Over the past week, the internet buzzed with talk of a new Tesla e-bike concept—a futuristic silhouette packed with electronic steering, autopilot technology, and a new approach to suspension. The first thing to know is that it’s more moped than e-bike (it has no pedals). The second is that it’s not actually from Tesla. The designer, Kendall Toerner, does not work for the company; he just used its name and logo to accompany the mock-ups. The third thing to know is that if it existed in real life, it wouldn’t work.
It’s not that we don’t have the technology for it yet. Toerner’s “Model B” is a lovely example of industrial design and offers some thought-provoking ideas about dashboards and sensor advancements. But it’s physically impossible to execute. That’s the bug: unless concepts suggest plausible solutions to real problems, they’re just doodles.
The central feature that people seem to be oohing and aahing over is the steering. Pretty much since the invention of the bicycle, steering has been a simple affair: the fork, which holds the front wheel, is situated in an articulating column attached to handlebars. You point the front wheel in the direction you want to go, lean the bike, and you’re off. I may have missed something, but in over 30 years of riding, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Y’know, let’s rethink this whole steering thing.”
The Model B does that. The handlebars don’t move, but when you push on them, sensors detect that force and tell the fork (which is still on an articulating column, mind you) to turn in the direction you want to go. So riders would have to relearn how to steer. There’s also a mention of autopilot, which is counterintuitive, because balance is key to successful riding. If the rig suddenly changes direction without warning, your ass is on the ground. Ask any equestrian.
This is ironic, given that cycling is an enduring symbol of things that become second nature once you learn them. As the saying goes: it’s just like riding a bike. Except in this case, it’s not. This is Internet of Shit territory, where a perfectly functional piece of analog technology is ruined by the unnecessary addition of a silicon chip.
But most of the reaction I’ve seen hypes that steering feature, or it praises the equally dubious idea of putting suspension inside the wheels via struts between hub and rim without regard to the fact that both are unworkable. (Assuming we found a material that would even allow it, a rim that deflects enough for the suspension-wheel idea to work would never securely hold a tire.)
Totally unrealistic concept bikes are not unusual. In the mid-1990s, Cannondale’s Alex Pong designed a now infamous carbon-fiber creature that replaced a road bike’s front wheel with an enclosed inline skate. The goal was to eliminate a major source of aerodynamic drag (the front wheel). I give credit to Cannondale for actually building a functional prototype rather than just doing a CAD drawing. But as anyone who tried to ride it discovered, the small inline wheels were impossible to balance on. As a solution for a problem, it was a dead end.
That’s not to say that concept designs have no value. Another of Pong’s fanciful mid-nineties creations was a mountain bike with a mono-blade suspension fork, a concept that Cannondale turned into the Lefty not long after. And Specialized’s headquarters in Morgan Hill, California, has a veritable gallery of one-off bikes from its longtime creative director, Robert Egger. They’re each crazy in their own way, but in many you can see the lineage to actual products, like his Renegade FSR drop-bar suspension bike, which helped inspire the Future Shock system on the Diverge and Roubaix lines.
There are things to like about the Model B. I’m intrigued by the idea of pothole-sensing or stability-assistance technology. And the overall aesthetic is pretty slick. As Toerner notes in the presentation, far more people see cars as status symbols than they do bicycles. Gorgeous urban e-bikes might help change that.
Concepts exist to get us talking and thinking. Sometimes Egger uses his art to send a message, like the FUCI road bike that featured every single technology that is banned by the Union Cycliste Internationale. And they should express ideas that technology can’t yet realize, because that pushes technology forward. But what Egger gets is that concepts work best when they focus on a meaningful goal that’s tethered to reality. The Model B fails on both accounts.
Where will the Model B go from here? Probably not to Tesla, even though Elon Musk mused two years ago about making a bike. Maybe it goes nowhere and just stalls as the latest fleeting obsession on design blogs, which for some reason resurfaced the Model B concept last month, even though it was created in January. It got people talking, which is fun. But it would be better if the possible future it envisioned was actually attainable.