuse me! Did you build that?

Hi - no, a company out west builds these
It looks like you built that in your garage
It does? (It kind of does)

Onewheel is a self-balancing electric skateboard with a single big go-cart wheel in the center. This is not a ‘hoverboard’. It’s an expensive, thoughtfully calibrated toy making good use of technology otherwise found in luxury cars. It also feels a little like a crazy prototype, and a childhood daydream.

How fast does it go?
— UPS delivery guy in elevator, Union Square

Onewheel has a top speed of 16 mph, and feels surprisingly natural to ride. It's like a fair-weather snowboard - you can even carve. 

As a motor, the Onewheel uses a 500W transverse flux hub, powered by a 48 volt battery that gives a range of 6-7 miles on a full charge (that's about 30 minutes of riding). Using two sets of sensors under each foot, the Onewheel's Solid State MEMS 6-DOF (six degrees of freedom ) navigation system measures pitch, yaw, roll and acceleration. 

The electric motor is accompanied by an ‘Ultra Charger,' which is a surprisingly light power supply with an XLR port (these ports are usually used to power outdoor music festival equipment). Although somewhat bulky, I've easily packed it in an already crowded messenger bag. The Ultra Charger can completely fill the OW battery in 20 minutes. Onewheel also has regenerative brakes, which can extend the ride if you’re traveling downhill. 

Software can be the most difficult part of building great hardware. The Onewheel team did an awesome job calibrating the board’s responses to physical cues. There had to be a serious mind-meld between extreme sports people, hardware and software engineers to make the ride feel as familiar as it does. This is the single biggest reason why you’re not seeing cheap OW clones all over the streets - see: hoverboard. Although there are exceptions...

That looks like a good idea...
— Sarcastic parent on roller skates, Brooklyn Bridge Park

For some weekend riding in Brooklyn, I was joined by friend and Onewheel early adopter Pavol Juhos, who endured an 8 week backorder to receive his board in Spring 2015. An experienced rider by this point, Pavol was a reassuring presence as we rode our boards through 12 miles of every kind of urban terrain. We definitely pushed the boards further than I would have riding solo. I later took my Onewheel along for NYC commuter rush-hour during the week.

One of the first things I did was install the Onewheel mobile app - which (1) allows users to switch between riding modes easily - there are three (Classic, Extreme, and an uphill mode); (2) gives an simple view of the battery level. I used it often, to check on the battery and ultimately to avoid needing to carry a dead board. The app is useful and well designed.

More about modes: the Classic mode (default), was probably conceived as an introductory setting for OW - with limited speed and limited turning radius. That last part is pretty disorienting if you’ve ever ridden a snowboard or you’re used to riding a longboard with loose trucks. The board's Extreme mode is much more intuitive. If you lean - the board will turn. 

It took about five minutes of riding to be able to get a basic feel for the board - a surprisingly gentle learning curve. What was easy? Transitioning from smooth roads onto gravel and even grass without any trouble. Speed and acceleration were easy to handle too. Again - props to the OW team for calibration. What was difficult? Learning to disengage the motor before dismounting. Here's a video of how to do it correctly.

Beyond a basic feel for the board, the best way to really get comfortable and enjoy the Onewheel is to experience riding in different conditions. Over a total of 12 miles (with two stops for charging), this weekend ride took me off of curbs, into puddles, onto and off of grass, and down an infamously uneven cobblestone street in Red Hook. Not only was I able to navigate this terrain as a novice - it was fun, and I didn't get hurt. A skateboard or a road bike wouldn't handle this trip with the smoothness of Onewheel's single Vega tire. The only trade-off was a need to plan some recharge stops.

Fu**ing a$$hole
— construction worker directing traffic, Chelsea

On 27th street in Chelsea - a block perpetually under construction - a builder in reflective orange gear was directing traffic. There was no bike lane, but this block was necessary to traverse for me to get to work in the morning. I pretended to be a car, and rode in the queue of cars waiting to pass the construction site - sandwiched between a black Uber and a pigeon colored sedan. The construction worker waved the cars through one by one. Then it was my turn. After a bewildered look, he waved me past and I leaned forward to accelerate. 

If you're packing a Onewheel as part of a commute, you'll be happiest when riding it. At 25 lbs, the board weights almost as much as a cinder block, and it's as awkward to carry as a cinder block. There's no convenient handle - only a hard-plastic grip that's a bit too shallow to be comfortable. With your load-bearing shoulder held high as you strain to compensate, and the big wheel bumping against your thigh as you walk… you may feel like a time-travel refugee. 

Unfortunately, there are occasions to carry the Onewheel in Manhattan (high-density pedestrian areas, blocked bike lanes, the subway). Because of this, it makes an unwieldy last-mile commute option. It can be very rewarding, but you have to be prepared to do some schlepping.

In a bike lane, the Onewheel can keep up with the rest of the commuters. In Extreme mode, I was even able to get around slow-moving bikers and maneuver around cars (at times making surprise turns into my riding trajectory). I rode around Chelsea and into Union Square on a single charge, with battery life to spare.

However, riding in NYC isn’t confined to bike lanes. The lanes are often blocked by double-parked cars or closed due to construction, so riders have to venture onto the roads alongside cars. This is where OW’s LED lights are helpful - they’re bright in front and in back - giving some additional visibility in times when it’s most necessary. You also get a height boost of about a foot - helpful to drivers and pedestrians that wouldn't otherwise notice you. 

Yo, how much is one of those??
— High school student, NYC subway

The Onewheel costs $1,500. You can purchase directly from the manufacturer - Future Motion, on their website. A rare domestic manufacturer, Future Motion can ship the board across the country to NYC for an additional $50. 

If you're able to shell-out $1,500 for a Onewheel, it's a good idea to also buy some of the optional accessories offered on the site. Throughout my weekend of riding, the one that I often wished for is the fender ($83). Even on a dry day, riding without a fender guarantees some gravel or mud on your clothes. You'll also want to wear a helmet (anything except motorcycle helmets would work well), sunscreen, and maybe some wrist-guards. 

Summary thoughts

Magic? Yes. Riding 16 mph on a self-balanced electric motor feels like a miracle. 
Practical for commuting? You really have to want to make it work. Avoid the subway if you can. Ultra Charger helps. 
Value: It's worth it - although there's a bit of sticker-shock to overcome. It's probably an easier decision to make if you have a riding companion in mind.