Field Tested: OneWheel

'The world's first self-balancing electric skateboard,' says Future Motion Inc. It's that, plus a lot of fun.

by L. Clark Tate

I was definitely channeling Marty McFly. Not just because I was riding a contraption akin to the hoverboard, but because I felt like a time machine had just dropped me in the quaint little Santa Cruz of 2015 from some future land with way cooler commuting options.

Santa Cruz’s legendary stoke is pulling some really cool tech start-ups, including Kyle Doerksen’s Future Motion Inc. and its first product: OneWheel - a single-wheeled, smart board sport…thing. It’s hard to describe. Electric skateboard is just inaccurate. The company calls it a “Revolutionary Electric Boardsport,” which is accurate, but a bit cumbersome. I’ll just call it fun.

The OneWheel’s skateboard-esque deck is attached to the axis of its single, fatty wheel, which contains the gadget's slightly mysterious electromagnetic motor. Like a Segway, the deck responds to body weight. Lean forward to go forward. Lean back to go backward. The harder you lean, the faster you go.

Kyle Doerksen is OneWheel’s chief engineer, the fiancé of a good friend and an all around great guy. (Santa Cruz is a small town.) So I had tooled around on one of the boards prior to testing it out at OneWheel world headquarters, located at the old Wrigley Building in the West Side’s light-industrial zone. Still, I was a definite newbie on test day and hadn’t prepared myself for the staff’s Jettson-esque zipping around in the broad hallways of the art-filled building.

When they handed over a board I was nervous, walls being what they are. (Really, inside?) But the halls were double-lane wide, so I went for it.

Watch Clark demo the OneWheel, and take a quick little tour of West Side Santa Cruz. (Article continues below video.)

Running on Intuition
Getting on the board is fairly straightforward. At rest it lies cocked to the sky. Simply step on the back, place your other foot across the activating sensor strip on the front of the deck, and press down to rock the board up. Internal sensors help stabilize the surprisingly smooth motion. From there the board can be ridden in either direction, and the corresponding white (head) and red (tail) lights shift to match.

I stepped on, and after stabilizing, leaned forward. The board rolled down the smooth hallway. Sweet!

It’s those self-balancing sensors that have so much appeal. The company’s official “Director of Smilage” Kevin Delaney says there is a “really great entry progression, so you can have fun right away.” He contends that the sport is accessible to “pretty much everyone regardless of age and physical ability,” and, since no one over 30 wants to learn to skateboard, it’s a great way for adults to feel like a kid again.

I feel like a kid on the regular (e.g. tromping, biking, eating cookies), but this definitely worked too.

Then I had to turn around. Turning is tricky at first. It’s hard to know how much pressure to exert and where to exert it. (Tip: As in all things, don’t think too much and look where you want to go.) I expected the OneWheel to have a turning radius akin to a skateboard. It doesn’t. Experienced riders pirouette on these things. After a successful first attempt, I made an arm flailing U-turn and immediately dismounted, not quite correctly.

Ah, the dismount. It’s not physically difficult, but involves brain-to-body connections that might have been be dulled by all that learning and giddy-good fun. To dismount, either jump off with both feet simultaneously (not highly recommended) or reverse the initial process by raising the heel of your front foot to deactivate the sensor, and lowering the back of the deck to the ground. Simple, but precise. I made it clean about 50% of the time.

Doerksen describes the typical learning curve thusly: basics in about five minutes, ready to take off after half an hour or so. I tend to totally lose track of time when having a blast so I can’t specifically corroborate, but it feels about right.

After a bit I stopped overthinking and started cornering a little less effortfully, I sort of forgot I was riding at all. That’s when it got really cool. I’d look at something across the room and, almost unexpectedly, find myself in front of it. Then I’d panic a bit and have to turn or hop off.

Science of Movement
The folks at OneWheel glide around like some future bionic-wheeled race. And this kind of makes sense, given Doerksen education as a neuroscientist.

As he explains it, he basically studied how the brain communicates with the body to drive movement. Then he figured out how to put a brain inside a skateboard so that the board responds to the rider. (Okay, it’s not a brain it’s a computer; same/same.)

Then it was time test that science outside, and off-road. We went from the Wrigley building down to the Natural Bridges State Beach parking lot—a bit less than a mile—touring all sorts of terrain along the way. That big fat wheel rolls just fine on grass, dirt and pavement, over railroad tracks, and on mellow single-track. The lateral instability on the rocky terrain was a challenge. I had to hop off a few times. But boarding a dirt track, even just for a minute, was well worth it.

The fact that every head turned, videos and photos were taken, marketing missions were launched and concluded, and I experienced what felt like my 15 minutes of fame didn’t hurt the stoke factor.

By the end of my session I was comfortable scooting along and could take sharp 90-degree turns and navigate wide-open 180s. My turns were still a little shaky, but I could work some mini-carves and smooth single-track. My dismount could use some work.

I grew up on a gravel road, so I greatly appreciate the possibilities here. Skateboards need pavement, surfboards need waves and snowboards need snow. OneWheeling is basically landboarding, and you don’t even need a mountain.

Electric skateboards (e.g. Boosted Board) feel like skateboards without the work (i.e. super fun), but the OneWheel has a unique motion, slightly more relaxed. This could be because the board is reacting directly to your body instead of to a handheld controller, like most electric boards. If you close your eyes you won’t think you’re snowboarding or surfing, but it’s definitely reminiscent. “We’re not mimicking any one thing,” Delaney says. ”It’s its own thing.”

Riders with board-sport backgrounds tend to approach the OneWheel with the body consciousness gained there. I’ve put most of my deck time in snowboarding. This translates to a tendency to lift my toes or heels to control the direction. That kind of pressure helps when you’re strapped in to a snowboard, and doesn’t when you aren’t.

Specs and Deets
The sensitivity of the self-balancing stabilizers can be adjusted to three different modes: Classic, Extreme and Elevated. Classic means beginner, when the board responds to your every wobble. (Yep, a board that helps you ride it.) Extreme allows for more control, plus you can ride faster (14mph instead of 12mph) and carve harder. The Elevated mode is for climbing hills, automatically angling the front of the deck upward so it doesn’t scrape when you lean forward to accelerate uphill. This is also meant for trail ridding if you’re rock hopping, or dodging. It’s easy to switch between modes for high-efficiency cruising.

And these modes are App-enabled, so when OneWheel releases an update you can download it through your phone. They cleverly call this Digital Shaping. So instead of a quiver of boards, you have a quiver of modes. Less expensive, and it takes up less wall space!

The motor fully charges for 6-8 miles of riding in 20 minutes and has just one moving part (i.e. no gears or chains). Due to its mechanical minimalism and protected location, the motor is weatherproof and said to be maintenance free. But, if you’re ruthless, you could trash the deck. Built-in regenerative breaking means that the OneWheel generate electricity to recharge the battery on descents, al la Prius. Nifty.

The OneWheel, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign and began shipping back in April, sells for $1,500, and comes with a one-year warranty. The boards are built in San Jose.

And, of course, the kids are getting good. Pro surfers and skaters are carving it up, bringing different moves and perspectives. Kelly Slater tried out one of the early, more roughly hewn models and made it work. Doerksen attributes this to his “cyborg balance.”

To creator Doerksen, “it’s just fun.” Doerksen, a snowboarder, developed the idea on his mile-long walks to work while daydreaming of powder turns. Apparently he decided to eliminate boring walks forever. According to him there’s just one question to ask yourself, “Are you surfing to the surf check?”

To get a sense of what's really possible with this thing, check out FutureMotion’s awesome promo video, “Onewheel: The World is Your Playground.”


Field Notes

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