It is an electric-powered vehicle that is compact and innocuous enough to be allowed as a commercial flight carry-on, like a laptop. It is “green” and it is suitable and legal to ride on pedestrian walkways. You may have seen one spinning around Capitol Hill.
“The Segway was supposed to be what this is,” says Capitol Hill’s Ted McDonald — better known as Barefoot Ted — of his sweet ride.
Much of his life’s work and play has been particularly marked by themes of back-to-basics, human-powered transportation, but McDonald is now pushing things in a slightly different direction.
The early enthusiast of barefoot running was featured in the 2011 book “Born to Run” and is owner of 19th and Prospect-headquartered Luna Sandals. He founded the company in 2010 and is listed as “Spokesmonkey” on its website. In his newest venture, rather than stripping away more recent advancements in athletic footwear, McDonald is helping promote some current reinventions of the wheel, positioning himself as one of the world’s leading spokespeople for a recently-developed iteration of personal transportation technology. McDonald says he thinks the emergent class of vehicles could significantly reduce many Seattleites’ reliance on cars, buses and bicycles, while also improving the quality of their commute, changing the equation and concerns in the city. Moreover, McDonald thinks the technology, like major advancements of the past, could bring major changes to life across much of the world.
The Solowheel he rides, McDonald says, is typically a quicker, safer, more enjoyable and more economical option for most commutes than a car, bus or bicycle. And, when he needs, he can pick it up and carry the vehicle by its handle using one arm. The Solowheel consists of one 16-inch wheel with platforms on either side of its exterior casing that double as control pedals. With no handlebar or seat for support, McDonald says a Solowheel rider should utilize “ideal running form”—most critically, tall and straight posture supported by a strong core—to maintain control on the device. The vehicle’s motion is powered by a 122 watt-hour lithium-ion battery, McDonald said. The Solowheel’s design allows riders to keep their hands free, and McDonald says it is quite possible to make a phone call, eat a sandwich or hold an umbrella, for example, while riding it.
McDonald says the hands-free factor also allows riders to experience movement in a way that is closer to humans’ natural state.
“Human beings have been quite interesting because they’ve been able to use these [their hands] to do things while they’re running,” he said.
Inspired in part by his experience with the Solowheel, McDonald recently founded a Laptop Vehicles organization through which he spreads the word about electric-powered vehicles that fit the criteria he created to help identify devices he thinks will be at the vanguard of efficient and effective urban transportation in the 21st century. The organization also supports and promotes companies that have, or that are trying to, develop vehicles that fit the category. The Solowheel very well may be the first “laptop vehicle” ever produced, according to McDonald’s criteria.
“I don’t sell these, I don’t own any of the companies yet, but I’m interested in the space or the niche,” McDonald said.
“In order to be a laptop vehicle, first hurdle, you must be airplane carry-on-able,” McDonald said, “And in that sentence you solve a lot of things: number one is it has to be obviously portable, it can’t be a huge form factor, and it can’t be dangerous,” McDonald said.
In addition to being able to pass the gate as carry-ons, vehicles must be highly energy-efficient or “green” to make the laptop vehicle cut. The Solowheel, for one, is potentially more energy-efficient than a bicycle, McDonald said, when you consider the energy it takes for a calorie in the average American diet to be grown and harvested, then transported, prepared and consumed.
Laptop vehicles should also be well-suited for driving around “urbanscapes.” Ideally, this means they have a small enough profile and a low enough top speed to be comfortably and legally—at least under most current laws—driven on pedestrian surfaces including sidewalks, plazas and markets. That is one thing the Segway, shaped like a double-sized old school push-lawnmower, and topping out at 13 mph, got wrong, some say, to the detriment of its versatility and functionality, and ultimately perhaps, of its perceived value and sales.
Laptop vehicle drivers are just like pedestrians, McDonald said.
“I’m really acting like a pedestrian the whole time,” McDonald said while describing a hypothetical five-kilometer trip around town on a laptop vehicle, saying the vehicle would allow him to choose the most direct route and utilize sidewalks and other walking spaces. “So I’m never really becoming part of car space, I’m just kind of a glorified pedestrian in some sense.”
The tallest part of the vehicle, the handle on top of the wheel, came just shy of reaching McDonald’s knee as the machine rested against the inside of his calf. Looking at the Space Needle far beyond, McDonald said he could ride the Solowheel to the landmark and back in 45 minutes from his spot in the park. He noted that a bus trip would require a long walk to a bus stop, and a circuitous route through downtown involving a transfer, and said riding a bike could be a good option, but for the arduous climb back up.
At about 25 pounds, the Solowheel has a max speed of about 10 mph — no faster than the average human’s top speed, McDonald pointed out — helping make it legal to ride on the sidewalk. Its battery takes about an hour to charge and provides about an hour of ride time, McDonald says. McDonald says battery life could probably be increased in future iterations of the Solowheel or in similarly-designed laptop vehicles.
McDonald’s research and boosterism is not without a sense of industry. He believes there is a strong future for a company in Seattle to locally manufacture laptop vehicles for the mainstream market. McDonald says this company would also want to focus on customer service, sales, and training people how to ride laptop vehicles. The search for a business partner for the venture continues.
In the meantime, his trips around Capitol Hill and beyond draw plenty of attention and capture many peoples’ imagination. “I think a lot of people who are enthusiasts like me…they’re so enthusiastic about what they find, and that passion they have ends up being contagious,” McDonald said. McDonald is featured in YouTube videos captured of him riding the Solowheel in locations including Istanbul, Edinburgh, New York City and around Seattle, many of which demonstrate just how much interest people sometimes take in the Solowheel after seeing it in action. The day CHS interviewed McDonald in Volunteer Park, a crowd of curious onlookers surrounded him, drawn by the novel vehicle and, likely, McDonald’s somewhat larger-than-life personality. McDonald fielded as many questions from these guests as he did from CHS.
It was a chance encounter that connected McDonald with the vehicle he says he felt like his whole life had been preparing him to discover. He was sitting in a cafe on an island off the coast of Istanbul in November of 2012 when it happened. “I saw this guy running by, and I thought, ‘What the hell was that!’ I thought it was the best running form I’d ever seen,” McDonald, who is a former running coach in addition to being a notable athlete, said. As it turns out, it was Eyton Levi, gliding by on a Solowheel, having the appearance of running without moving his upper body up or down one iota, as if he had preternatural form.
McDonald caught up with Levi and the two bonded over shared interests in the technology behind the Solowheel, as well as in human-powered motion, McDonald says. Levi, who is from Turkey, but who happened to be a distributor for the vehicle, taught McDonald how to ride the Solowheel. McDonald then promptly purchased his own, an early prototype of the Solowheel which he has been riding ever since, he said.
While some may be skeptical of McDonald’s plan, saying the Solowheel looks near impossible to ride, and that similar vehicles likely would be also, McDonald says those fears are unfounded. “It’s a pedestrian vehicle, and the operating manual is if you know how to run or walk,” McDonald said, “and the feeling is kind of like a glorified bicycle.”
The Solowheel is also built to help you stay up. Gyryosensors prevent the vehicle from tipping backward or forward. Moreover, McDonald says that at speeds no faster than many humans can run, injuries from a Solowheel or similar accident would be much less serious that those caused by crashes involving faster vehicles.
The veteran athlete says he does get ribbed by some of his cyclist friends who say the Solowheel is just for lazy people. “You can’t be a slouch in riding this,” McDonald counters. “You’ve gotta have some connection to your body and in the end it’s like doing really smooth Tai-Chi all day long.” Besides, McDonald added, “You know, I’ve played with all the possibilities, but now that i’m 50, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m actually more interested in keeping the energy up, not burning it down.'”
McDonald has no formal relationship with Inventist, the Camas, Washington-based creator of the Solowheel. His work, for now, is about getting the word out and educating people about things like laws and classifications that will aid the development of a laptop vehicle market.
“It’s not the brand I’m an evangelist for, it’s the space; the space for concept of laptop vehicles,” he said. “Basically getting people to realize that things this small can be profound both in a green and sustainable way, and just in a human-joy way, being profoundly beneficial to anybody.”
You can learn more at facebook.com/LaptopVehicles.