Comin’ In on a Wheel and a Prayer – Snowmobile-maker Bombardier envisions a futuristic personal transport vehicle called Embrio.
Bombardier, maker of planes, trains and water mobiles, forged a new way to battle wet and heavy terrain when it introduced the first snowmobile in 1942. Sixty-one years later, the transport manufacturer is again out to re-invent personal travel, this time on dry ground and congested city streets — and on one wheel.
By Kari L. Dean Wired.com
The Embrio is the baby, or perhaps the fetus, of Montreal-based Bombardier Recreational Products, a recent spinoff of its aviation-focused parent.
Vaguely resembling a sporty motorcycle, the uni-wheeled Embrio uses electronic and hydrogen-fuel-cell technology to help its driver zip around obstacles. A system of gyroscopes keeps it upright. In standby mode, a pair of extra wheels deploy jet-plane-like landing gear to increase longitudinal stability.
Although an animated video exists, there’s no working prototype yet — the motorcycle-like Embrio is still in the advanced concept phase of development. It looks like a prop from Blade Runner and is designed somewhat like a Segway, the gyroscope-driven "self-balancing human transporter" from inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen.
Some observers have speculated the Embrio could be a Segway killer, but the makers of the one-year-old Segway aren’t so sure.
"What we are talking about here is a styling exercise — I respect the design and the flow (of the Embrio), but there is a difference between that and a working prototype," said Doug Fields, Segway’s vice president of design.
It’s easy to compare the Embrio and the Segway, which share a gyroscopic balancing approach, small-radius turning ability and the compactness to go where other motorized vehicles cannot.
But the two are quite different. For starters, the 35-pound Segway folds to fit in the trunk or make it easy to carry inside buildings and buses. But the only driver tossing an Embrio in his trunk would be on his way to an Iron Man competition — the vehicle will likely weigh in at 360 pounds. Also, the Segway tops out at 6 mph while the Embrio hits 35 mph in the learning mode alone.
For now, the Segway folks have little reason to fret. Despite blogger conjecture and an Industrial Design Society of America award, the device won’t be on this year’s holiday wish lists. The company won’t speculate as to when Embrio will hit the market — if ever.
"There is an increasingly obvious need for alternative forms of transportation in cities," said Denys Lapointe, Bombardier’s vice president of design. "Embrio prefigures the kind of user-friendly, minimalist vehicles we might be seeing and using on our urban, suburban and country roads in the year 2025."
Industry experts are at odds over which aspect of the Embrio’s technology will be the most difficult to realize. However, gyroscopes don’t seem to be the limiting factor.
"Very recently we have been fascinated by the Segway’s self-balancing technology," said Geoff Wardle, assistant chairman of transportation design at Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena. "Eighty percent of airplanes are landed with (gyroscopic) technology."
A more significant barrier could be the fuel-cell technology. Presently, Wardle said, the most compact version he’s seen is only small enough for a car. But there are other options.
"I could envision some kind of hybrid system — it’s become kind of a cliché — an internal combustion gasoline engine like a lawn mower that would be used solely to generate electricity," Wardle said.
At this point, it isn’t the technology that causes some observers to see the Embrio as an idea whose time has not yet come.
The problem is where to use new forms of transportation like the Embrio. Many individual modes of transport — and despite chronic gridlock, 85 percent of Los Angelenos still commute alone — could prove superior to automobiles and walking. But new types of vehicles don’t necessarily fit the pace and size of present roads and pathways.
"We don’t have a physical infrastructure to support (the Embrio)," said Darrel Rhea, an industrial design consultant and principal at Cheskin Research, one of the original founders of Xootr scooters.
The lighter, slower Segway already has been banned from some city sidewalks, including San Francisco’s, so the Embrio most certainly would be a street vehicle. But then, should it share the road with heavier, faster cars and SUVs?
Some experts speculate that as streets become more crowded and alternative energy sources are developed, we’ll see an entirely new lane emerge to accommodate miniature one-person vehicles.
"I’d like to think that by 2025 part of our transportation scenario would include special lanes so big vehicles would be discouraged from sharing the same road space," said Wardle.
He believes that revolutionary forms of transportation won’t emerge from the automotive industry, which has been largely evolutionary. That could work in Bombardier’s favor.
"Bombardier understands trains, airplanes, snowmobiles," Wardle said. "They don’t have the car industry’s need to make things out of pressed steel and glass. The next innovations will come from those companies that are far more flexible and liberal-thinking about how to make things."
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