Onewheel Inventor Takes the Skateboard Off-Road and Into the Future

Inspired by a love of snowboarding and engineering, electromechanical designer Kyle Doerksen is bringing the slopes to the streets.

Blame Back to the Future. Part II, that is.

For the last couple of years, the term hoverboard has been associated with a dubiously wide range of trendy motorized skateboards and self-balancing scooters. Since many of these devices were made quickly and cheaply, to capitalize on said trendiness, the term has also been associated with a series of unfortunate events.

Inventor Kyle Doerksen would like you to know, up front, that his Onewheel is not a hoverboard. In fact, there is no generic term for the kind of vehicle he's been developing over the last eight years.

"We're kind of hoping Onewheel becomes the name, like Kleenex," Doersen said. "Nothing else like this is out there."

Well, that depends on how you define your terms, but there's no doubt that the Onewheel has been a major success for Doerksen and his company, Future Motion. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company debuted the newest iteration of its one-wheeled $1,500 electric rideable, the Onewheel+, to enthusiastic reviews.

The Onewheel is aptly named, at any rate. Basically an oversized skateboard deck wrapped around one giant wheel, it's a self-balancing rideable designed for heavy-duty use both on pavement and trails. The new version has a top speed of around 19 mph powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery, with the electromagnetic motor housed within the wheel itself. Range on the Onewheel+ is five to seven miles and the battery can be fully recharged in 20 minutes, according to its spec sheet. It's got headlights and brake lights, too.

Unlike previous salvos in this general trajectory – the Segway, for instance – Onewheel is principally designed to appeal to boardsport fans: skateboarders, snowboarders and surfers. It's the kind of ride that requires and rewards skill.

"No one really talks about being a good Segway rider," Doerksen said with a laugh. "It feels more at home in the sport world than a lot of these other motorized things."

Headquartered in in the sleepy California college town of Santa Cruz, Future Motion is the officially incorporated result of Doerksen's two lifelong passions – boardsports and engineering. Growing up in the Canadian Rockies, he spent the bulk of his childhood discretionary time snowboarding, before moving on to Stanford and earning multiple degrees in engineering.

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The inspiration for the Onewheel came one day as Doerksen was walking through downtown San Francisco circa 2008, while working for the marquee design firm IDEO.

"I was just daydreaming about ways to get around faster, and thinking about snowboarding," he said. "Specifically, snowboarding on powder. The feeling of snowboarding on powder is incredibly smooth, incredibly quiet and very forgiving. You're not worried about catching an edge. Unlike skiing, snowboarding actually gets easier on powder."

Doerksen began tinkering with a design that would bring the smooth sensation of snowboarding to the streets. Working in his garage, that sacred space of California mythmaking, Doerksen began exploring the motion-sensor technology just then emerging in smart phones and gaming consoles like the Nintendo Wii. But in 2008, all those gyros and accelerometers were overpriced – and the batteries he needed were underpowered.

"I actually put it back on the shelf. I needed to wait a little bit for the technology to catch up."

A couple years later, Doerksen returned to his part-time obsession, found that lithium ion batteries had improved tremendously, and came up with the idea of putting the engine in the wheel itself. By using a hub motor, he could power the wheel directly while reducing noise and vibration. "That was the turning point," Doerksen said. "No gears, no drive train, no belts, no chains."

It was the snowboarding experience he was looking for. After several years of development, multiple maxed out credit cards, and one massively successfully Kickstarter campaign, the first Onewheel debuted at CES in 2014 and started shipping later that year.

Doerksen now finds himself in the unexpected position of running his own company, employing 18 technicians at the Santa Cruz headquarters and a few more working at Future Motion's manufacturing facility in San Jose. The first production run on the Onewheel+ is ramping up now, with initial deliveries slated for late February. "We have one quality control guy whose job is to ride every single OneWheel that comes off the line," Doerksen said. "It's a pretty good job."

Onewheel enjoys a solid reputation in the boardsports community, and several pro riders have signed on as unofficial evangelists. Adventurous city riders on both coasts are starting to adopt the Onewheel as an urban commuter option – at 25 pounds, it's a burly machine, but still light enough to carry into the office if you need to. And word-of-mouth is producing little pockets of interest in random smaller communities like Asheville, N.C., Doerksen said.

"One of the interesting things we're discovering is that people approach the product in different ways," Doerksen said. "For some it's maybe a toy, but for others it's vehicle, and for riders it's a new sport, really. We're targeting those people that want to ride it on trails and get that feeling of flying that you get on a snowboard."

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Doerksen still works and lives in Santa Cruz, but since getting Future Motion off the ground, his day-to-day is pretty different.

"My days are all over the place," he said. "Yesterday I was up in Seattle checking our packaging, our boxes. They've got some really nice boxes for us, actually. Every day is totally different. My underlying passion is technology and building things and prototyping. But it's also figuring out how to market this thing, how to sell it.

"It's really about pulling different worlds together – the boardsport world and the technology world. The whole ride experience is created by technology. It's all algorithms and engineering, trying to get that snowboard feeling."

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