For a brief moment in human history, we thought we knew how to make a vehicle. Stick a drivetrain in a frame, slap two to four wheels on it, and hop on. The resulting form factors—cars, bicycles, tricycles, mopeds—have worked for 200 years, and much longer if you count the horse-drawn carriage among such devices.
But for some, it was never quite enough. There had to be a way to optimize the model even further. What if, stability be damned, we could travel on just one wheel alone?
Humans have been designing and riding ridiculous means of transit since the dawn of the machine age. The penny farthing. The dicycle. The Segway. But the concept of the monowheel has persisted through every fad and technological breakthrough. The notion has woven its way, on its single spinning pie plate, through the public consciousness for over a century. But now, thanks to technological advancements like self-balancing systems and powerful electric motors, the monowheel has gone from a fringe curiosity to a legitimate means of transportation.
Dreams of Future Past
Monocycles were born as unwieldy, impossible things. One of the first known designs, from the 1860s, is a complicated contraption with one huge outer wheel, connected to multiple smaller inside wheels that were pedaled by a human operator who sat in the middle of it all. That same basic idea—a person sitting, like a gerbil, inside a giant wheel—persisted as others tried to make it a viable way of getting across town. But while the designs could vary widely, they all shared a common feature: Every one of them toppled over with ease.
“It’s an inherently unstable form factor,” says micromobility expert Oliver Bruce. He’s a New Zealand native who advises governments and regulators on new vehicles for Micromobility Industries. He says the personal vehicle revolution is more likely to be led by scooters and e-bikes, though he doesn’t discount the appeal of the single-wheeler.
“I think there's something kind of clean about it,” Bruce says. “There’s almost a magic to it. It brings out something that’s almost intangible.”
As impractical as monowheels are, they have come to serve as visual shorthand for outlandish futurism. They graced many a cover of Popular Science magazine through the 1920s and '30s. They pop up in sci-fi franchises like Star Wars, Jurassic World, and Men in Black to signify a more technologically advanced world beyond our own.
But in the last decade, our own world has been catching up. The new vanguards of the single wheel focused less on making human-sized hamster balls and more on making smaller, more maneuverable personal transportation. Bruce attributes the current viability of the micro-monowheel to a confluence of technological advancements.
By Alex Davies
“One-wheels have existed for a long time,” Bruce says. “Why did they not take off in the '20s? Because they're really hard to ride. They’re weird vehicles. But if you have a good-quality powertrain and some sort of computation that can help remove some of that steep learning curve, then it makes it easier for these vehicles to take off and for people to be able to use them.”
As the cost of building rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and electric motors has plummeted, it has become feasible to assemble personal vehicles that are both powerful and compact. Gyroscopes and accelerometers have become easy to source, thanks to smartphones. Segway, despite all its shortcomings, advanced the cause with its self-balancing technology. In 2004, Canadian inventor Trevor Blackwell used that technology to create a self-balancing “Eunicycle.” Inventor Shane Chen, who also created the electric standing unicycle Solowheel, created the first hoverboard in 2012. It soon exploded in popularity (and sometimes just exploded). From there, the micro-monowheel was ready to roll, so to speak.
“I could not have made a gas-powered Onewheel,” says Kyle Doerksen, CEO of Future Motion and inventor of the Onewheel board. “It just wouldn't have been possible until, you know, we had certain building blocks available.”
If you somehow haven’t seen one before, the Onewheel looks like a skateboard, but with one fat tire plunked directly in the middle of the board. You plant your feet on the deck on either side of the wheel and lean the direction you want to go. Internal sensors adjust your speed depending on how much of your weight shifts forward or backward.
Future Motion commercially launched the Onewheel in 2014. Doerksen declined to provide hard sales numbers, but he says that since launch the company has amassed “many tens of thousands of people” who ride Onewheels.
For Onewheel riders like Chris Romine, his devotion stems from the unique experience the rideable offers.
“In an odd way, the single wheel is both the Onewheel’s best feature and biggest detraction,” Romine says.
Romine got into riding the device because he saw it as the closest way to replicate the experience of snowboarding. He says he rides between 300 and 400 miles per month on a Onewheel.
“Once you get good with a Onewheel, you really never have to get off until you’re walking in the door of wherever you’re going,” Romine says. “Other devices don’t have that degree of usability.”
That usability comes with risks. Wrecking is seen as almost a rite of passage of Onewheel ownership. Take a look at the community’s subreddit and it feels like every third post is another newly humbled rider displaying the gory aftermath of their recent “nosedive.” Smooth riding comes with a learning curve. Adherents say that’s to be expected, of course.
“Why do we stand up on two legs?” Doerksen says. “That's really hard and computationally intensive. You know, we're not as fast as a cheetah, but there's a lot of benefits to being up in a position that maybe has to fight physics a little bit but has a bunch of upsides.”
Adventurous riders like Romine approach this kind of device with the knowledge that things can get gnarly quick. But for single-wheels to reach a wider audience, they need to appeal to people who would rather just hop on and get moving than learn a whole sport. Namely, people just trying to get to work.
If cities are the future of humanity, then micromobility is the future of cities. Road infrastructure has largely failed to accommodate the influx of cars that swarm over them. Electric personal vehicle use has exploded as people search for ways to conquer that last mile of their commute. Cities looking to support their burgeoning populations are learning that their streets need to be reconfigured to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and small electric vehicles—single-wheelers included.
Electric unicycles, like the kinds made by InMotion and King Song, are designed for the commuter. The rider stands upright, facing forward as they zoom down the street (or, if they’re terrible people, the sidewalk), the single wheel spinning around between their ankles.
Jeff Wills is the experience director at Electric Unicycle Collective (EUCO), an organization of unicycle evangelists that aims to educate riders and advocate for the proliferation of the devices. (The organization also helps sell them.) Wills sees the electric unicycle as an antidote to the congestion that clogs city roads.
“I think in the future we're going to look back at this time and it's going to be one of those things that’s hard to explain to our kids that we all spent so much time in our cars in traffic,” Wills says. He adds, “Life becomes so impersonal when you are going to work every day and not interacting with people. Once you start to experience life from your feet again it is profound. It is life changing.”
Despite the passion they inspire, there’s a lot working against the monowheel. Physics, for one, but also that fairly steep learning curve to operate them. It’s not usually intuitive for a person to balance on an object that has one relatively narrow point of contact on the ground while they hurtle forward at 20 mph. People like Doerksen and the folks at EUCO say it’s no harder than learning to ride a bike, but the mini-monowheel’s complexity is still a liability for widespread adoption. Especially when dead-simple devices like electric scooters literally litter the streets.
“I think you will see companies migrating from things that are harder toward the direction of things that are easier to ride,” says Robert Bigler, CEO of Hoverboard Technologies. Hoverboard manufactured the GeoBlade, a single-wheeled board that resembles a Onewheel, aside from the much skinnier tire at the center. They sold well at first, but in recent months the company has suspended manufacturing the GeoBlade. Hoverboard Tech hasn't gone out of business, Bigler says, it's trying to figure out whether it makes sense to base the business around a single-wheeled device.
“It's the quintessential form of transportation,” Bigler says. “But people just don't want to go through that learning curve.”
If you look at the monowheel in terms of its newfound high-tech status, it serves as an embodiment of the Silicon Valley ethos: Take something with structure, strip it down to its most core function, then build it back into something different. And then make it light up, probably. So what if its basic usage relies on complicated software and internal machinery to achieve the same result we get from a bicycle? It’s cool, damn it!
This desire to move around on a single wheel is a desire for simplicity and impossibility at the same time. Perhaps that comes from defiance—a rejection of human limitations that drives us to transcend our bipedal existence.
“Instead of us conforming to the shape of a seat in a car or riding a bike, this is actually the next step in transhumanism,” Rose Wang, the founder of EUCO says. “We basically are human, but we are augmented by machines. This is really pushing us toward that direction, where we're not just interfacing with this machine, this machine actually becomes a part of us.”
A niche shouldn’t be mistaken for a fad. The enduring allure of the monowheel captures the attention of enough people that it’s likely single-wheeled vehicles are here to stay for the long haul. If nothing else, they give us a glimpse of the oddities that the future of personal vehicles holds. Oliver Bruce, the micromobility expert, compares it to the prehistoric Cambrian Period, in which life on Earth evolved from simple-celled organisms into uncountable, wildly diverse lifeforms.
“This is really like the tip of the iceberg in some ways, in terms of what is going to emerge,” Bruce says. “The Cambrian explosion of micromobility is coming. And it's just going to get weirder and weirder.”
Correction Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m.: The launch date of the Onewheel has been updated. It first became commercially available via Kickstarter in 2014, not 2016.