Friday, January 27, 2006

Background

Sometime in the fall of 1995 my friend Craig Meyer and I were somewhat impressed with a little electric scooter one of the Frosh had put together that he used to run around campus and get to class on. At that point you couldn't just go down to your local auto parts store and pick one up for $99, you actually had to build the thing.

We'd often bullshitted about various ridiculously elaborate ways of getting to class. Among our group of friends, bicycles, inline skates, and skateboards were popular (at one point some of my friends even started work on an motorized sofa). But bicycles had to be locked up (the Honor Code notwithstanding, ripping off bikes was popular pastime among the local ne'er-do-wells), inline skates had to be doffed (or you had to wear those silly little Metroblade™ slippers in class), and skateboards were a pain in the ass on the way back which was mostly up a gentle slope. And our Alma Mater's trademark unicycles were, well, just plain goofy.

After considering and rejecting things like self-balancing electric unicycles (well beyond our abilities) and blatantly copying the electric scooter (it'd been done), we considered and rejected an electric skateboard that responded to changes in weight distribution by accelerating or decelerating.

Fast forward a few years, and Craig and I were both working for a company called AeroVironment, with myself in beautiful downtown Monrovia, California (the hottest city in the L.A. basin), and Craig and hour-and-change away in beautiful downtown Simi Valley (home of a Denny's that closes).

AeroVironment had a subsidiary that made a very neat electric bicycle called the Charger Bike. The ChargerBike was unique in that it didn't have any sort of conventional throttle. Rather it used a torque sensor on the chain to match or multiply (or sub-multiply) your pedal effort with electric assist. This made it totally transparent to ride, except that it gave you superhuman strength (at least while pedaling it. For an hour or so before the battery went flat).

The fact that smart people at a real company were excited about making the control of an electric vehicle completely transparent got us excited again about the whole electric skateboard thing. It could be a ChargerBike that you could tote on the bus with you or stick in the trunk of your car (don't get me started—it's a long story). After a bit of legal yada yada to get permission to develop it independently and retain control over any results, we set about building a proof-of-concept model. By the fall of '98 we actually had a prototype that worked for about 30 seconds before it caught fire (literally).

In April of 2000 I was a bit dismayed to find a patent granted that covered the idea pretty thoroughly. Both Craig and I were busy with other things and we again let it go dormant for a couple more years.

The company that was granted the patent was absorbed by ZAP Inc. and apparently they didn't pay maintenance fees on the patent, as it expired in April of 2004. I'm not sure if they have any recourse, but it appears that the technology is essentially in the public domain at this point.

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