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Introducing the EUC: One wheel to roll them all

In the Philippines, electric vehicles have meandered their way into mainstream acceptance over the last decade, with urbanites experimenting with e-scooters, e-bikes, and the occasional electric car. But the most daring version of this revolution is the one you’ve probably never heard of: the electric unicycle (EUC).

When someone tells you they ride a “unicycle,” the image that comes to mind is of a circus performer perched precariously on a single wheel while juggling bowling pins or throwing knives. You are probably not picturing an electric motor vehicle capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 50kph, or a rider wearing full mountain biking safety gear.

Since this is likely the first time you’ve ever read about an electric unicycle, a few more details are in order. Take your average motorcycle wheel, connect an electric motor and a battery to it, and then wrap the whole thing in a plastic chassis with small LED headlights and brakelights, and you’ve basically got the average EUC. Unlike a traditional unicycle, an EUC’s pedals don’t move – they’re really just metal plates to put your feet on. You ride this contraption facing forward and standing upright, with the wheel firmly between your shins.

EUCs propel themselves forwards or backwards based on which way the rider is leaning – there are no other controls. You have to consciously balance yourself as you go. Unlike a Segway with its two wheels supporting a flat platform, the EUC can not stop you from falling to the side.

If that sounds strange, that’s because it is. It took several days of embarrassing practice in our backyard before I was confident enough to take my wheel out to the quiet streets of our gated subdivision, and another couple of weeks more before I had the guts to go out on the open roads.

It was unlike any other balance-based transportation I’d ever learned. Consider that bicycles and scooters are controlled from four touch points: your hands and your feet. Meanwhile, skateboards, surfboards, and rollerblades all allow you to use a wide stance to distribute your weight. The EUC, in contrast, requires you to stay balanced while essentially standing at attention.

They aren’t exactly cheap either. Your average EUC is in the P35,000 range, and believe me when I say that you’ll be spending quite a bit more than that on all the safety gear and accessories. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if my total spend has exceeded P60,000 at this point, with all the various helmets, goggles, motorcycle pants, knee pads, gloves, and head-mounted lights that I’ve tried.

Bizarre, but beneficial

But there is some good news. Barring strong rains, EUCs are probably the most flexible inner-city transport we’ve ever invented.

All EUCs have a hidden trolley handle that lets you roll them like a suitcase when you’re indoors, which is a trick that e-scooters, bicycles, or roller blades can’t do. Because of their diminutive footprint, you don’t need to park them outside chained to a bike rack or lamp post; mall security will usually allow you to just bring them in with you. I’ve personally brought my wheel into quite a few supermarkets, and used my helmet as a makeshift basket to hold the few small items I needed to buy. No shopping cart necessary!

The average EUC has about 40km of range, meaning that if you live within 10km of your place of work, you’re probably charging it every other day. You’ll have no problem riding to your building then taking the EUC up to your office floor and stashing it under your desk. The trolley handle allows you to roll it anywhere you could bring your luggage, and the only time you’d ever have to carry it would be when you’re confronted with stairs.

In some ways, it’s superior to every other vehicle you own. If you’re a car owner, EUCs eliminate not only the cost of parking, but also the time it takes to find parking. If you’re a motorcycle owner, EUCs allow you to weave through traffic with a smaller footprint and better visibility. If you’re a commuter, you can glide past the MRT lines, zip around the jeepneys, and leave the Angkas riders in your wake.

In terms of energy efficiency, an EUC can transport the average adult at just over 25 watt-hours per kilometer. (To put that number into perspective, the average electric car from Tesla uses about 300 watt-hours per kilometer.) With daily use, your EUC will add less than 150 pesos to your monthly Meralco bill. There’s still some debate as to whether electric cars are truly making an impact on the environment, but with EUCs and e-scooters, the positive impact on your wallet is easy to prove.

But is it safe?

Now, all of those savings wouldn’t really matter much if EUCs were too dangerous to ride on the roads here in Metro Manila. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be some additional risk involved in riding open vehicles when compared with fully-enclosed 1500-kg automobiles. In general, if you are brave enough to ride a bicycle in city traffic, the level of risk is roughly the same.

One could argue that EUCs might actually be a little safer than bicycles purely because you’re such a strange-looking object on the road. Your upright position means you stick out like a sore thumb in traffic, taller than most cars and SUVs, and you’ll notice other motorists slow down when they’re around you.

There are currently no traffic rules directly governing EUCs, so for now at least, you can get creative with your routes. You obviously can’t bring these on the skyway, but practically everywhere else is fair game. When faced with gridlocked traffic, you can cut through empty lots, foot paths, and pedestrian-only areas as long as you limit your speed. Because of how little space you take up, you can use the wheel almost anywhere your own feet could take you.

With nearly a thousand kilometers of EUC travel under my belt, I’m happy to report that it’s an exceedingly viable alternative for inner-city traffic in Metro Manila. It costs significantly less than a motorcycle, takes up a lot less space, has zero emissions, and is a joy to ride. I just wish it was easier to learn.