February 6, 2005 The Brazilian-made Wheelsurf is one of the most distinctive vehicles on the planet -- a US$2500 single-wheeled , ride-inside conveyance that's sure to get you noticed. Riding the Wheelsurf is not for those seeking transport alone as it has no conventional steering mechanism and requires adept throttle control. The throttle and the brake are located on the rigid handlebars and steering is done by moving your centre of gravity (i.e. YOU) to the inside of the corner. Too much throttle and the inner body, with you on it, starts to rotate backwards. Back off the throttle to slow down and you need to lean backwards so you don't rotate forwards within the wheel. Grab a handful of brake and ... errr
Since man invented the wheel, people have been creating remarkable conveyances of countless configurations.
In the last twelve months alone, Gizmag has covered one, two, three, four, six and eight wheeled vehicles, but apart from the Bombardier Embrio concept (our most-read story of 2004,) its hard to imagine a single-wheeled conveyance being all that practical for mixing it with cars on the road. The Embrio is a futuristic concept designed using technologies that will not reach market for another few decades yet - it is Bombardier's idea of what we might find red-blooded adventure-seekers riding in 2025.
So the Wheelsurf project intrigued us. Mono-wheelers are traditionally associated with stunts and clowns and circuses - not practical transport.
It didn't take us long to find a large resource of failed mono-wheel machines that their inventors felt seemed destined to play a role in the planet's transport but didn't.
Naturally enough, there are others who have taken the concept of the monowheel, applied the latest technologies and still forsee a niche future in this genre of vehicle and Wheelsurf is not alone in its endeavours to eke out a minor role in transportation devices. Kerry McLeans's V8 monocycle is one of the most awe-inspiring vehicles ever to prowl the tarmac.
When you first sit on the seat inside the 1.70 metre diameter Wheelsurf the circular steel frame of the Wheelsurf is all around you and you can feel the weight distribution in places you don't find it on any other conveyance - it's not all concentrated underneath you like on a motorcycle and this is something that takes a bit of getting accustomed to. In some ways, it's like learning to balance all over again.
The Wheelsurf consists of an inner and an outer frame. The inner frame has three small wheels that make contact with the outer frame. The outer frame is the actual rotating wheel and has a solid rubber tire. The rider sits inside the inner frame that also contains the engine, clutch, propulsion mechanism and petrol tank.
The engine is a regular Stihl 55 cc two-stroke single cylinder petrol engine with one speed and a centrifugal clutch. Before riding, the driver positions himself inside the wheel and starts the engine by pulling on a cord - just as with a lawnmower or chainsaw - indeed, the motor is derived from chainsaw motor.
Getting away from standstill with the Wheelsurf is where you need the most practice. From standstill you rev up the engine until the centrifugal clutch grips onto the outer wheel.
Once you've mastered the characteristics of the engine, weight distrbution, body balancing and throttle, you can ride away slowly and in control. Reaching that point is a challenge that only the well coordinated can achieve in the first few attempts.
Too much throttle and the clutch grips the outer wheel causing the inner frame to rotate backwards and you loose balance. Once the Wheelsurf starts to roll though, the gyroscopic effect of the large rotating wheel comes into play and the name of the game is then throttle control and weight distribution, so the name of the game is gently-does-it and remember to balance the forces whether accelerating or decelerating and you'll be right. Half an hour later, you've achieved rudimentary control, though we suspect mastery might take MUCH longer than that.
One of the problems obvious to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of physics is that of braking. This was the big question for us - an associate in the Netherlands had ridden the Wheelsurf for a limited acquaintance period but had far from become expert with the machine. He reported that the tiny "landing wheels" that descend to give stability under brakes worked well at low speeds but hadn't tried the braking near the Wheelsurf's maximum speed of 30kmh.
These "landing brakes" sit above and away from the road during normal riding and descend during braking. Our fear was that a sudden handful of brake would see the Wheelsurf roll over these wheels and render it uncontrollable.
Like all vehicles such as bicycles and motorcycles where the rider is exposed to external objects and forces, the Wheelsurf makes the rider potentially vulnerable too.
Unlike the motorcycle though, the Wheelsurf is not as responsive to steering and braking and instant manoeuvring and we had fears that in an emergency stop situation, such as a truck looming or a child running onto the road in its path, the Wheelsurf might career out of control with the rider spinning along inside ... a circumstance almost too horrifying to contemplate.
If the driver wants to bring the Wheelsurf to a stop at low speed, the procedure is to gently apply the brake and lean backwards to counter the forces. This clearly will not give instant stopping capabilities anywhere near those of a car or a motorcycle.
In harder stops, the landing wheels descend and the brakes have something to work against. The acknowledged master of Wheelsurf riding is designer, manufacturer and evangelist Tito Lucas Ott who assures us that those little wheels work EVERY time.
When asked what the best stopping distance for the Wheelsurf is at 30 kmh, Tito says, "It depends. If you are riding on a flat surface I would say at least 8 to 10metres. If you're going downhill, you will need to be extra careful. From experience, I never let the Wheelsurf gain speed down a hill.... it's similar to the same precautions a skateboarder takes going down a hill."
Now the Wheelsurf has a top speed of 35 kmh, taking around seven seconds to reach top speed with an experienced rider who can balance the inertial forces to get maximum acceleration. The rapid acceleration procedure is akin to launching a wickedly powerful motorcycle at the drag strip - you need to get your weight and throttle control JUST RIGHT or else things go pear-shaped very quickly. At least it's at slower speeds - a motorcycle can be doing 160 kmh and be 300 metres away in that time. So a speed demon it isn't. New Model in Development
Tito says that the braking and several other technical issues with the Wheelsurf are soon to be addressed with a new model that will be manufactured in China. To be known as SLIM V1.1 and weighing far less than the current 2005 model Wheelsurf, the new model will be launched before the end of the year!!
In Brazil, the Wheelsurf can be registered for use on public roads and several models have been registered in other countries, notably the United States.
Whether the road safety authorities in your country will allow a Wheelsurf to be on the public roads is one thing, and whether it's suitable for use on public roads is another. Its performance is slower than the most aneamic moped and its stopping distance in comparison is like that of an Oil Tanker.
An experienced and sensible Wheelsurfer may be able to operate it safely in traffic at low speeds but we suspect a first-time user would struggle to cope with a machine that can't be compared with any other road-going vehicle, motorcycle or moped.
We'd suggest the Wheelsurf is best suited to demonstration and stunt work and could find itself regular work at shows, motorsport events and other public entertainments in the hands of an experienced rider.
As the videos on the Wheelsurf site show, an expert rider can rotate 360 degrees inside the wheel whilst riding along at a steady speed - it's spectacular and entertaining to watch, but it's not for your average rider or someone who is in any way risk-averse.
If your character contains a liberal dose of the daredevil, and your reflexes and coordination are exceptional, the Wheelsurf will supply all the adrenalin you'll need, without the need for high speeds.
The latest 2005 model with landing gear and the works will set you back US$2500 and a delivery time of 30 days from order. The version without the landing gear (caveat emptor), sells for US$1900.
The Wheelsurf is available in red, blue, green or black with optional colours made to order upon request.