Wheels of success

A Jerusalem student revamps commuting with his new invention - a 14 kg. motorized machine.

the rider (photo credit: )
the rider
(photo credit: )
Being close to campus is important - which is why college students search frantically for the limited number of apartments or dorm rooms within a short distance of their universities. But Jerusalem student Elisha Wetherhorn is actually delighted that he didn't find a conveniently located place to live - otherwise the Rider, his invention designed to ease the plight of commuters like himself, might never have been born. Now he's hoping his urban tricycle will soon be a common sight in centers around the world, with interest already expressed from potential investors in Tel Aviv, India, London and the US, and Web sites from the UK to China and Russia taking an interest in his design. Wetherhorn, a student at Hadassah College's School for Industrial Design, likes to think of himself as a problem solver. "Industrial design is making a difference for a better life," the 28-year-old resident of Moshav Elazar in Gush Etzion says. Indeed, that was the assignment for his final project - "find a problem and look for a solution as industrial designers." His idea: to create a sidewalk vehicle to speed commuters to their final destinations once they get off the bus or light rail system. First he examined the existing products like the Segway, a two-wheeled vehicle working on a gyro system. But the Segway can't be sat on, and at 36 kilograms, it can't be taken on the bus, either. Illegal to ride on roads or sidewalks in Israel, the item also costs about $6,000, and hasn't really caught on in a big way. There had to be a better alternative, reasoned Wetherhorn. First he took his search to the commuters themselves. "I spent a whole day riding the trains to Tel Aviv giving out questionnaires, asking them how they would solve the problem. That led me to realize that people don't want to get tired, they don't want to be sweaty, they don't want to ride a bike - but they do want something that can take them from the bus station to their office or back home, and that's how I came up with this idea for kind of a folding bike, which you don't have to pedal since it has an electric motor and rechargeable battery. You can fold it and take it onto the bus - it weighs just 14 kg. - and you don't have to pedal it," he says. The lean, mean moving machine has three wheels, with the electric motor tucked neatly inside the front one. The rechargeable battery takes two hours to charge and can be used for up to four hours, and the whole device folds up to just about a meter high. When you turn the handlebars, it moves forward - turn the handlebars the opposite way and it brakes. It also has a hand brake so you can stop immediately if necessary. "The wheels are 10 inches [25 cm.] high, so you can stand near this bike on the bus while everybody's looking at you saying: 'Wow, I want one like that,'" says Wetherhorn with a smile. Two clicks to open it, sit down, and you're on your way to the office. The sitting area is about as big as that of a scooter or moped, but the design went through a few stages, with the help of relatives and the always helpful Israeli passersby. "The entire time I was developing it, my family members kept coming up with things I should do or look into. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it was just more trouble," he jokes. To get a better vision of what was necessary, Wetherhorn became a rider himself. "The first thing I did was to buy myself a bike and start riding it in town. It made a huge difference," recalls Wetherhorn. "Now I was the one riding the bike and I knew what it felt like. I could see the difference in the time I was spending, and the convenience." "I started sketching at college, at home, anytime. I was always drawing, Da Vinci type drawings, looking for solutions," he says. But each design had its own challenges. "Every time you think you may have come up with the right thing, it brings up more problems. For example, once you have three wheels, you have to figure out how they are all going to connect into one hinge to make it simple to fold. One of the things I found out was that even if you have this magical, great invention, if it takes you 10 minutes to put it together, people won't bother. You have to keep it simple." At the college workshop, he built a mockup from metal and whatever wheels he could get is hands on. "You sit on it and try to roll it down the road, and see if it's really the right size and proportion. I took it for a test ride outside the school. People look at you and say: 'OK, what's he doing?' It's a little weird to see something like this. Everyone with an opinion comes over and tells you that you should've done it this way, or that way..." Of course, as with any vehicle, there were some bumps along the way, especially a struggle to figure out how to devise a mechanism that would allow for folding, but prevent users from falling off when they turned sharply. Eventually a friend remembered a scooter and skateboard designed by BMW that had such a mechanism, leaving a relieved Wetherhorn feeling "like suddenly I had wings again." After about a year of work, the Rider was born, and the design landed Wetherhorn a spot as a finalist in his school's industrial design exhibit. More recently, The Rider also won first prize in the Jerusalem based Organization of Industrialists competition. And the design's success spread internationally when the Singaporean "Red Dot" design competition named the Rider among its winners this month. Admiring his handiwork as it stands in the window of a Jerusalem Municipality display, Wetherhorn says: "It gives you a good feeling when people walk in from the street, see this and say: " 'Wow, it's an ingenious idea, who did it?' " Wetherhorn envisions people cruising on the Rider on the streets of New York or even Tokyo. While it remains to be seen whether the wheels of the Rider become his personal wheels of fortune, the Israeli designer is happy to have achieved his ultimate goal: solving the problem of urban transportation, thanks to a great apartment left unfound.