In the industrial design lab at Boise State, amid carcasses of gliders strewn about a wind tunnel and the deafening clangs of a machine testing the tensile strength of metal housing supports, five students spent hundreds of hours during the better part of this school year crafting the future.
They were working on their entry for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Human Powered Vehicle Competition, a combination design contest and 65-kilometer race being held at California State University-Northridge.
Their entry, a tricycle that leans with turns to keep it from tipping over on corners--it's known as the Bronco Warhawk--is part of a larger re-envisioning of the bicycle in the wake of the automotive industry's failure to move past petroleum.
So does that mean we're all going to be pedaling domed four-seaters to work? Potentially.
"Everybody has wild ideas. It's fun to see if they'll work," said Joseph Hawkes, a 35-year-old Boise State student and Micron employee.
Much of the Boise State team's design was copied from ideas they'd seen online, but the trike features a unique all-custom front hub that allows a rider of any height to ride comfortably with little adjustment, a plus because everyone on the team--short and tall--has to ride for a section of the endurance race.
Though bonus points are awarded for utility, Hawkes said the primary goal is speed. "It's a challenge. We want 50 mph out of this thing."
"I'm actually kind of scared to take it to 50 mph," said Bobby Marturello, another member of the team, aged 22. "That's really fast."
Though some entries employ domes to decrease drag, Hawkes said there wasn't time for anything that fancy. With only two semesters instead of years to perfect the design, the major hurdle was keeping the trike's weight down.
Though concept vehicles like those constructed for the competition are generally bold, what really matters when considering the future of the bicycle is what's produced for mass usage.
"When people think about the way they use a bike, about how much a bike is supposed to cost, there's a lot of preconceived notions," said Steve Baumann, an industrial design director for Wisconsin-based Trek, one of the nation's premier bicycle manufacturers. "If we threw out something that was enclosed, or for four people, dealers may or may not even accept it. And even if they did, dealers want turnover in 30 days."
But what turns over in 30 days is changing.
Josh Travis, assistant manager of George's Cycles in downtown Boise, said that with the rising price of oil, he's seen a shift toward bicycles that can be used to carry kids or cargo, tasks traditionally relegated to cars. Major companies like Specialized, Kona and Surly are releasing slick-looking bikes with heavy-duty baskets or extended rear racks that can carry a virtual elephant train of children or groceries. The Gary Fisher Ranchero, manufactured by Trek, is a tandem with an extended cargo rack and saddlebags. German manufacturer Yuba has released the $900 Mundo, which can carry three passengers or 440 pounds of cargo.
And that's nothing compared to some of the farther reaching designs catching on in more bicycle-friendly communities.
The European Trio-Bike has a fully enclosed front-mounted cargo-pod that can fit two kids and detach as a stroller, leaving the bike fully rideable.
"Historically, we've focused on enthusiasts, or for competition," said Baumann. "Increasingly, the way that everybody else uses a bike has become more and more important."
Baumann isn't kidding. Google "concept bicycle," and you'll find everything from amphibious spheres and four-wheeled recumbents with neon ground effects to monstrosities that look like props from the Mad Max films. Spokeless wheels. Chainless cranks. The ideas are endless, but often the most forward-thinking concepts are never slated for mass production.
"The pod is still an out-there concept, like a flying car was when I was a kid," said Baumann. "The most exciting thing on the horizon I see is electric assist," in which electric motors work in tandem with a bike's pedals.
Baumann said Trek is now selling just as many e-bikes in the Netherlands as they are standards. But Travis is quick to point out that availability of product isn't the only barrier to bicycle development; it's also tied to the available infrastructure.
"Boise has good trails, so there's a lot of interest in mountain bikes, and the Greenbelt is great, so there's a lot of cruisers," he said. "But most people, it's hard to get past the fact that a commute is somewhat death-defying. Bike laws may say three feet to pass, but it could end up being six inches. There is just no way to enforce it. If you want people to load up the kids and their groceries, we need more than just a few bike lanes. We need to start thinking about segregated roadways."
Travis said he only gets about one customer a week interested in a cargo or family bicycle, a marked increase from several years ago.
It doesn't look like Boise State's trike will be catching on just yet either. In testing, the trike topped out at 22 mph and was only able to make 17 mph in the competition because of the curves and inclines on the course. Hawkes said they could hit 30 mph with the right rider. He'd previously admitted to starting training only a few weeks before the competition.
"Honestly, I haven't been on a bike in 15 years," laughed Hawkes. "I drive a three-quarter-ton truck."