Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What is a Velomobile?

What is a Velomobile?

Over the past few years, I have often taken a position of on-line forums over what constitutes a velomobile and some people may not like that stand.  I think that a crop of small vehicles is falsely being referred to as velomobiles so let me state my case.  Personally, I like the definition of velomobiles found in Wikipedia.

Quest Velomobile

A velomobile, or bicycle car, is a human-powered vehicle (HPV) enclosed for aerodynamic advantage and protection from weather and collisions. Nearly all velomobiles are single-passenger vehicles. They are derived from recumbent bicycles and tricycles, with the addition of a full fairing (aerodynamic shell). Most Velomobiles have three or four wheels. Fully faired two wheel roadgoing machines are included within the more general category "human powered vehicle" (HPV). Pedal powered faired vehicles intended primarily for racing are usually called streamliners. Streamliners have set many speed and distance records.
There are few manufacturers of velomobiles; some are home-built. Some models have the operator's head exposed; this has the advantage of giving the operator unobstructed vision, hearing, and some cooling, with the disadvantage of being more exposed to weather and less aerodynamic. Similar vehicles that are not human-powered are called microcars. Hybrid vehicles exist which can use both human power and assistance by an electric motor.

So what is wrong with saying that ELF or the new Veloschmitt Tiger 4-Wheeler are velomobiles.  For one, these were never intended to be used without electric assist.  A Velomobile is a Human Powered Vehicle first and foremost.  When the Veloschmitt Tiger 4-Wheeler is introduced, it will apparently weight 120kg, it will not be particularly aerodynamic and have a 15kW electric motor to propel it to 25km/h (15mph).  The ELF is also a bit weighty at 150lb (68kg) and not very aerodynamic, has a 600W electric motor and a speed of 20mph (30km/h) and has only a 15mi  (24km) range.  When you need to get such strong motors to reach these very sedate performances, you can only guess that you would very strong legs to move these beasts for any distance and on very level ground.

Compare this with an average velomobile that weight-in at approximately 25kg to 30kg and require slightly more than 150W to travel at 40km/h.  This is not the state of the art velomobile, just a good average velomobile.  A regular rider will also be able to climb hills without electric assist. 

Organic Transit ELF

I think it may be to the advantage of these companies to identify themselves as velomobiles for marketing and regulatory reasons but these in my opinion are only microcars.  In the process, I think they overstate the ability  for the user to operate the vehicle using the pedals, the aerodynamic advantage, etc.  Again lets look at the definition for Microcar and also cyclecar and in Wikipedia.

A microcar is the smallest automobile classification, usually applied to very small cars (smaller than city cars). Such small cars were generally referred to as cyclecars until the 1940s. More recent models are also called bubble cars due to their bubble-shaped appearance.

The definition of a microcar has varied considerably in different countries. Since there are usually tax and/or licensing advantages to the classification, multiple restrictions are often imposed, starting with engine size. The Register of Unusual Microcars[1] in the UK says: "economy vehicles with either three or four wheels, powered by petrol engines of no more than 700cc or battery electric propulsion, and manufactured since 1945". The Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum (the world's largest collection of Microcars) says "Engine sizes of 700cc and less and 2 doors or less" and the US-based Vintage Microcar Club simply defines it as 1000cc or less.

A cyclecar was a type of small, lightweight and inexpensive car manufactured mainly between 1910 and the late 1920s. Cyclecars were characterised by their use of basic materials and sometimes fragile engineering and were largely contrived to fill a gap in the market between the motorcycle and the car. Their demise was largely the result of production economies in the manufacture of more substantial economy cars such as the Austin 7 and the consequent affordability of such vehicles. Vehicles with similar qualities produced after World War II, are generally categorized as microcars.

Cyclecars were propelled by single-cylinder, V-twin or more rarely four-cylinder engines, often air-cooled. Sometimes these had been originally used in motorcycles and other components from this source such as gearboxes were also employed. Cyclecars were halfway between motorcycles and cars and were fitted with lightweight bodies, sometimes in a tandem two-seater configuration and could be primitive with minimal comfort and weather protection. They used various layouts and means of transmitting the engine power to the wheels, such as belt drive or chain drive often to one rear wheel only to avoid having to provide a differential.

If you look at these definitions, you notice that they very well describe todays offering except that they now offer pedal assist to increase range and performance.

E-Scooter with pedals
Few people would consider an E-Scooter as a bike but they sport pedals to be considered as bikes providing them access to MUPs, no-licensing requirement, etc.   While this may be intent, very few people ever use the pedal.  In addition, several cities have reacted by banning them from the cycling infrastructure.

The fact that a vehicle has some of the characteristics of a velomobile does not automatically make them velomobiles.  I must be clear that an electric e-assist would not make a regular velomobile a microcar because as the name states, the system is to assist the rider in certain situations like hill climbing where the rider may not have the strength required to make it all the way up on his own.  The e-assist should not turn the velomobile into a vehicle that cannot be easily pedaled by an average rider over long distances. 

If you want to purchase a velomobile, be ready to pedal most of the time, otherwise purchase a Microcar that may be equipped with pedals.  Let’s call a spade, a spade!

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