David Patrick was toying with some modular tubes when he started to suspect that wheels, in their perfectly cylindrical iterations, may not be as optimized as it seems. That’s because the object he had in his hand, which he described as a helix cube-like shape, appeared to roll remarkably fast whenever he dropped it on the ground.
Patrick, a software engineer who happens to be an avid skateboarder, would later go on to turn his discovery into a replacement wheel for skateboards that he claims spins “faster than the traditional wheel,” which he attributes to its sine wave pattern. A wheel that rolls in an undulating manner, he explains, reduces the amount of surface area that comes in contact with the ground. And less surface contact equals less friction. At the same time, it’s still wide enough to establish a good grip.
Patricks’s pitch sounded quite convincing. A Kickstarter campaign to bring his “Shark Wheel” to the masses ended successfully on July 2013, to the tune of $80,000.
A blogger at Physics Central, however, found some of the product’s claims to be rather dubious. In a post titled “Reinventing the wheel,” the writer disputed the notion that the Shark Wheel’s reduced contact area contributes to increases in speed since that aspect depends “almost solely on the quality of the bearing within that wheel.” The writer also added that the wheels needed to undergo independent testing to validate some of the Shark Wheel’s main selling points.
Whether the claims hold up in the long run is anyone’s guess. A preliminary test by Longboard Technology determined that while the product performed fine, it would take some time to know whether the design conferred any actual benefits over traditional wheels.
At the very least, the Shark Wheel, in all its squiggly glory, has shown that even the most timeless ideas may not be as infallible as they seem. Here are a few others that have shown that, despite the old adage, wheels, like anything else, can be evolved.
2. For shifting terrains, a shape-shifting tire
At its most basic form, wheels are particularly well-suited for traveling along flat, even surfaces. And though such ideal conditions hardly exist in the real world, city-dwellers can typically get by on paved roads with a standard set of tires. The situation, however, is vastly more problematic for those in less-developed regions where routes often traverse through a host of shifting terrain — from rugged, rocky patches to slippery roads.
For this, Ackeem Ngwenya, a student at Royal College of Art in London, has proposed “Roadless,” a new kind of wheel concept that changes shape to adapt to changing conditions. Using a series of adjustable interlaced spokes, the tire can be widened out for enhanced grip and stability along bumpier surfaces or narrowed to decrease the tire’s contact with the ground, making it better suited for high-speed driving.
So far, the Malawian native has pieced together a rudimentary prototype and also launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the project. Though his crowd-funding efforts ultimately fell short, Ngwenya was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Shuttleworth foundation to further the development of an all-season wheel.
3. Folding wheel that fits in your gym bag
Though compact folding bikes have been around since the late 1800s, the large wheel was the one component that designers couldn’t quite figure out how to collapse down to size. So it shouldn’t be too surprising then that the world’s smallest folding bicycle, the Kwiggle, which measures 19.6 x 15.7 x 9.8 inches, comes with puny wheels that top out at eight inches.
Solving this very dilemma was what Duncan Fitzsimons had in mind initially when he began experimenting with early prototypes for a wheel that could be folded down just as easily. Along the way, the London-based industrial designer came to the realization that the need for space-saving parts was perhaps even greater among disabled people, since they would often rely on both wheelchairs and mass transportation to get around.
With that in mind, Fitzsimons would later partner with medical equipment manufacturer Maddak to perfect the Morph Wheel. The wheel’s frame and rubber tire can be detached, tucked into a bag and stashed inside overhead compartment bins. A pair of Morph Wheels retails on the company web site for $950.
4. Hub-less wheels aren’t just for looks
Sleek and minimalist, the hub-free wheel has a kind of gloriously futuristic quality that seems to really speak to designers and sci-fi aficionados alike. Functionally, though, the design offers relatively few advantages.
Italian designer Gianluca Sada, however, has a more practical rationale for going with the hollowed approach. His foldable Sadabike prototype was conceived in a manner as to allow the wheels to be removed and slipped into slots located along the lining of a custom-made elastic bag. The frame can then be folded down to the size of an umbrella and stored inside the bag.
The concept has shown, at the very least, that the kind of ride quality hobbyists have come to expect from a full-sized bicycle equipped with an aluminum alloy frame and 26-inch wheels needn’t be compromised for the sake of portability. While only a prototype, Sada aims to launch a consumer version of the Sadabike by 2015.
5. A tire that never goes flat
The creation of an “airless tire” has become something of a holy grail in the tire business.
Leading the way is the well-publicized Michelin “Tweel,” a rubber tread tire that’s reinforced by a hub system comprised of an outer rim and a series of bendable polyurethane spokes. Like pneumatic systems, the unique structure is designed to support the weight of the vehicle while also being flexible enough to absorb shock.
So does this spell the end of flat tires? Not exactly. While the designs handle well at low speeds, they aren’t nearly as smooth on highways. Traveling above 50 mph generates a considerable degree of vibration and noise as the spokes bend and twist. The flexing also increases friction and heat, which can damage the tire.
Recently though, Michelin has alluded to a breakthrough that’s allowed them to resolve these limitations. But for now, the company is only selling the heavy-duty X-Tweel SSL model for commercial vehicles used on site for landscaping, contracting and other construction projects. There’s no word yet on the availability of a version for consumer vehicles.
6. Tires that inflate themselves = one less thing to worry about
In 2012, tire manufacturer Good Year announced plans to test a self-inflating tire system for commercial trucks and cars — yes, cars. It was big news considering that while similar technologies has been around for some time, it’s virtually unheard of outside of military and commercial vehicles applications.
Here’s how the self-regulating system works: Inside the tire is an internal sensor that detects when the air pressure drops. Whenever that happens, a side valve opens and to allow air from the outside to enter. As the tire rolls along the road, the inner stresses of produced by an under-inflated tire pushes the air into the pneumatic tube until an optimal level is reached.
At the time, Good Year was planning to field test the technology in beginning in 2013 and hasn’t reported any progress since. PumpTire, a start-up in Zurich, is also developing a similar system for bicycles.
7. Wheels of steel can be tough and springy
For a bolder take on a maintenance-free wheel, check out the WOW Bike. Not only does the eccentric creation do away with pneumatic air pressure, it doesn’t need a tire either. What you have instead is an all-metal wheel made of cleverly meshed sprung steel.
To construct the wheel, designer Ron Arad bent individual strips of steel according to a strategic pattern and pinned them together at certain tension points. This allows the steel to form curves that cushion one another and provide proper ride support. They’re also built larger than conventional wheels to compensate for the material’s high degree of flexibility.
The bike was on display at the W Hotel back in 2011, with guests given the option to take the art piece out for a test spin. So how does it ride? Marcus Hearst, the director of the design at Arad’s firm, told Fast Company that it’s a “surprisingly comfortable” ride, especially at faster speeds.