While Tesla cars get a lot of attention because of little things like air conditioning, speed, luxury and being able to drive across the United States for free, most of us are concerned with a more important question.
This has been a question I’ve been asked a lot, of course. But first, there are some people who must be brought up to speed, perhaps because they have been on an extended sojourn in the Antarctic or Ibiza.
What exactly is an electric, self-balancing unicycle?
It has one wheel. It has an electric motor. It has built-in sensors that determine whether it is leaning backward or forward along the disk-plane of the wheel. If the sensors determine that the centre-of-gravity is forward of the axle of the wheel, it speeds up the motor to try to keep the device balanced. That makes you speed up. If the sensors determine that the centre-of-gravity is behind the axle of the wheel, it slows down the motor to try to maintain balance. That makes you slow down. Lean forward to accelerate and lean back to brake. Simple.
This doesn’t do a thing for falling over to the side, but in cycling, motorcycling and the world of electric, self-balancing unicycles, we refer to falling over to the side as controlled carving of turns, and consider it an exhilarating and delightful part of getting around.
Where do they come from?
The Pacific Northwest of the United States, of course. The Solowheel and SBU V3 were both invented in the state of Washington while the RYNO was born across the mighty Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is the source of all great things these days after all, including giant redwoods, Microsoft and hipster baristas.
So how do they compare wheel to wheel?
Well, every good comparative test requires a spec-off. This one is no different.
What are the performance characteristics like?
There is literally nothing like apex cornering and skid recovery on a single wheel with massive torque. These people who depend on two wheels or four are pretenders to excitement. Most of these devices will hit their top speed in under five seconds. How many cars can claim that? Breaking seems a bit more leisurely, but there’s also the option of just stepping off.
Okay, if speed is your thing, none of these are particularly fast, but the SBU V3 is rated as fastest. That said, 16 kph is four times faster than average walking speed.
What are some factors in the decision making process?
Well, not to put to fine a point on it, the RYNO is about the price of a Segway, while the Solowheel and SBU are much more reasonably priced, only two to three times the price of a decent electric bicycle or six or seven times the price of an electric scooter. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound quite as good when I put it that way. None of these are the cheapest forms of electric vehicles around, so if budget is your biggest concern, perhaps consider something with fewer electronic components and more wheels.
Advantage: Solowheel and SBU V3.
Bulk matters. The SBU gets smaller by taking it apart, but it’s just awkward compared to the Solowheel and you have the bits to deal with. With the Solowheel, step off, pick it up by the handle on top and walk away. The RYNO is just so bulky and heavy that no one will realistically throw it in the trunk of a car or carry it onto a bus.
Range is likely more important than speed on these devices. The speed difference really means that if you are going five kilometres you’ll get there in 15 to 20 minutes on the SVU v3 versus 19 to 23 minutes on the others. They are all four to five times faster than walking.
Advantage: SBU V3.
Cool factor vs nerd factor is a matter of perspective. The Solowheel manages to not have much nerd factor at all, while the SBU V3 and RYNO reek of it. The SBU V3 is favoured by Adam of Mythbusters which gives it a massive leg up when playing Who’s the Nerdiest. The Solowheel is favoured by people who look more like this.
Despite the Mythbusters-cred, however, the RYNO is at least as nerdy as the Segway.
Cool Advantage: Solowheel.
Nerd Advantage: tie between SBU V3 and RYNO.
Hands free vs hands on controls is likely a matter of some dispute. But at these speeds and distances, hands free wins hands down.
Advantage: Solowheel and SBU V3.
You can put luggage racks and panniers on a RYNO, although you can’t carry as much weight overall as with the SBU V3. Football players should consider the SBU V3, but at 95 KG and 185 cm, the Solowheel is fine for me.
Hill climbing is important. You don’t want to have to carry or roll any of these devices up steep hills. That said, the rated safe grade for the Solowheel is 15%, which usually equates to this picture in real life and there are pictures of people vastly exceeding 15% slopes on it. Nonetheless, if you live at the top of a steep hill in for example San Francisco, the SBU V3’s rating of 30% has a lot of appeal.
Advantage: SBU V3
Handling bumps is pretty important. All of these devices need more attention and care when riding across bumps than bicycles or cars. There are three factors that are important when dealing with bumps: comfort, terrain adaptation and wheel diameter. Starting with the last one, the bigger wheel diameter on the RYNO gives it an advantage; it will roll over bumps that the other two will have to consciously work at getting over. But for terrain adaptation, none of these devices have shock absorbers other than the inflated tires. As a result, all require you to stand up to deal with bumps. The Solowheel is the only one where you are always standing, so you are more likely to adapt to the bumps. But the Solowheel also doesn’t let you take your weight off, and on longer trips your feet can get tired and sore. Overall, the Solowheel wins on this.
None of these will keep you dry in the rain, although the Solowheel and SBU V3 do allow you to carry an umbrella. However, will one of them keep your clothes cleaner as you ride through puddles? In that case, the Solowheel’s almost fully enclosed wheel is a big plus. After market seat post clip-on bicycle fenders are available for the SBU V3, but that’s a poor second best and many people will end up with stripes up their backs and soaked pants. The RYNO’s fairly massive seat will keep the upper clothes clean, but shoes and pants won’t be as protected.
So which one is best?
If you are doing a daily commute of five kilometres one way solely by unicycle, the SBU V3 gives you up to ten minutes extra per day when you aren’t commuting. And if you live in or ride into really hilly places like much of San Francisco, the SBU V3 gives you much greater comfort that you won’t be sweating the last hundred meters.
If you need the SUV of electric, self-balancing unicycles, with saddle bags capable of carrying groceries for a family of five, the only choice is the RYNO. This is the one for suburban soccer moms, at least the ones who live pretty close to the grocery stores where there are good sidewalks. And who have bigger bank accounts.
Personally, I made my choice months ago. I picked the Solowheel and I’ve been very happy with it. For sheer minimalist awesome, the Solowheel wins hands down. Fold down the pedals, step on and glide away. No hands, no seat, just magic carpet. It’s also the lightest and is the most convenient to carry around.
No one questions me carrying the Solowheel onto subways, into grocery stores or into the backseat of taxis. It’s the size of a round briefcase and has a handle on top. I buy groceries, pick up sushi and ride to the office. I was expecting to be nerdy on the Solowheel, but the most frequent comment I get in Singapore is “Cool!”, and that is from every age group, both sexes and every degree of dressed up and down.