Published January 21, 2014
I’ve slogged through a half-frozen bogs, skidded my bicycle to work in the snow, plowed a motorcycle through driving rain for hours, at temperatures just above freezing. But riding a one-wheeled, self-balancing electric motorcycle on black ice still seems like a bad idea. Especially on a prototype, the only one of its kind.
Still, that’s what’s on the agenda as I skate my way across the glazed-over parking lot of an office park in Beaverton, Oregon, just outside Portland. I’m here to ride the Ryno.
In case you’ve missed the Ryno Motors’ viral YouTube video, which has accrued more than 10 million views from salivating geeks, the Ryno “microcycle” is a bit of futuristic transportation that looks like it escaped from an underground Honda skunkworks. You hop aboard a seat atop a single, motorcycle-sized wheel and pilot around the street merely by leaning. Spiky anime-style hair and steampunk goggles are not required, but a helmet is highly recommended.
Unlike so many other viral products of industrial design students, ambitious Photoshoppers and misguided Kickstarter entrepreneurs, the Ryno is quite real. After six years of development, the company is finally ready to release its one-wheeled wonder to the world.
When Ryno CEO Chris Hoffman introduces me to a bright-red Ryno in the hedge-lined parking lot behind the business park, the morning sun has liquified most of the treacherous black ice. Most of it. “Stay out of the shade!” a grinning Hoffmann warns after returning from a quick zip around. Fishtailing feels terrifying enough on two wheels, I don’t really want to find out what it feels like on one.
As he shows me the ropes, Hoffman manages to pop off a foot peg off the Ryno – a glaring reminder that the machine we’re playing with is still very much in its early stages. I’m just glad it wasn’t me. After some quick repairs, it’s my turn.
Saddling up on the Ryno feels a lot like hopping onto one of those inflatable “hopper balls” with a handle you might have had as a kid. Your toes touch the ground, your hands have something to grab, but it’s on you to keep from flopping over. Although the Ryno self-balances, it only takes responsibility for motion front to back. All bets are off when you lean left or right.
After I snap on a helmet and climb astride the Ryno’s dirtbike-like seat, Hoffmann introduces me to the one control that isn’t done by leaning: A right-hand “brake” lever. Grab a handful, and the Ryno gently eases to a stop in the upright position. Before you ride, two up and down arrows on the “dash” also let you control how far forward or back the neutral position is, which changes from rider to rider. I get dialed in, lift my legs from the footpegs, place my faith firmly in technology, and lean forward.
Prior to my big ride, Hoffman escorts me inside a beige, brown-carpeted office space so unassuming, it could just as easily be the headquarters for a wood-pulp distributor. He has a passing resemblance to Portlandia’s Fred Armisen, which seems especially appropriate considering the Ryno recently appeared in a sketch on the hit show. As someone who has probably had to explain thousands of times that he quit his job to build an electric, self-balancing unicycle, Hoffmann has the air of someone frequently mistaken for being insane, but who has long since abandoned giving a shit.
“It’s been a big journey,” Hoffman says, recalling how he sold his house and lived in a 14-by-14-foot room before Ryno’s funding came together. “It’s sort of like you’re driving out across the canyon, like Thelma and Louise, and the bridge is kind of showing up one board at a time.”
Ryno’s lobby is a museum of that journey. Three battered prototypes – the ones you’ve seen in those YouTube videos – document the Ryno’s evolution from homebrew monstrosity to street-ready production machine.
The entirely project started, oddly enough, with a quest for a father-daughter project. On the way to go fishing, Hoffman’s daughter sketched out a one-wheeled motorcycle she had seen in a video game. An engineer by trade, Hoffman started digging into what it would take to build the contraption, looking for the stumbling block that would make it impossible. He never found it. Between recent advances in miniaturization and the self-balancing bushwhacking done by Segway, it looked plausible. “At some point, I just thought, ‘I’ll just take a machine shop class and build this thing,’” Hoffman says.
Easier said than done, as he discovered. “I loaded the circuit boards in it, the motor controllers, I wired it all up, put the battery power on it, and flames literally shot out of the thing,” Hoffman laughs.
Undeterred, he sought out help online, eventually stumbling upon soon-to-be-cofounder Tony Ozrelic, a crack embedded systems engineer and hobbyist who was already building his own Segway-style scooters. He built Hoffman a two-foot-tall model as a proof of concept, which literally stood up on its own when he switched it on. Soon after, Hoffman crossed his fingers, loaded Ozrelic’s software into his wheel and had a prototype. Best of all, it worked.
Except for that whole “steering” thing. While Hoffman and Ozrelic had envisioned the machine elegantly turning in the same way a quarter circles on its edge, it didn’t work that way. Or at all. Hoffman could barely ride it 20 feet before crashing, and even the unicyclists he recruited to test it could only coax the distance to 50.
They considered double wheels, spinning flywheels, and control levers before arriving at a simpler solution: A pivoting seat that allows you to pitch the wheel from side to side beneath you. After hopping on the new prototype for the first time, Hoffman was able to take it around the block. He says, “It was just one of those weird moments where you just take a shot way in the dark, and you just kind of land it.”
The last hurdle turned out to be red tape. Hoffman always imagined his vehicle sharing the road with cars the way a scooter or bicycle would, but laws stipulated that the motor in such a vehicle could use motors no more powerful than 750 watts – which crippled the Ryno’s performance. Instead, Hoffman reimagined it as a machine for the sidewalks, where laws regulate top speed but not power. The resulting Ryno has 2,000 watts of power, but its speed has been electronically limited to 10 mph. They gave it a makeover to look more bicycle-like, and the final product was born.
Back in the parking lot, the Ryno’s motors compliantly whir to life. I whisk forward. Mercifully, my face never even comes close to smacking asphalt. Success! But precariously balancing on a single moving wheel feels a lot like … precariously balancing on a single moving wheel. Even with Hoffmann trotting behind me with a hand on the Ryno to prevent his creation (and me) from taking a spill, I have to keep a hawk-like gaze on the oncoming pavement to keep from veering off course.
“It’s like riding a snowboard, or a skateboard, or some kind of a product that demands that you participate,” Hoffmann explains. (He’s also quick to qualify that it’s not as difficult as either.) I would sooner compare it to riding a bike with no handlebars – the tiniest movements translate to large changes in course. At first, it’s not entirely clear which movements to execute to get the expected motion.
Visualizing the contact patch between wheel and ground helps. And within 20 minutes, I’m feeling more confident going back and forth in a straight line, but it’s clear my test ride won’t be long enough to carve around turns like Hoffmann does. Remembering those footpegs, I think, maybe it’s for the best.
Despite a few abrupt stops, I never come close to crashing. Grabbing at the “brake” lever slows the Ryno quickly and smoothly, and your natural instinct to jab your legs down for terra firma takes over from there. When you’re done with the Ryno, you lean it forward onto the padded front “pushbar,” which acts like a two-legged kickstand.
After less than half an hour of riding, the prospect of taking the Ryno out on Portland’s crowded waterfront park, where Hoffman shot some of his promotional videos, still makes me shudder. I envision rolling over stray toddlers, dogs, and eventually pitching myself into the Willamette River when I sneeze at 10 miles an hour. Paranoid? Sure, but it’s clear the learning curve on the Ryno is closer to a new pair of rollerblades than a new pair of shoes.
The vehicle I rode may be the first of its breed, but Ryno just opened a small factory on the other side of Portland, and hopes to have its first production batch ready later this year. Buyers are already plunking down $150 to preorder the cycles online, which will eventually ring up for $5,295. Not cheap, but comparable in cost to a Segway, or even the high-performance electric scooters from Ryno’s Portland neighbors at Works Electric.
At the moment, there is no “typical buyer” for the Ryno, other than to say that none of the buyers are typical.
“Shriners, Harley riders, ZZ-Top-lookin’ dudes, Russians that want to ride it around in a coal mine, people that want to take it down to Sturgis, people who want to take it to festivals, women who don’t want to drive their Jag to the health club anymore, it just goes across the entire spectrum of types of people,” Hoffmann explains.
Given the tricky nature of mastering the Ryno, the company will set up dealerships across the US, so that every rider has a chance to learn the ropes before whizzing home. New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Miami and Portland are all on the short list to get them soon.
After all the early trials and tribulations, Hoffmann thinks his now-grown daughter is proud of how far he’s made it with an idea born on a fishing trip. “I’m just happy to have this chance to be here,” he says. “I’m happy to have these people around me that believe the same story that I do. So I think that’s where really she would be proud of me, is that we’ve managed to keep this all together. Where it goes, that’s what we’re trying to find out.”