Drive To Discover

Electronic skateboards take to SF streets

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Skateboards are borrowing technology from the modern electric car. Appearing on the streets of San Francisco is recent months, the newest ones use the same batteries and are computer controlled.

"It's my vehicle in town," David Thorsrud, explains. "I don't actually have a car anymore. I don't ride my bike much anymore, maybe when it rains, if it's coming down really hard. But, for the most part, I take this every day to and from work."

Thorsrud is a computer programmer in San Francisco's SOMA. His board is controlled by a computer (that he sometimes programs), powered by lightweight lithium ion batteries that drive a high-tech motor that is recharged by the brakes. Just like a Prius!

"Absolutely, it's just like a Prius. And that's my joke when people ask me about my skateboard. I say, 'Well, I couldn't afford a Prius. But it's kind of the same thing. It just didn't come with a steering wheel.'"

Of course, the Metroboard, as his device is called, isn't the first electric skateboard. But it's the first electronic one that's more affordable. Available online for only a few months, it starts at $500 and comes in four sizes.

"I think the big shift that occurred is that most of the components in it are off-the-shelf. So that, I think, made it affordable. It uses parts like this Wii controller, and a Bluetooth controller -- Bluetooth is everywhere."

Ilan Sabar, Metroboard Developer, give a great demonstration, replacing the neoprene wheels with a weightlifter's weight.

"Press the lower button," he demonstrates, "It starts out at about 3 mph. And to up the speed, you just push the joystick up, and it'll take you up to 19 mph. And when you do need to slow down, you can just press the other button, which is the brake button, and it'll use the motor as a brake. It's called regenerative braking, where the motor actually will slow you down and also recover some of that energy of braking, using it to charge the battery."

Do you need to be a skateboarder to ride this thing?

"I really don't have any skateboarding experience at all," Thorsrud says. "I think I ride this like a snowboarder, kind of aggressively, I'm leaning forward. And I always wonder what skateboarders think when they see me, and they look at my stance. Like, 'That guy's doing it completely wrong.' But I've never fallen off of it, I've never gotten hurt. It's very sturdy."

The inventor, Sabar, says, "The steering is just like a regular skateboard. That's the fun part of riding a skateboard. Some people, when they get older, they don't want to push anymore, and that's where this product fits in nicely."

I have to agree. I tried it. Now I'm supposed to say to you, "Kids, don't try this on your own boards. It's transportation; it's not a toy." But it sure is fun.

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