Q&A: SUPERPEDESTRIAN


Superpedestrian was founded in 2012 by Assaf Biderman. He has brought together a team of designers and robotics engineers with a vision to transform urban mobility. Their first idea: pedal power. With an exclusive license of MIT’s Copenhagen Wheel, they are bringing the bike revolution to streets around the world.

Interview by Stefane Barbeau | 05.12.2017

Stefane: Hello! Great to meet you. Thanks so much for your time to talk about what you’re doing and how design factors into it.

Assaf: Yes, great to meet you as well. I taught design for a while at MIT; I fully support design. I found that a lot of people would study here in Boston, but not a lot stay, so it’s good that DIGMA is focused on showing the advantages of the design industry in the state. I really enjoy thinking about the deep impact of design. To me, I like to see design as an exploration of how things could be, instead of how things are (that’s science). I’m also interested in emotion. Good design turns the sum of all the technology in a product into magic.

Stefane: Your product looks like a fantastic venture. Was the wheel conceived from a tech standpoint or a design standpoint first?

Assaf: It’s hard to separate the two. We had been looking at the biggest problems of cities, and how cities can be transformed by technology. We can tackle challenges of urbanization using technology. Very soon the majority of people on the planet will be living in cities. By tackling cities, we can impact the whole planet. Transportation came up in our research of the problems associated with urbanization around 40 percent of the time. It impacts so much – health, pollution, efficiency. It’s also a very tangible problem. I’ve done some work on self-driving cars, and realized that if the promise is to enable sharing in order to have less cars on the road, the big question is: do we have the right vehicles on the road? We need different form factors. There’s a limit to how much your routine can be shared…a 5-person car would not be efficient since everyone needs to go somewhere different and there would wind up being a lot of redundant routing.

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Right now, the option is to take a car, walk, or bike. Walking or biking are not best because of the sheer size of cities, and they’re growing. So our design challenge basically asked: what can be a great way to enable one-person transport? A bike is close, but it has limitations right now in its current state.

“Good design turns the sum of all the technology in a product into magic.”

So we thought – let’s power a bike. But that’s been done, of course. more than 100 years ago. And it’s a booming market. Average units cost 3K. But they’re not sophisticated. Somehow the design industry skipped over those! We’re convinced this is the key area to apply newer tech and design expertise…How can we make this affordable? How can we improve this product to suit our current predicament and aim for the future?

We took 3.5 years with the best engineers in the New England area. What we’ve created is in a totally different class from anything out there. But it’s also a retrofit – we offer a full bike as well as just the wheel to put on your own bike – so the economics change completely. We’re changing the experience of the product AND the distribution. We know the design work has to be holistic. Design has to touch on every aspect of the development and distribution process.

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This needs to feel like a regular bike, but enhanced, and not like a ’special bike’  or a moped. We had to work hard on human perceptions of effort and motion. This is where the design work gets deep: We had to mitigate human perception with computer actions. At this point it was just an idea, though, not based on market studies. We had to design sensors and controllers to process this info and control the equipment before we could even start to get worthwhile user feedback.

“We know the design work has to be holistic. Design has to touch on every aspect of the development and distribution process.”

Stefane: This sounds like a quintessential design process you followed. Were there any unexpected revelations?

Assaf: Yes, many. The first was attracting people to work on this who had experience in such things; the first two years was mostly engineering, then 18 months of testing and validation. we learned so much about the bicycling industry – it’s so different from what we were trying to do in terms of technology, assembly and distribution. Even the existing electric bikes didn’t offer much in terms of expertise to draw from. At one point, we just had to take a leap of faith into the unknown.

Stefane: How’s the feeback?

Assaf: 99.9 percent good. People are very positive about it. That includes the people who have pre-ordered and have been waiting for a really long time. Some of the people who have the wheel now say they sold their car, and they’re not using Uber. This product competes, really, with those giants.

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Stefane: Were there disasters where your solid design process helped save things?

Assaf: We follow a strict procedure, so it’s hard to think of one because design is what keeps us on track in the first place. But when we started there was a disconnect between design thinking and the methodology of the engineers. Some of them are from another generation, although great in their field. When we tried to integrate engineering and design from the get-go, the attitude was engineering-led, and it was hard to undo it. But once a common language was set up, there was harmony. The extraction of complexity in the design was also applied to the mechanics. It took a lot of discussion for everyone to get on the same page, but it’s all about communicating an idea or concept, and everyone gets that now.

Stefane: What’s an example of best use of design at Superpedestrian?

Assaf: Here’s an example of where the process worked best: we have a wheel shape that starts thicker and ends thinner so that it appears to be more sophisticated. So we wanted to know if this would work from an engineering perspective as well. The connection point of a standard wheel for the spokes is through a flange so spokes have a tensile system with strong connections. But we wanted to maintain the thin edge, so one of our engineers spent time thinking about this and realized we could have two spokes shaped into a V with a tangent connection point where there used to be a flange. We made a continuous v-shaped spoke, basically, and achieved design and engineering harmony.

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Another example, maybe a better one because it’s so central to what we’re offering, is the power control: in very simple terms, we imagined the experience for the user – consistent effort despite terrain – then engineered it. We truly designed with the user in mind and that’s central to the success and appeal of the product. Especially when we get into grey areas of how something is meant to ‘feel’…that’s where design needs to lead.

Stefane: Can you talk about the supply chain? How are you pulling this off in Cambridge?

Assaf: Primary manufacturing is in Massachusetts. We have suppliers in Asia, USA and Europe. It’s an unexpected blend. We’re manufacturing in Cambridge because we need to be close to the floor.

“Especially when we get into grey areas of how something is meant to ‘feel’…that’s where design needs to lead.”

Stefane: Why are you located in MA?

Assaf: For me, it’s very particular. I wanted to stay in Massachusetts because this is where I’ve lived and had the first part of my career. But also, it’s the hotbed of robotic engineers. It’s human enhancement. It’s a specialty. Not a lot of people in the world can do that. New England is a special hub for this, and it would be very hard for us to do this elsewhere.

Stefane: What challenges do you face with hiring design talent (inside or outside)?

Assaf: I wish there was even more access to designers, but we have a good resource of people from RISD, and also from Cambridge.

Stefane: What other companies do you admire?

Assaf: Ha! I don’t consume much. But there are products that I use…some obvious examples…I like the Iphone 4, I like my vacuum chamber – it’s a form that came out of a very simple mechanical solution. I like the interplay of design, function, feel, and engineering. It’s a balance.

Stefane:  Thanks Assaf!

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