A company called Afreecar wants to give non-motorized vehicles a boost.
The team's solar-powered "E-Kit," a winner of the Automotive category in this year's Create the Future Design Contest , can be added to existing carts, wheelbarrows, hospital carts, and bikes, to provide relief — and a powerful push — for people hauling goods.
The end goal of the E-Kit, says Afreecar's founder Christopher Borroni-Bird, is to provide e-mobility to developing countries that lack this technology.
"The basic premise of Afreecar's e-kit is to provide sustainable power and mobility for underserved populations of the world," Borroni-Bird told Tech Briefs in the short Q&A below.
The idea for Afreecar began when Borroni-Bird, a former engineer and leader at Chrysler, General Motors, Waymo, and the semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm, was doing volunteer work in rural Mali. During the weeks-long trip in Western Africa, Borroni-Bird noticed a man lending out lead-acid batteries, and then recharging the batteries afterward with a roof-mounted solar panel.
"I had to walk about 10 miles between three villages one day to fix water pumps and got to thinking about using the solar panels to charge an electric vehicle instead, and that this electric vehicle could be lent out instead of the battery for transport and electricity," said Borroni-Bird.
Borroni-Bird originally conceived the Afreecar idea as a solar-powered trailer that could be connected to any bicycle to provide both a power-assist and a mobile power source that could carry people and goods. The E-kit, however, works with many local available vehicles, beyond just a bike.
The same platform can push both a bike and a manual wheelbarrow, for example, or a variety of non-motor transport vehicles, like hospital wheelchairs or meal carts.
The small scale, two-wheel electric vehicle is controlled by a joystick and is mountable to a chassis of the non-motorized tool. The two-wheeler, powered by an internal battery source that can be cut off by an external on/off switch, charges via a solar charger or wall outlet.
The enclosure supports a max load of 300 lbs, and the motors provide enough power to carry a load uphill and downhill. The case and frame, built from 80/20 T-slot aluminum and plexiglass, make the system both water-resistant and durable.
(Watch a test run of the technology below.)
The wheels can be interchanged for a variety of settings.
In a short Q&A with Tech Briefs below, the "Create the Future" winner talks about where he envisions the kit being used, from hospitals to hillsides in the developing world.
Tech Briefs: In what kind of non-motorized vehicle does this E-Kit system work best?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: This [E-Kit] saves cost, allows it to be transferred between vehicles, and means I don't have to pick a single vehicle "winner." I see applications in agriculture, like transporting crops and providing power for pumping water, and also indoors, like healthcare, to reduce ergonomic injuries and address labor shortages with beds and meal carts. There are also applications related to urban mobility, like for the last mile of goods delivery when applied to a tricycle.
The solar power piece of the E-Kit is important in areas where there is no access to the grid or in disaster-struck areas.
Tech Briefs: How much power can be generated, and what does that mean for someone pushing a wheelbarrow or riding a bike?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: The motor power and battery energy are somewhat customizable, but a reasonable starting point that could transform lives in sub-Saharan Africa is 1 kW motor and 1 kWh battery (with 200W solar panel for charging it each day). This is 2 orders of magnitude less than typical electric vehicles (EVs) need, but it is a big boost versus manual effort and will keep costs down. The vision is for the battery to come from EVs at end of life since there is plenty of capacity still remaining in them for "Afreecar"-type applications.
Tech Briefs: Where does the harnessed power go exactly to drive a vehicle forward? How do you start and stop with this kind of power, if you have, say, a wheelbarrow?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: The electric power is requested or demanded by the user via a handheld throttle that attaches to the handles of the vehicle or could even be a wireless "gaming" console for controlling the vehicle remotely.
Tech Briefs: How long does it take to apply this kit to existing transportation?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: The goal is to make the e-kit easily attachable to, and removable, from existing vehicles (handcarts, wheelbarrows, hospital beds, etc.).
Tech Briefs: What's next?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: I am in the process of partnering with an Indian EV company to further develop it for testing in rural India and Africa, with a goal of either manufacturing it or licensing the design.
Tech Briefs: Our "Create the Future"-winning technologies often reflect efforts to address a high-priority need in the world. What need is your technology addressing, and why is your solar kit so important do you think?
Christopher Borroni-Bird: The basic premise of Afreecar's E-Kit is to provide sustainable power and mobility for underserved populations of the world. It does this by recycling batteries and retrofitting to existing vehicles to keep the cost down, while providing "swiss army knife" utility in terms of power-assisted transport, mechanical power take off (PTO) and electrical power outlets.
What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.
Read a Q&A with the "Create the Future" Grand-Prize Winner: Aaron Hall tells Tech Briefs about his award-winning invention: Self-Destructing Plastic.