DESLEY BLANCH : The noisy postman's motor-bike may soon be gone and replaced with a stealthily quiet one. An electrically-powered three-wheeler has been designed by Tasmania's Simon Williams who spent 18 months as a postman researching exactly what was needed for his concept. Simon is a design draftsman who loves motorcycles, surfing and skateboarding and his goal was to design an electric motorcycle that combines the best bits of skateboarding and motorcycling but which had an end purpose other than commuting.
He imagined a tilting three-wheeled cargo vehicle that would be ideally suited to industrial applications such as delivering the mail. He's delivery trike is being considered by Australia Post, our country's biggest buyer of motor-bikes and he hopes to attract the interest to one of the world's oldest postal services, the Royal Mail in Britain, when he attends the International Postal Convention next year.
Simon Williams talks to us from our ABC studios in Hobart, Tasmania and begins by explaining why he wanted to build a purpose-built electrical vehicle for postal workers.
SIMON WILLIAMS : I wanted to actually make money from this, so it's a business decision for me, but it's also fulfilling that unfulfilled niche.
DESLEY BLANCH : Well, you didn't rush into it, because you spent 18 months delivering mail and being what we call here in this country a postie and that's actually something I've always wanted to do, you know, one of those childhood dreams. But what did you find were the biggest drawbacks, because they ride a two-wheeled bike?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah, well look, those little bikes are fantastic. They have been used for so long now. You get very good at riding them. There are a few little niggling issues with them. The gears can lock if you're going in reverse and they can throw you off, they are quite slippery. The maintenance costs are extremely high, surprisingly, for such a cheap bike to buy in the first place, the wear and tear on them is amazing.
DESLEY BLANCH : So how will your Electric Trike make life easier for posties?
SIMON WILLIAMS : A better riding experience, bit more fun to ride, bit safer too, better stability, better traction, more torque which is very important. That means that from a standing start, you have got much more drive to get you going, especially up a steep hill and get over obstacles such as kerbs and lawns without slipping is very important.
DESLEY BLANCH : Well, being a Trike—it has three wheels, do you ride it like a two-wheeled bike?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah, it's almost identical to riding a two-wheel bike, because it does lean into a corner. It's very easy to get up and down a kerb, because the wheels actually step up. The tilting mechanism works to make sure all three wheels have a point of contact with the ground at all times.
DESLEY BLANCH : I wondered if the tilting was a safety issue or whether it was just one of those more fun things, like you do on skateboards or something. You just put it in there for fun?
SIMON WILLIAMS : (laughter) Not really for fun. For fun, I guess is one point, but in a standard Trike if you are going around a corner and the machine does not lean, your centre of gravity is not correct then, because all your forces are being directed sideways so that it has the propensity to tip sideways, so if you can lean the vehicle into a corner, just like a motorcycle, your centre of gravity is being directed straight through the wheels rather than sideways.
DESLEY BLANCH : How far over can you lean?
SIMON WILLIAMS : About 45 degrees, which is a fair way.
DESLEY BLANCH : Okay, that sounds like fun. (laughter) So how many hands and feet do you need to control the bike?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Well, you can control the bike with just one hand, just your right hand which does your throttle and your braking. The front brake actually activates the motors in the rear wheels which activate the regenerative braking, so when you hit the front brake, all three wheels start to brake.
DESLEY BLANCH : Explain what you mean by regenerative braking.
SIMON WILLIAMS : The motors are in the rear wheels and when you're slowing down, the motors have some resistance to them which actually slow you down and that energy is captured and you turn it into electricity and it is put back into the battery.
DESLEY BLANCH : And it's electric, therefore it's silent, so how many of these lithium ion batteries does it need to store the power that you require?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Well, I've got 16 in my bike, this is the first one I've built. I would say they will need a few more, probably about 21 or 22 in a production version just to get the distance you require and to make it go a little bit faster. Mine will only do about 50 kilometres an hour, but a production version will hopefully do at least 80 kilometres an hour and travel for about 60 kilometres on a charge or more.
DESLEY BLANCH : Do the batteries make the weight of the bike any heavier than the current postie bike?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Hmm, it will be slightly heavier, but it will also be able to carry more load as well, so they will be able to carry a bit more mail.
DESLEY BLANCH : And how do you recharge the bike and how long does that take?
SIMON WILLIAMS : The charger is actually on board the bike, so you pull up to a power outlet and you plug it in. You can plug it in for up to about three hours will give you a full charge. If you only plug it in for say half-an-hour, you'll get a fair bit back, because it starts to charge up very quickly to start with and the last bit takes a long time. So in half-an-hour you could get another two hours riding out of it.
DESLEY BLANCH : Is it the sort of bike that people could use for commuting?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Oh, look I hope to ride my bike to work as soon as it is roadworthy, so yeah, I see lots of applications for it including commuting to and from work.
DESLEY BLANCH : And have people contacted you for any other uses that you didn't think about or anticipate?
SIMON WILLIAMS : After I was on the New Inventors a lot of people contacted me and yeah, a few people came up with interesting applications. There were a surprising number of elderly people who weren't prepared to go to a mobility scooter and weren't quite prepared to go to a motorcycle. They wanted something in between and that sort of surprised me a little bit that that generation of people that it would appeal to them as well.
In the United Kingdom, there are a lot of pizza deliveries that are actually done by scooters and there's a company over there that are modifying existing scooters to safely transport pizza and I feel that might bike has the potential to be used as a pizza delivery vehicle amongst other types of delivery. It's quite a large market actually. The company is modifying about 3,000 bikes a year, which is quite a few bikes.
DESLEY BLANCH : And when it comes to putting one together, how long does it take to build the bike from start to finish?
SIMON WILLIAMS : It took me a long time to build the first one, but once they get into production, about five hours from start to finish, which is very fast.
DESLEY BLANCH : How do you plan to move your bike from concept stage through to this commercial product?
SIMON WILLIAMS : I'm working with a design company in the United Kingdom who are automotive designers. Now they're going to put together a design and manufacturing drawings and make prototypes of a production model. That will then go to an existing motorcycle manufacturer in eastern Europe we hope. Then they will manufacture it. They have distribution lines set up already, so that some of the hard bits have been done.
DESLEY BLANCH : And Australia Post are interested in your Trike so how are they demonstrating that interest?
SIMON WILLIAMS : There's a company that advises Post on energy efficiencies and ways to increase their efficiencies and improve their profits I guess. Now they have contacted me and were quite interested in my bike and have presented that to Australia Post and Post have been very positive about the future of my bike and would like to actually work with me to develop it to meet their requirements which is very important.
DESLEY BLANCH : And are there other nations including the Royal Mail in Britain that are also trialling electric bikes?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Almost every country in the world is looking at electric transportation for their mail delivery and that makes sense because on a dollar-for-dollar basis you get more mileage out electric vehicles. It is far cheaper to run at the end of the day, far less maintenance and they are able to use their vehicles for much longer. But the first postal vehicles were actually electric back in the late 1800s.
DESLEY BLANCH : Oh really.
SIMON WILLIAMS : So we've sort of digressed a bit, but you know hopefully we're back on track.
DESLEY BLANCH : You're closing the circle.
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah.
DESLEY BLANCH : So tell us what you're planning to offer the International Postal Convention next year and what you hope will make your invention stand out from others.
SIMON WILLIAMS : Well hopefully, I've designed a bike that will be quite attractive to just about any postal company, keeping in mind that postal delivery takes many forms right around the world and it will not be suited to every single nation, but they will see a bike or Trike which is far more suited to their style of delivery than the things they are using at the moment or the things that are currently on the market.
DESLEY BLANCH : What sort of accessories can you add?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Obviously the panniers are the big one for the mail delivery. There are also things, like you could put a stereo on because it is so quiet for example, or you could put data logging devices which enable you to record information as you going, such as delivery rate and the amount of weight you're carrying, also the amount of energy you're using through the trip.
DESLEY BLANCH : GPS, I guess?
SIMON WILLIAMS : GPS, road maps. There are all sorts of things that will develop as time goes on and I'm hoping to include most of those things in the first production run of the bike.
DESLEY BLANCH : Apart from mail deliveries, where else do you see your vehicle being used?
SIMON WILLIAMS : I think there is a requirement in the police force, inner city police activity. They ride mountain bikes and are on foot a fair bit and also military application is another thing. The military have trialled so many bikes in their time and again it's not going to be used for every event but there is definitely a need for something similar to what I have designed.
DESLEY BLANCH : And I guess couriers and food deliveries and all those sorts of things come into it, yeah?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah, look I hope it really takes off.
DESLEY BLANCH : You would have to put a heater or cooler in it, won't you?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah. (laughs)
DESLEY BLANCH : Well, having spent those 18 months as a postie and this is why I have to ask this question, because I really want to do on day, but I am running out of time. But what was it like and what did you learn from the experience?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Look, postal workers in general are very much underappreciated. It's quite a challenging job, it's quite tiring, it's quite physical. I really enjoyed it. You start very early in the morning and you have to sort all your mail before you go out, which can take quite a few hours to sort thousands of letters literally. You put all your mail in your bags and then the stuff that doesn't fit in your bags then gets taken out to boxes on site which you pick up through the day and you're busy from the time you walk in the door to the time you get home. It's quite a challenge.
DESLEY BLANCH : (laughter) You're destroying my romantic image. I always have this bring the love letters to the loved ones and all that kind of thing. Blow the whistle, hear you coming.
SIMON WILLIAMS : Happens sometimes. (laughter)
DESLEY BLANCH : But it will not hear us coming if you're on this electric bike, you won't know the postie's coming down the road, you won't be rushing out there looking for the love letter. That's the only drawback I can see so far!
SIMON WILLIAMS : Yeah, well, hopefully the dogs won't attack you so much either, because they can hear you coming on the postie bikes and they wait for you. They know when you're coming. (laughter)
DESLEY BLANCH : Well Simon, what's your next step and now what do you need to take it. You've mentioned a couple of things that are happening in Britain and in Australia, but for you, what's next for you?
SIMON WILLIAMS : Okay, the next step is to get some investment money, capital, and get this bike designed and into manufacture. That can happen quite quickly. I just need a bit of money behind me and I have a few leads, so hopefully that money will come soon enough and I will be able to start the process.
DESLEY BLANCH : Simon Williams of Hobart in Tasmania is the designer of an electric Postie three-wheeled vehicle that's set to revolutionise mail delivery. And I think my romantic idea of bringing love letters to loved ones is being replaced, really, by heaps of parcels that are being purchased online. They are loaded down with those and maybe that is why they need that transport development.
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