Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Apr 2020

The Parlee Cycles and Toyota Prius Project

Reposting from my personal blog — from 2011 — with a few small edits because it’s a view remembered and maybe worth exploring anew

Parleee Cycles Toyota Prius Project bike shown at SXSW 201X via John Prolly / The Radivist

For a number of weeks, on an on and off basis, I’ve been following John Prolly’s documenting of a project he and Parlee Cycles is doing with Toyota. Essentially, what they are doing is taking the ethos of the Prius and distilling that into a bicycle. What they came up with is amazing, ingenious, and to me, points at a possible detour towards the discussion towards doping in professional cycling.

First, the Amazing Notes

When I first read about this project (have been following this site for some time), I raised my eye, but no more so than when a car company usually gets a bicycle designed and made for them – then slaps their labels on them. An exercise, and probably a few components that make the hardcore folks go “ooh,” but at the end of the day its a ride that’s much more the showpiece than it is something to live with. I was surprised.

It wasn’t so much that it was a bike, but that it was to point towards incorporating technologies inspired by Prius design philosophies. In effect, ending not so much with a hybrid bicycle, but one that takes the basic idea of transportation, and pushes it to an attainable and innovative plateau.

Then, the Ingenious Additions

Of course, you’ll have a bicycle made by a (very good) and small frame builder that’s basically funded by one of the largest automotive outfits in the world. So that means that you’ll actually get to pass around ideas that would ordinarily be thrown out because of timelines and the lack of a budget. One of the posts talked about the design of the rear that was to look like the drawing, but was essentially a few pieces of the frame joints welded together.

At this point I should bow out of the really techincally bicycle engineering talk because I go “ooh” and “ok” way too much.

But it was really interesting when they talked about changing the way a bike shifts gears. Instead of simply being able to use your fingers, or doing one of those heavy automatic shifting jobs (I had the Auto-Bike, it was heavy and the chain broke less than a week into owning it), they built a means for the rider to shift the bike by thinking. They developed a system that worked inside of a modified helmet which sent wireless signals to the bike to cause it to shift. All the wearer needed to do was to “train” for about 10 minutes and then they were able to shift. That’s Prius-like innovation in my book.

A Possible Future of Professional Cycling

When they got to the end of the project, my thoughts were going in one direction – and you can blame the Tour de France for it totally: what if professional bicycling added that component where all of the shifting happened from a helmet and their brain waves? What if, instead of simply relying on skill, instinct, and muscle memory, that their brains had to be reengaged to racing because the bike was literally an extension of their brain (not just their bodies)?

I went out on a ride a few days after that post and just kind of let my imagination take over on that thought. Here I am, purely a consumer just riding. Something like using my mind to shift would be too much like a workout. At least at this point. But, I do like the idea of the bicycle (probably assisted by linking it to my mobile) learning how I shift, logging how I ride, and adjusting on the fly faster than I can shift. Like I said earlier, I had that Auto-Bike, it made a lot of sense and added to the fun of riding in a way that shifting yourself just doesn’t do.

But, when I framed it against professional cycling – a sport being marred by doping and banging hard against the physical limitations of the body and machine – it makes all kinds of sense to go that route. Thinking even for something that’s as grueling as the Tour de France, to not only have to keep your body in check, but your mind has to be even more ready to adapt to the course since they would be “one with the bike.” Would there be issues such as small computers making up for mental disabilities in some competitors? Sure. Could that be seen on a brain scan, and probably easier diagnosed than doping? Probably so. Would sure make for a crazy race when the more emotional cyclists throw their shifting out of wack because of how they respond to something surprising.

Where Do We Bike from Here

When I look at The Toyota Prius Bicycle Project, that’s where my mind goes. Not so much that sustainability and efficiency need to be thrown out. At the time of this writing, I’m wondering how that aspect of building and maintaining a bicycle was addressed. But, to integrate those kinds of technologies that could effectively get a person even closer to the road. To take away that last bit of friction and disconnect between thinking about moving and being at a place powered by your body – that excites me about that project to no end. And the best place to see that, with the athletes who seem as if they are admitting that there’s no other place for them to go but towards assisted substances.

Which lands at the rest of us. Can we see something changing about bicycling that should make more sense. Biking because its fun, exercise, or a form of transportation is one layer. But beyond that, is there something that could better improve our relationship to the land under our wheels? Have we truly exhausted the bicycle and how it extends our abilities to travel? Or, as this project seems to indicate, have we not even begun to let loose our minds to the possibilities?