If you haven’t yet decided how you feel about the Internet of things — if you’re unsure whether adding sensors and radios to everyday stuff will improve our lives in meaningful ways or just amount to a bunch of whizbang junk — here’s a perfect Rorschach test. When you look at this smartphone-connected bike lock, what do you see?
The Skylock, from Velo Labs, is a Bluetooth-equipped U-lock that automatically unlocks when you walk up to your bike. That might seem incredibly handy or completely absurd, depending on your outlook. To those who eagerly anticipate the small conveniences of a more connected world, the Skylock cleverly smooths out the annoyance of futzing with keys. To cynics, it will undoubtedly look like another solution in search of a problem. How much time do we waste futzing with keys, anyway?
The true killer feature, however, might not be for one single owner but for many. “We thought that a connected bike lock would really generate the next generation bike share platform,” says Jack Al-Kahwati, one of the lock’s inventors.
Velo was founded by Al-Kahwati and Gerardo Barroeta, former engineers at Boeing and Jawbone, respectively. The duo have deftly addressed many of the problems that would unequivocally make a connected bike lock dead on arrival. The lock powers itself up with a built-in solar cell, for example, mustering roughly a week of runtime for every hour of direct sunlight. It also includes a four-button capacitive pad, so you’ll be able to free your ride even if your smartphone is out of battery. It costs $250, though it’s currently going for a special preorder price of $159.
The keyless entry magic is only one of the features the company’s touting. Other smart lock functionality includes a theft alert system that pings you when your bike’s being jostled and crash detection which watches for accidents with the help of a built-in accelerometer. In the event of a wreck, Skylock will summon a push notification on your phone; if you don’t dismiss it after a few seconds, the app will call emergency responders to the scene. But these are just pieces of the product’s most ambitious feature.
One of the things the Skylock app lets you do is give other people, like your sister or your roommate, access to your bike. But Al-Kahwati and Barroeta see Skylock as the key to a much broader sort of sharing. Instead of picking up and depositing bikes at a handful of official locations like you do with today’s city-wide programs, perhaps Skylock could pave the way for something more decentralized, letting riders bring up a map, say, to see the wheels available in their area.
You’d grab a nearby bike, pedal to your destination, lock it up wherever, and you’d be done, leaving it for someone else to claim when she needed a ride. It doesn’t make much sense as a sharing economy sort of thing — you wouldn’t necessarily want random people riding your bike around the city all day — but you can certainly see the potential for a fleet of municipally or privately owned bikes. Think CitiBike with the convenience of Uber.
The built-in solar cell drums up about a week of run time from every hour of direct sunlight. (Velo)
That dream is what got Al-Kahwati and Barroeta excited about a smart bike lock in the first place, but at this stage it’s still very much a dream. The two have spent the last year putting all their energy into the lock itself. “We have lots of ideas in bike share, but it’s important that we properly introduce a product first,” Al-Kahwati says.
That makes for a tough proposition. Sensors and smartphone apps could indeed power a next-gen bike share program — one that would make it easier than ever for people to ditch cars. But the day-to-day advantages of a smart bike lock over the dumb forebear are negligible. In a sense, it’s emblematic of where we are with the Internet of things in general. Some day, everything will link up and share data, and our lives will be better for it. But that’s still a ways off. Today’s smart stuff offers a dash of cool factor and a degree of efficiency, but only for those willing to pay a premium.
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