Onewheel — Pragmatic Commuter Tool or The Secret To Eternal Youth?

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I had only ever seen a “Onewheel” once and was not impressed. They seemed like a great way to die, on an electric vehicle. So, it was good to get two very different perspectives on the device when I met with Derek and Stewart at Roma Street Parkland in the Brisbane CBD last Friday. It is worth noting that they are both engineers, one retired, the other still working.

You will remember Derek Harris from my article on Fiat Spider conversions. He has a very pragmatic view of his Onewheel. He commutes 7 km to work on a Onewheel, which travels about 25 km per hour. He reckons that in the first 18 months he has saved as much on bus tickets as he paid for his device. He says the demographic of Onewheel riders is “weird” – young ones doing tricks for giggles and older people, like himself, who are fascinated by the physics. There is lots to look at on YouTube here and here.

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Derek and Stewart onewheeling at Roma Street Parkland. Photo courtesy of Majella Waterworth.

Stewart is recently retired and bought the Onewheel as a challenge. He rode it straight up to the outdoor table where we were going to have coffee. “It’s so manoeuvrable at low speeds, I can take it anywhere,” he tells me. He then launches into an enthusiastic account of his life with the Onewheel in retirement. “I’m not a 15-year-old with a death wish. I just wanted a challenge.” And it was.

He couldn’t find anywhere to purchase a Onewheel in Australia, so he bought his from the US manufacturer — Future Motion — 3 years ago for about AU$1700 — the pint. It was a painful job getting it through customs and paying the duty. He decided to buy a cheaper version (Derek’s cost twice as much) just in case he didn’t like it, or had an accident and decided Onewheeling was not for him. He recounts how he clung to the railings of a pedestrian bridge as he spent 3 hours learning how to balance on the board. Watching him now circling around the wide pathways of the parklands, he reminds me of a figure skater. A much younger figure skater.

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Here is the bridge where Stewart practised riding his Onewheel. Photo courtesy of Majella Waterworth.

Stewart says he had to reprogram his brain and muscles. It is a completely different hands-free experience: “Like snowboarding, on concrete.” Both men wear full safety gear. Stewart can ride a bike but he has never been on a skateboard. During COVID, he used his Onewheel every day to explore the parklands. Being hands-free means you can have a sip of water while you ride. “My one wheel only weighs 12 kg, yet it carries 90 kg me up the hills of the parklands!”

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Hands-free riding means you can have a sip of water. Photo courtesy of Majella Waterworth.

Derek and Stewart were work colleagues. Stewart was aware that Derek rode a Onewheel, but until Stewart committed to purchase, they hadn’t really discussed it. Then, the Onewheel came out of the work cupboard and Stewart went for a ride.

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Leaping lizards, it’s a Onewheel! Photo courtesy of Majella Waterworth.

Although Stewart’s one wheel is capable of 26 km per hour, he generally rides at speeds below 20 km per hour. The app on his watch links to the one wheel and shows his speed. On a recent outing he drove to Coolangatta (on the Gold Coast) then rode for about 12 km along the sea front. He was travelling into a headwind so used a lot of power on the way out, but picked up range on the way back with a tailwind.

Derek has travelled about 13,000 km on his Onewheel (“I’ve done 3,716 on mine,” says Stewart). Apparently, there is a global leaderboard for hands-free distance travelled. The current #1 has done over 60,000 km in the USA. The #1 in Australia has done 45,000.

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Onewheel global leader board. Photo courtesy of Derek Harris.

What about charging, I ask? Stewart’s Onewheel battery has a capacity of 145 watt/hours. Since he pays 20¢ per kWh to charge, he can charge up his device for about 2 cents, which gives him 12 km of range. Even after 3,176 km ridden, Stewart has noticed no degradation of the battery. Derek’s battery is 380 Wh and it gives him a range of 25 km. The battery is charged within the device and never left fully charged. It is usually kept at 50% and charged up just before use.

At about 10,000 km, Derek had to change his battery because it had degraded to 70%, which would only give him a range of 20 km. Future Motion does not sell replacement batteries. There is an aftermarket for supply of replacement batteries, though. Derek purchased a battery which had done about 1000 km. “With the replacement battery, the board felt more alive and responsive,” he tells me. There are guides on YouTube for working on your Onewheel, and cottage industries that will supply parts here and here.

With no belts or gears and no need of lubrication, all you have to do is charge it up and check the tyre pressure.

Future Motion, which supplied his Onewheel, does not support the rights of owners to repair. Stewart wore his tyre down and even got to the place where there was a hole in it. Future Motion wanted him to freight the Onewheel back to the States to have the tyre changed. Not only would this prove very expensive, but he would be without his favourite mode of transport for 3 months. Fortunately, both Derek and Stewart are engineers. Derek sourced a go-kart tyre and they swapped them over.

While Stewart is recovering his youth, gliding around the parklands, Derek’s Onewheel use is 99% work related — as a convenient and cheap commuter vehicle. He used to ride his bike to work and arrive in dire need of a shower. Now he arrives refreshed from a ride through the leafy bike paths on his one wheel. He avoids roads as much as he can. These men are fortunate to ride in Queensland, as the Onewheel (like other personal electric vehicles) is illegal in most Australian states. However, in Queensland, a personal mobility device is defined as having one or more wheels and is legal for use.

Roma Street Parkland waterfall. Photo courtesy of Majella Waterworth.

I asked Derek if he had any issues riding the Onewheel. He tells me that 3 times over the past 4 years he has had cars come out of blind driveways. One time he was moving too fast to stop as a lady in a rush came out of the driveway and then stopped, blocking the whole footpath. Derek left a metre long black skid mark and ended up collecting the car with his hip — at about 18 km/ hour. The Onewheel has no traditional brakes — everything is done with balance and regenerative braking. Stewart tells me he can stop dead in 6 metres. If you need to stop quicker, you can drop the back of the board to make contact with the path.

Fortunately, there were no ongoing medical issues, but it did open up a conversation about how well a Onewheel rider is covered by insurance. Apparently, the Onewheel is covered by household insurance if stolen, but it is a grey area when it comes to traffic accidents.

Derek also makes sure he keeps an eye out for poodles and small children. Of all dogs, he tells me, “poodles are the ones most likely to have a go at you.” No idea why — the motor is silent and there is little tyre noise. He occasionally meets a local dogwalker who usually has their poodle on a lead. The dog tends to jump around at the end of the lead as he passes. Sometimes the poodle is not on its lead and chases him down the path for a 100 meters or so. Derek and the dog owner have had some good chats.

Both men try to sell me the merits of the Onewheel – out in the open air, works your quads, good for your core strength (Stewart got a little sore when he first started). But I don’t have the balance – those who know me might say I have always been a little unbalanced. Even though he gets a great deal of pleasure from riding, Stewart tells me you don’t want to get a cramp, or an itch or sneeze! You have to focus on your riding.

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Modified Onewheel for riding in the snow. Photo courtesy of Derek Harris.

Talking to Stewart reminds me of hearing surfers talk — the board becomes part of your body, an extension of your feet. It will sense a fraction of a degree as you shift your weight and balance to keep you on. Thank you, Bodhi. You have to maintain your balance left and right, the board will handle the front and back.

They both see the Onewheel as life enhancing — on a pathway along the creek, not on the roads, lots of fresh air, exercising and balancing. Stewart takes his to go shopping, a 7 km round trip, with 10 kg of groceries in his back pack on the way home. If he forgets something, he is happy to have to do the trip again.

It was a real pleasure to interview these riders, and watch as they demonstrated what their boards could do. Derek has an economically and environmentally friendly way to get to work, and Stewart is having fun.

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Spider body now painted. Photo courtesy of Derek Harris.

As a bonus, above is the photo of Derek’s Fiat Spider — now freshly painted in an original Fiat colour.

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David Waterworth

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

David Waterworth has 729 posts and counting. See all posts by David Waterworth