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Auto-Wheelies and Mind Control: The Tricked-Out E-Bikes of Tomorrow

Electric bikes are for wussies, right? They're alright for commuting but they're not for sport. That might have been true in the past, but if Audi's Wörthersee e-bike and the Parlee-Toyota Prius X concept bike are any indication, things are changing.

Audi introduced the Wörthersee e-bike just last week and Toyota partnered with Parlee Cycles on a electric-assist road bike last year. Unlike other carmakers—Volkswagen, Mercedes, Lexus, Hyundai and Daimler/SmartCar—that have made recent forays into the electric bike niche, these concept bikes are not designed for commuting or easy transport inside the car. They're all about pushing technological boundaries.

Audi packed its e-bike with bells and whistles, including a setting that assists the rider into a wheelie, then helps him balance the bike and sustain one-wheel momentum. The rider can pedal with or without the motor's assistance, but when using it she can adjust the throttle by leaning her body forward or backward to control the motor speed. The bike has integrated LED lighting and an air-sprung front fork with 5.12 inches of travel. Plus, there's no need for a bike lock. A smartphone disables the bike while you're not on it.

High-end bike maker Parlee teamed up with Toyota last year to create an electric bike that uses electrons not to reduce the rider's effort but to automatically change gears. Electronic shifting isn't new, but the shifting interface the Prius X bike uses—brainwaves and a smartphone—certainly opens up new possibilities for the technology. Check it out:

Note that these are concept bikes that may never make it into production. Even if Audi did introduce its e-bike, its top speed (pedaling plus motor) is 50 miles per hour and its motor alone gets up to 31 mph, which would present some regulatory challenges in the United States. Federal law says that to be considered a bike, a pedalled vehicle can't exceed 20 miles per hour, though individual states have some wiggle room on that.

I shudder to think of what the price tags for these bikes might look like. Audi's carbon fiber frame weighs in at 3.53 pounds. Its 26-inch wheels are carbon-fiber reinforced polymer and each weighs 1.32 lbs. It uses a "nine-speed hydraulically actuated gear shift [that] has a very rapid sequential action, similar to the R tronic transmission in an Audi R8," says the carmaker. Wowza.

Still, it's exciting to glimpse the possibilities of using technology to change not only what bikes are capable of but what we're capable of doing on two wheels. From an environmental perspective, adding a battery pack to a bike does greatly increase its energy footprint, but it could also greatly reduce the owner's reliance on his automobile.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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