Velomobiles: Efficient Commuter Vehicles

A velomobile is a “bicycle car”, or more officially, a “human-powered vehicle, enclosed for protection from weather and collisions”. They are virtually unknown in the U.S., but a quite popular in some parts of Europe. Velomobiles are highly efficient commuting vehicles, especially when they are equipped with an electric assist motor. Velomobiles tend to attract a lot of attention — many riders devote at least 10 minutes of their day to answering questions from curious on-lookers. Some owners even finance their vehicles by putting advertisement on the sides of their bike.

Go-One Velomobile

Basically, most velomobiles are single-person recumbent tricycles, covered by a protective outer shell. Often lights, turn signals and storage compartments are incorporated into their designs. The price of a velomobile is currently about $8000 and up, and often they must be imported from Europe.

Velomobiles are heavier than regular bikes — they are faster on open roads, but going up hills is more difficult. Because they are enclosed, the rider is more protected from the elements. I think one important addition to a velomobile is an electric-assist motor. Some manufacturers already offer this as an option (the Go-One for example), and the Aerorider has a built-in motor. With a motor assisting you, the weight of the velomobile becomes less of an issue, making it a more practical commuting vehicle.


A sustainable engineer, Frederik Van De Walle, has written a paper “The Velomobile as a Vehicle for more Sustainable Transportation”. Here’s the PDF file.


Waw Velomobile
The Waw Velomobile

Lots of Velomobiles

The Mango Velomobile
The Mango Velomobile

Here’s an example of a velomobile being retrofitted with a motor.

Here are some more details on Velomobile manufacturers from Wired:

Velomobiles come in two basic flavors. Partially enclosed, or “head-out” designs, such as the Quest and the Versatile, are the most popular. Proponents of these vehicles will tell you that they offer improved ventilation and are often lighter and faster than their fully enclosed counterparts.

Velomobiles that completely protect their riders from the elements, like the carbon-fiber Go-One, the Leitra and the Cab-Bike, are obviously more comfortable in the rain and snow but can suffer from fogging and icy windscreens.

In Europe, the vehicle’s primary market, the average velomobile costs between 4,000 and 6,000 euros (about $5,000 to $7,000). Importing one to the United States can significantly add to the price. Many American owners of European velomobiles paid nearly $10,000 for their vehicles. The high cost has prompted some buyers to find creative ways to finance their purchases. Many sell advertising on the highly visible vehicles, and some have been successful enough to pay for their machines two or three times over.

Thanks to Nick Hein for the tip about Velomobiles.

8 thoughts on “Velomobiles: Efficient Commuter Vehicles”

  1. Great site!
    Although i realy like it that you spent some attention to the velomobiel I think that this article should be more extendet.
    Like you say in the article, a velomobiel is an ideal sustainable alternative to a car when you travel in a flat area and the distances arent too large. However, when you also want a lot of speed in the hills than a lowrider recumbent bike is the better choice.

    There are other aspect to take into account.
    The climate, in a colder climate you need the protection from the shell more, in a warmer climate the shell can be a problem because you sweat more.
    The length of the roads, the more crosspoints the more you need to accellerate and as you know accellerating is easier with a lowrider recumbent bike than with a velomobiel.

    So, I would like to suggest to combine the velomobiel and the lowrider in one article.

  2. Having owned 3 velomobiles so far, I can say that whether or not the weight of the machine is an issue depends mostly on the terrain. In a flat area, or one with with rolling hills, the superior aerodynamics of a well designed velomobile can more than make up for the increased weight. In such an area, the aerodynamics can have the effect of making seem as though the hills have been flattened. So running at speeds that would make upright road cyclists jealous, while carrying a weeks worth of groceries can be possible without a motor.
    On the other hand, if you do most of your riding in an area with very long hills, then a velomobile is probably not a good option – in that case it probably would be a good idea to fit a motor.
    As the price of oil and gas increased, the price of velomobiles is likely to seem more attractive – and if we start seeing shortages at the pump, that is likely to attract even more widespread attention.

    1. Yes, and no. For acceleration at a standstill, you’re basically fighting an incline until momentum takes over. Also, the energy to maintain speed is based on several factors, including mass, and friction/resistance, which is also dependent on mass. So, it may not affect top speed as much, depending on the gears, but you’ll still run out of “gas” sooner with a heavier vehicle. In a nutshell, weight is th ultimate limiting factor for a velomobile, because it determines the energy needed to move it. That’s why they use mostly bicycle components, instead of motorcycle, or automotive parts, they’re lighter.

      1. Actually Psibezerker, it is wind resistance that is really the limiting factor more than weight (within limits).

        This is why velomobiles have set world speed records of 144kmph – more than twice the UCI world speed record on an upright bicycle (71kmph).

        The reason is that at racing speeds on a traditional upright bicycle, 90% of the rider’s energy is used up overcoming air resistance. Even at regular cruising speeds on an upright, 50% of the rider’s energy is used up pushing through the air.

        That is why reducing the frontal area by putting the rider in a recumbent position and smoothing the flow of air around the rider and vehicle (reducing laminar flow separation and turbulence) with a streamlined body makes velomobiles so much faster than upright bikes on the flat and downhill.

  3. This is the kind of product that, if mass-produced on a scale that made it more affordable, could really take off. My guess that the cost would have to come down to somewhere between $1000-$2000, though, which is quite a drop.

  4. I want a velomobile that has a safe but collapsible faring and this is designed something like a folding wheelchair, something that I can ride throughout the winter without being completely at the mercy of the elements but can also carry up three flights of stairs as easily as my present bike.

    1. Not gonna happen. Collapsing structures add complexity, and weight to something that’s already in the hundreds of pounds. The collapsing faring would be most complex, and at least double the weight, unless a simple flexible material (Cloth, or plastic sheet) which won’t protect you much, and prevent the laminar flow that is critical for aerodynamic efficiency.

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