The Wheel, Reinvented

5,000 years later, the wheel gets an Israeli update

With a flexible shock absorption system built into the wheel itself, SoftWheel boosts stability without sacrificing speed — in wheelchairs, bikes, cars, even planes

A SoftWheel wheel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A SoftWheel wheel (Photo credit: Courtesy)

SoftWheel, an Israeli company, is giving a high-tech update to the wheel, the ancient engine of civilization that enabled humans to explore their world.

Its new technology, focused around a flexible shock absorption system built into the wheel itself, allows for better stability when needed without sacrificing speed. “With all due modesty, I say that what we have created is a game changer,” said Daniel Barel, CEO of SoftWheel. “Our wheel technology can be developed for and retrofitted to any vehicle,” notably including bikes, cars and jet planes.

The airline industry is already in touch with SoftWheel, and the company sees immense potential there. But planes and automobiles will have to wait a while, Barel said, as the Israeli firm is focused first on wheelchairs and bikes.

“People in the airline industry heard about what we were doing, and asked us to develop landing gear incorporating our technology,” said Barel. “We weren’t sure it could be done at first, but, after doing some work on the project, we became convinced that it could be done, and could save airlines lots of money. We’re now developing the landing gear system, which will eliminate the need for the expensive hydraulics currently used to ensure that a plane lands properly. This technology has not been updated in sixty years.”

Still, in planes and cars, “it takes years to make changes. They have to be approved and implemented, factories have to adopt new manufacturing techniques, and so on,” said Barel.

Much better to start with the wheelchair and bicycle markets, which are easier to break into. “Most of the world’s wheelchairs are used in hospitals, but there is a large premium market for people who want to live active lives but are restricted to wheelchairs by their disabilities. These people want to be as mobile and self-reliant as possible, and our technology makes this possible,” said Barel.

Barel sees bikers embracing the SoftWheel. “Our wheel will enable bikers to ride faster and more smoothly,” he said. “In standard wheels, about 30 percent of propulsion energy is reserved for suspension, even if that suspension isn’t necessary at a specific time. With our system, suspension can be turned on and off as needed, reserving more energy for speed.”

Daniel Barel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Barel (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The oldest wheels found are about 5,000 years old from Mesopotamia, and it’s on that basic technology that modern wheels roll. What Barel and a team of engineers from Ziv-Av, an Israeli engineering firm, are doing entails a reimagining of the wheel — with a system redesign that incorporates shock absorption that turns itself on when necessary. The system, called Symmetrical Selective In-Wheel Suspension, uses sensors and three compression spokes to hold the wheel in place. When it encounters an impact, the wheel’s hub shifts, with the shock absorption cushioning the impact. The threshold can be preset by the manufacturer or user. Once past the impact, the wheel returns to its previous rigid state, saving the energy normally reserved for impact absorption in standard wheels and enabling it to be used for propulsion instead.

Generally, only very high-end wheelchairs have shock absorption built in, necessitating wheelchair-accessible entrances to buildings. “It’s difficult and painful to use a wheelchair to cross the street, with the chair’s rider feeling the strong impact of a chair going off the sidewalk and onto a curb,” said Barel. “With a SoftWheel-equipped chair, a wheelchair user can cross streets or go down steps without feeling the impact.”

Bikes, both manual and electric, are another big market for SoftWheel, which employs six people and is located in the Haifa area. “With cities around the world implementing biking programs for commuter, there is a big market for more comfortable rides,” said Barel. “Our wheels can easily replace the standard ones used for bikes, and make bike commuting much more comfortable.”

For wheelchairs and bicycles, adding SoftWheel suspension is all about increasing energy efficiency and making the ride much more comfortable. For the car and plane markets, the system will be able to save manufacturers a lot of money, Barel predicts. “The bigger the vehicle, the more suspension you need, and both cars and planes have elaborate suspension systems,” said Barel. “In order to make up for the energy expended on the suspension, engines have to be made to work harder, using more fuel and resources. With our sensor-based technology and the suspension system built into the wheels, you can save a lot of fuel.”

Ditto for cars, said Barel, although implementing the SoftWheel system in planes and cars won’t happen overnight. “Plane designs have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Industry in the US, and implementing changes in the automobile industry takes time. But eventually, both industries are going to adopt our design. Until now you had to choose between comfort and efficiency in wheel design, and now, for the first time, you can have both.”

If the SoftWheel catches on in the way Barel thinks it will, Israel will become a world center of wheel technology and production. “Nearly all the materials we use to produce our wheels are made in Israel, and we are currently building a large production facility in northern Israel to build SoftWheels,” said Barel. “This, like our product, is an innovation as well, because not too many industrial products are made in Israel. All around we are developing a new paradigm, one we believe the world will embrace.”

Click below for a video of the SoftWheel in action:

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