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Peak Moment 154: Bicycling on Three Wheels — Transportation of the Future? (transcript added)

In Peak Moment's very first field production, bicycle enthusiast Galen Shumacher takes us for a spin on a three-wheeled "tadpole." This human-powered vehicle (HPV), built for competition by the Chico State University HPV club, has two wheels in front and a single in back. Janaia's unrehearsed ride shows that it's easy to learn, comfortable to ride, stable, highly maneuverable, and fun! Galen also shows us the improved model being built for the upcoming competition. (P.S. they won!)

You can download the audio for this episode here from blip.tv.

Transcribed by Carl Jacobs

Janaia: Hi, I’m Janaia Donaldson and welcome to Peak Moment, community responses to a changing energy future. As the prices of oil increase and we have less of it, more and more folks are going to turn to alternate forms of transportation. And the least expensive, oil-wise, is human powered transportation.

I’m here at the McConnell Technology Center in the Engineering College at Chico State with my guest, Galen Shumaker. Galen, welcome to Peak Moment!

Galen: Thanks for having me, Janaia.

Janaia: Galen is a senior in the Mechanical Engineering department, and he is sitting on last year’s project. What is this Galen?

Galen: This is the Chico State Human Powered Vehicle Club vehicle. It’s an extracurricular club that the school has here, and there’s an intercollegiate competition that’s hosted at different places each year.

Janaia: And was this created for that competition, for last year, is that right?

Galen: Exactly, yeah, this is last years’ vehicle, there’s about ten of us who are involved in it, and we put this together in our spare time and go race every year in the end of April.

Janaia: So describe what you’ve created here.

Galen: Ok, well there are a couple of main configurations of Human Powered Vehicle, there’s a two wheel and a three wheel. This is a three wheeled version, it’s known as a ‘tadpole’ configuration. Two in the front, and the drive wheel in the rear. It’s made out of aluminum. We have an adjustable seat here. There’s a roll bar up above and beyond me. We have steering right here. A right and a left brake. And it’s powered right here by the crankset. The race has several different riders. It’s a relay format. So the vehicle has to be adjustable to accommodate several riders. We have one woman and three men in the relay endurance events.

Janaia: So each person adjusts it for different height, or leg length, is that what you mean?

Galen: Exactly. All of the above. During the race, we’ll switch out. There’s an aerodynamic fairing that fits over the vehicle, which isn’t on right now. That opens up, and then we switch out riders, so it’s a whole like the scenes of the pit that you see in car races.

Janaia: So how is this kind of vehicle or the competition, in what way might that be sort of the wave of the future? Is this the kind of thing that we’re only going to see in extreme sports, if you will, or custom things, or is this the kind of vehicle that we’re going to end up seeing more of on the streets and downtown as people are getting out of their cars – where is this headed?

Galen: Well the Chico State Human Powered Vehicle Club has been pursuing the performance aspect, but there is a ‘utility’ event within the race, and this could pretty easily be converted to the ‘utility’ event. In that event, they have a rack on the back, and they navigate some different obstacles, some tighter obstacles like you might see in an urban environment. And then we’ll get out and place a load on the vehicle, back it out, then continue maneuvering around the course. So, this would be very easily adapted, by putting say, a rack behind me, over the rear wheel to an urban situation, to a more utilitarian type of application.

Janaia: You make me think about – here in Chico I see that you’ve got rickshaws, or pedicabs. You’ve got bicycles ridden by one person, in the back – seating for a couple of people. There’s just little bicycle taxicabs going around town. Has anybody adapted this idea for a little taxicab?

Galen: No, not that I’ve seen. That would be pretty good – the one, I think, downside to this type of vehicle is that it’s quite low to the ground, so we’d have to have some kind of attention getting device, say like a system of flags up above and beyond it, so that it was a little more visible to auto traffic.

Janaia: Are these tadpoles – is anybody making them commercially? I mean, is that a direction that your designs could go, is into commercial production some way?

Galen: Yeah, that could happen. There is a company called Greenspeed that is making a similar configuration vehicle. So, for folks who are interested, and maybe didn’t want to go through engineering and fabricating one themselves, they can go ahead and pick one up, and they can find info, they have their own site – Greenspeed, something like Greenspeed.com I believe, yeah.

Janaia: Now why would someone think about a three wheeled vehicle, or such a low vehicle, as compared with the standard bicycle configuration – what’s the difference in riding, or maneuvering, or weight, or whatever?

Galen: Well, there are two main benefits to this configuration, one of them is aerodynamics, especially with a fairing placed on it – it greatly reduces the resistance that you feel as you’re riding it. Another one is maneuverability – it’s really easy to maneuver – and you’ll see this, maybe we can get you on it later, and it’s quite easy to zigzag around – it’s really intuitive, so someone who hasn’t been on it before can easily jump on and start steering it, a lot like their car. And these front wheels are placed so widely apart that you don’t have to plan ahead as you do on a two wheeled vehicle. You can just go ahead and turn it.

Janaia: Well I also see of course three wheels, it’s going to be more stable, so you don’t have to worry about tipping over, or keeping your balance when one is riding. I’m also trying to think about appropriate human powered vehicles for slow moving traffic or slower people - folks that are older or perhaps handicapped. This is probably going to be a more secure feeling if we can deal with the ‘you’re lower to the ground’ situation. Do you think that’s fair here?

Galen: Yes, entirely accurate. You have to try really, really hard to lift one of these tires off the ground. You have to go very fast, turn very tight, so that’s a really hard situation to find yourself in, you have to pretty much try to get yourself in trouble.

Janaia: And what about weight? How does the weight of this compare? I’m trying to think if you’re going to have to do some hills. And so I’m here in the flat in Chico, so you have it easy. But if we’re going to do hills, or gentle rises, is this, are you having to deal with more weight, is it harder, I mean there’s an ergonomic situation here where your body’s in a very different position than you would be on a standard two wheeled bicycle. Are there advantages to this position compared to your two wheeled bike?

Galen: Well as far as your first concern about efficiency on the hill, I would say yeah, it’s a little less efficient on the hill. I would say that you’re in a more comfortable position because – well you can see I’m sitting here in a pretty comfortable reclined position. I could sit here all day long, and it wouldn’t bother me. So although it may take you longer to climb a hill, the average person I think would be more comfortable climbing that hill even though if it did take them longer.

Janaia: Tell us a bit about the competition. What, that I’m guessing other colleges are doing – are entering into it. Where do the winners go, is it just for the fun of it? Do you have manufacturers looking for new ideas? I mean, what ideas did you learn from running this in the competition? How did you do last year? What did you learn from that too?

Galen: I’ll start off with how we did – we did really well. We got third in the sprints. We did first in the endurance event, which I’m really proud of. I was one of the riders, by the way, so that was really exciting for me. And most schools will approach this as kind of an opportunity to practice their engineering skills and fabricate something to themselves, so it’s for the most part kind of for the engineering experience that schools are involved in this – oh and there are 21 schools that competed at Fresno State last year.

Janaia: I’m thinking about the rollbar here – I assume there’s some minimum set of requirements you’ve gotta have for a vehicle – I mean is that a requirement, a rollbar?

Galen: Yeah, absolutely, it is. The ASME, the um, the association…for…well, I’ve forgotten the acronym, a mechanical engineering standards firm, and they actually sponsor the event, and so yeah there are a lot of standards, and the rollbar is one of them. A seatbelt is another one – that’s pretty fundamental.

Janaia: So, I don’t know how much time we have left here to talk about this – oh good, we have more time…what … do you feel like this is any part of the direction you want to go in the future with your career, I mean, do you want to keep pushing the edge of human powered vehicles? Is anybody doing – what’ll I say – the trailers that ride behind this? It seems to me, the way we’re headed in our culture, this is going to be a lively new industry.

Galen: It would be nice to see that. I don’t think we’re at the point right now where a lot of American companies are pursuing vehicles like this for transportation. I think we see most of it as the sport application right now. But, there’s going to be a point where it becomes a much more viable transportation method and we see people really moving more towards that, yeah, absolutely.

Janaia: So Galen, tell me, how would you carry luggage on this? How would you carry your groceries on this model?

Galen: Well right behind me, on the rear wheel…let me show you…

Janaia: Now we get to see how you get out of this contraption, huh? OK…

Galen: So right back here a rack could be fitted, which can hold different things…yeah right in this area would be the best spot to carry cargo.

Janaia: So you guys haven’t tested – cuz this isn’t your utility bike, this is your sports bike, if you will. Did you allow for that, just for the fun of it, for the design? Or say no, that’s not the category we’re in…we’ll just not worry about it.

Galen: Exactly, we chose the sports category, so that we could…well that was kind of the route we were interested in going…but we did actually consider using this – last years vehicle, and adapting it to go for that utility category competition too.

Janaia: I would expect that you’ve got this design so that the weight balance among your wheels is…works well with your center of gravity, where your bottom is here. And if you add weight with a couple big bags of groceries or books and so on. Does that...how much tolerance is there in the design here for that kind of weight change?

Galen: Well, it wouldn’t affect this one too much, but I would say that in a commercial application it would be a little bit better to extend the wheelbase here a little bit to compensate and make that work out a little bit better.

Janaia: When you ride this – is this safe, this bike? Can it bike be ridden both in the bike lanes - is it also legal to ride in the car lanes when you’re driving in town? And if so, how do you make sure the motor vehicle drivers see a vehicle so low to the ground? How do you do that?

Galen: Well, as far as the visibility, I would recommend a system of flags maybe extending up from the rollbar here. Or maybe in a commercial application there wouldn’t be a rollbar. So, that would be a way to go… and the first part of your question was…

Janaia: Can you drive in the car lanes?

Galen: OK, my knowledge of that is that you’re fine, as long as you yield to faster traffic…but that’s something that we’d want to check out a little further, before we did any super long rides on this on the road, but we have ridden it around here, and the police seem to be fine with it…ha ha…

Janaia: Ha ha, that’s good to know…

So, in the endurance competition that this bike was in, I understand there were three wheelers, like yours, and two wheelers. Is that right?

Galen: Yeah, that’s right, we had both configurations of the vehicle in that race.

Janaia: And so, if we look at maybe is this more efficient ergonomically for the body, your three wheeler beat out the twos…hmmm?

Galen: Yeah that’s true. I think it was a combination of probably the ability to more consistently apply power to the pedals and also the stability that the three wheel design offers.

Janaia: Well let’s take a look at how this thing really rides – would you give us a little demo of working on it?

Galen: Sure.

Janaia: Go for it.

Galen: OK!

Janaia: God, that looks so easy, and fun he he he…! I wouldn’t try that on a two wheeler, myself…I’ll meet you out at the workshop.

Galen: OK, sounds good.

Janaia: Let’s take a look at next years’ model…this years’model…

Now, that’s maneuverability…

Janaia: We’re in the lab where Galen and the other students are creating the model for this years’ competition for the Intercollegiate Human Powered Vehicles, and this looks a whole lot different from what we’ve just been seeing. What have we got here, Galen?

Galen: Well, let’s see, it’s a similar kind of a configuration – it’s a tadpole, 3 wheels total, two in the front, one in the rear, but we’re using a totally different approach as far as the materials that we’re using with this. This is carbon fiber, it probably comes across as blackish gray on the film. And I have a couple of samples right here, of what we’re using. This is the raw carbon fiber, and this is uncured…you’ll feel it’s quite flexible right now.

Janaia: It’s kind of plasticky. What…but it looks woven in here too?

Galen: It’s a composite – so it’s a combination of a cloth and a resin, and they work together to give it a structure.

Janaia: So is this sort of like fiberglass plus, or something oldworld, fiberglass?

Galen: It’s very much like fiberglass. That’s a composite too, except for instead of glass fibers we’re using a lighter, stiffer carbon fiber, and that’s where it gets its name. And then we’ve laid it up in this configuration where you can see a structural foam core, and that’s a sandwich configuration, so those stiffer layers of carbon fibers are spread apart from each other, and that’s kind of the magic in the structure.

Janaia: Does it make it stronger…obviously it’s very lightweight. It’s a very lightweight foam. What’s the magic?

Galen: It’s using the high tensile strength of the carbon fiber and spread out…this foam actually spreads it apart…it’s kind of a placeholder so that the high stress areas of the structure can be strong, and the parts that aren’t undergoing much stress are essentially void…that’s what the foam is.

Janaia: So why did you move to this from the aluminum frame that you had before? What is this giving you that you want?

Galen: Well, it gives us the potential to be lighter. It definitely makes the structure stiffer. For example, this is a test apparatus that we have built, and tested, and we loaded this with 850 lbs. This member right here weighs 1 kilogram, so 2.2 lbs. and held over 850 lbs before it broke, so quite the strong stuff.

Janaia: So what we have the potential here, for a lighter vehicle, which means less work to human-power it, to power it, right? And more strength, for whatever, you know, not that you’re want to get collisions, but more strength for carrying more load as well, yeah?

Galen: Yeah, exactly. Those combine to what we call ‘performance’.

Janaia: Where am I? This is upside - Hello – give us an orientation to what we’re seeing here.

Galen: Ok, when we’re riding this, we’ll be pointing in that direction, so this deck right here is a seat that we would sit on. The cranks and pedals will be right here, and then front wheels here and here, exactly, and the rear wheel in the back. You’ll recognize the rollbar.

Janaia: The rollbar, OK!

Galen: And that looks a little bit different because it is a hybrid of kevlar and carbon fiber so it has a little bit more of a yellowish look to it. And that has a… it’s much safer. It has a safer mode of failure. We made one like this, and tested it – brought it up to 600 lbs of pressure before it broke…it was actually 600 lbs. of force, excuse me. And then it held another 300 lbs. and it cracked again, and another 300 lbs. And we have that here, and we could actually still, you and I could still stand on it, and it would still support us.

Janaia: Wow – this is wonderful to see what new materials are being used, I mean, to keep the edge going. What’s this? What have we got here? Oh my goodness! That’s just feather-light! … move our table out here…let’s come around back.

Galen: So this is the plug for our aerodynamic fairing. A plug is like a mold, so you can think of it as the opposite of making an angel food cake, or something like that, where we actually use the shape, the cake to make the mold over it, and then we’ll remove that fairing as a peel, like an orange peel.

Janaia: So you’ll create a shape over this. Where’s the front end and where’s the back end?

Galen: This’ll be the front end, so it’s pointing the same direction that the frame was earlier. And, yeah, we’ll essentially smooth this over, do a layup, which is forming the carbon fiber composite like we held in our hands a second ago, and then we’ll peel that off, and maybe do a little more reinforcement, and then that’ll fit right over the completed vehicle.

Janaia: And didn’t you say that part of that fairing at least gets moved aside so that somebody can get in, is that right?

Galen: Yeah, it opens up. There’ll be a hatch that opens up a whole lot like a jet airplane, or the hood of a car. And that’s how the rider will switch in and out, so it won’t be a single piece. It won’t be like the shell of an M&M…it’ll be three pieces that open up.

Janaia: And with a fairing you said it’s both, it’s more aerodynamically efficient. I would expect down the road, as we get commercial vehicles made out of this, that’s going to keep the rain off, or the mud off. I mean, is it designed for that too?

Galen: No, that’s kind of a great side-effect, though, it’s a great real practical application of having the fairing… yeah, the rider is protected from rain. The luggage, the cargo could be protected as well. So, yeah, that’s a great application.

Janaia: So how many people are working on this? How many people will be in your competition? How many in the team?

Galen: Well on the team overall there’s about 10 students who are involved. As far as building that frame we just looked at, the carbon fiber frame, there are 4 students who are mostly involved in that. We’ve taken this on as a senior project. Because the degree of difficulty is so much more difficult with a composite material versus the straight aluminum as we saw in last years’ frame.

Janaia: Now that’s enlightened, I think that’s… I mean to have your student projects be real world, and real practical, and things that you enjoy. It can’t get much better than that, can it?

Galen: It’s been real enjoyable. It’s been a great experience, which is a good thing, because we’ve had to put a lot of hours into it. A lot of late nights…well the competition happens before our usual senior project presentation, so our deadline is advanced by about two months over most other students, so it makes for long nights and long days.

Janaia: Well, it looks to me like you get a lot of reward from inside yourselves, because you’re doing something that you love. You’re having a good time with, so, that’s great.

Galen: Yeah.

Janaia: This is Peak Moment, and I want to now turn to the opportunity to give it a spin myself, since I’ve never ridden something like this. I think that’d be fun. Can I give it a try?

Galen: Yeah!

Janaia: OK. Well, this is the moment I have been waiting for since we started. I get my chance to ride the…what do you call it?

Galen: The Human Powered Vehicle.

Janaia: The Human Powered Vehicle here, the HPV. OK Galen, where do I start? How do I get into this contraption?

Galen: OK, well first you’re going to straddle the seat.

Janaia: OK, OK, got that.

Galen: Now go ahead and slide down and kick your feet on over to where the pedals are…great, perfect.

Janaia: Yay!

Galen: So you have your shifter right here, you have a left brake and a right brake.

Janaia: Shifter..yeah yeah, left brake…What do I have to know about the shifter?

Galen: Well you don’t have to know much about it right now, but if you wanted to, that would go into higher gears and will that into lower gears.

Janaia: OK OK…lower gears.

Galen: Yeah.

Janaia: Let’s go back to ‘Low’, now wait a minute, you’ve got me back to there. And so I have what, disc brakes, are these, on the front? We got left and right brake, OK, all right.

Galen: They’re disc brakes, uh-huh. This has two front brakes, a left and a right, and that offers us advantages in that we can actually pull the vehicle into a turn.

Janaia: With the brake?

Galen: Yes, so you can go and navigate at the same time.

Janaia: Cool. I’m not sure I’m going to figure that out on the first round, but we’ll see! OK…just lift off and pedal? Is that where we are (laughs)? Hey hey hey woo woo! Oh, the brakes work!

Galen: Ha Ha

Janaia: Woo woo, oh, this is cool. Oh man, sharp turns even! Woo! This is fun! Oh…Galen…and the brakes work, I can tell, the brakes work!

Galen: That’s right! Janaia: Which matters, oh this is fun!

Galen: So that was your first time on it. Did it feel pretty natural?

Janaia: Yeah yeah, it takes a little bit to feel where you’re…how do I say this? Well it feels natural because it’s when how you drive, you know, you’re turning your steering wheel like that, but it’s much…once you get going, it’s like…this thing flies!

Galen: Uh-huh

Janaia: Which I can’t get a bike to do like this does…wooo!...What it really does, that I see, is the sharp turns, which are so stable, I mean, you can just turn on a dime. What fun! What fun! I think this is the wave of the future…I want one! How much would one of these things cost, you know, the ones that are commercially made, how much would one of these cost now?

Galen: Well I don’t remember any prices right off the top of my head, but I think in the eight hundred – thousand dollar range you could probably buy something a lot like this.

Janaia: Eight hundred TO a thousand dollars (laughs)…That’s a lot of gas money that could get saved, to be put into this, great!

It’s not every moment you can have a Peak Moment, having an adventure on a Human Powered Vehicle. This is Janaia Donaldson, join us next week for Peak Moment, community responses to a changing energy future.
Editorial Notes: Thanks so much to another of our new transcribers, Carl Jacobs, for transcribing this interesting piece on new transport technology. -KS

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