Whether we are riding a bike, or need to use a wheelchair, comfort often ranks pretty high when getting around using a human-powered wheeled vehicle. The problem is, most bike and wheelchair wheels are built to be really stiff.
Israeli farmer Gilad Wolf developed the SoftWheel after breaking his pelvis in 2008. The accident left him tending his fields in a wheelchair, and he found that getting across the rough ground in a normal unsprung chair was very uncomfortable. So to make his life a little easier, he decided to create a wheel that wouldn't rattle his filling out.
The SoftWheel takes one of the basic principles of wheel design, that the hub needs to be in the center of the wheel, and tosses it out. With the SoftWheel the rim is supported by three spokes that are hinged at each end, in a way that lets the angle between them and the rim change. A gas shock inside each spoke keeps the hub centered when there's no external force being applied, but add enough pressure and the hub can move by several inches. This not only absorbs the shock of hitting an obstruction on the ground, but it also stores the energy in a way that propels the wheel forward as it recovers.
Wolf claims that this makes the SoftWheel more efficient than a normal stiff wheel, although I think that claim needs more analysis. If the SoftWheel really works better than a stiff wheel, why aren't competitive bike racers adopting this technology?
SoftWheel CEO Daniel Barel says that he eventually sees the SoftWheel concept being applied to everything from trains and cars, to aircraft landing gear. It can also be adapted to bikes with other high-tech features, such as the powered Copenhagen Wheel.
Initially, the SoftWheel will be available in two forms, the Acrobat for wheelchairs, and the Fluent for two-wheeled bicycles. Pricing is expected to be around $2,000 a pair, or around $400 more than a high-end pair of standard wheels. Delivery is expected towards the end of this year.