This sci-fi electric unicycle is the RYNO, a future-badass alternative to the Segway that looks like it got beamed down from the year 2114. But it's here, and it's real, and I got to ride it.
Self-taught engineer Chris Hoffmann began working on the RYNO concept in 2006, when his 13-year-old daughter sketched a one-wheeled scooter she'd seen in a video game. She asked him if he could build it, and that set the single wheel turning. Now, about six prototypes later (including one that made a cameo in Portlandia), the RYNO is ready to hit the streets.
In essence, the RYNO is an overgrown Segway that lost a wheel. Like the Segway, the RYNO is controlled by the rider's body position: lean forward to accelerate, tilt back to stop.
Also like the Segway, the RYNO balances itself front-to-back when standing still. With both feet on the ground, it nudged around to keep my center of gravity poised directly over the axle. With only one wheel, side-to-side balance is up to you. It's a big wheel, though, wearing a 240-millimeter-wide motorcycle tire usually found on big ol' Harley-Davidsons. There's a brake lever on the right, though it doesn't work the way you'd expect it to (more on that in a minute). Turning the handlebars swivels the seat on a pivot somewhere behind your tailbone, which feels completely foreign when standing still. And that's it for controls—your body position does the rest.
Instinct tells you not to lean forward when you're balancing on a one-wheeled freak machine, but Chris assured me his creation wouldn't drop me on my face. Timidly, I moved my head in front of the handlebars, and we were off. Once in motion, that weird steering feels strangely natural. You lean in to turn and, somehow, the thing melts into a smooth arc.
Of course, if you've spent a lot of time on a bicycle or motorcycle, a few quirks about RYNO riding will catch you slightly off-guard. My habit of leaning over on one foot at a stop made the RYNO think I was attempting a slow, tight turn. Better to stay on the footpegs, come almost to a halt, then plant both feet—unlike many two-wheeled conveyances, the RYNO's seat is low enough to flat-foot at a stop.
And then there's the single brake lever at your right hand. Squeezing it rears the RYNO's nose up a few degrees, leaning you back just far enough to tell the gyro sensor you want to slow down. It's there to quickly get you in braking position, and it teaches beginners how to make the RYNO slow down. Grabbing a fistful of brake for the first time, I instinctively expected to be pitched forward, not back, but after the first unsure stop it starts making perfect sense.
That's the overall theme of riding the RYNO: it's completely intuitive, once you let go of your two-wheeled habits. Sort of the one-wheeled equivalent of switching digital operating systems; everything seems wacky until you understand the logic behind it. The RYNO isn't backwards, your preconceptions are.
After about 5 minutes, the whole process began to feel natural. Icy, frigid conditions prevented me from taking an extended ride, but Chris says most folks get the basics after about 15 minutes, with master maneuvering taking just a few days.
Once your brain adapts, the RYNO is astoundingly surefooted (and man, I never expected to say that about a unicycle). Credit the construction, which mounts the dual motors and controllers, three gyroscopes, two removable batteries, and all the accompanying computer brains inside the hub of the 18-inch wheel. With a center of mass somewhere between your shins and software that reacts instantaneously to your every lean, the RYNO feels nearly un-toppleable.
That's me stiffly taking my maiden RYNO voyage in the latter half of the video, with Chris running alongside encouraging me not to crash his baby into the icy East River.
On a six-hour charge, the RYNO will cruise 10 miles (optional batteries with around 30 miles of range are coming). Top speed is 10MPH, which sounds slow, but it puts the RYNO in the same regulatory category as the Segway, meaning it's allowed on pedestrian walkways, bike lanes, and indoors (depending on your local laws). Chris says you wouldn't want to go much faster. "I've gone 15 on it, and that's hauling ass. There's nothing in front of you. You're just like flying on a carpet." The whole rig weighs about 160lbs, can haul 260lbs of rider and gear, and with somewhere around 5 horsepower on tap, it can cruise up 20% grades without faltering.
Then there's the biggest number: $5,300, the entry price into the RYNO club, with preorders shipping in April. That's in the same ballpark as the base model Segway, which right now has a little more top speed and much more cruising range.
So who's the RYNO for? Chris says police and security workers love its small footprint and low seat, which puts the rider at eye level with pedestrians. Farmers, outdoor event coordinators, bike commuters, and gadget lovers have all expressed interest. In other words, a lot of the same folks the Segway was aimed at.
I'm not sure that Segways, RYNOs and the like will suddenly outnumber pedestrians and cyclists. The Segway in particular got off to a very slow start. But as the first such device, the Segway had an uphill climb, defining both the market for personal mobility vehicles and the regulations that distinguish them from road-going machines. Now those hurdles have been cleared, and with more and more bike lanes and pedestrian zones showing up in our cities, there are more places where vehicles like these make sense. Perhaps competitors like RYNO will get the simmering market boiling.
If there's one thing that will make the RYNO a success, it's style. Standing on a Segway feels conspicuously nerdy. Straddling a RYNO makes you feel way more badass than anyone riding a 10MPH electric scooter has a right to.
Photos and video by Nicholas Stango