Bike theft is a huge industry. In Germany last year 317,000 bikes were stolen of which only 9.6% were recovered. In Britain the figure was 444,000. The U.S., where cities such as Portland, New York City and Washington have won accolades for cycling projects, bikes worth a total of $350 million are stolen each year. Now a new technology is tackling the problem.
In 2004 it was discovered that Kryptonite cylinder locks could be sprung with the tip of a Bic pen, a defect it had known since 1992. “Since then, cylinder keys have all but vanished from bike locks, but the bike industry is famous for reusing bad ideas; they’ll no doubt be back, and should be avoided,” reports Bike Radar.
Almost every bike lock on Earth is breakable. By confounding and confusing a crook, however, a good bike lock can help secure a commodity in the ascendency like few others.
Recently, however, tech and locks have married to produce some intriguing and potentially lucrative designs. The key, say experts, was Bluetooth 4.0, aka Bluetooth Smart, which became commonplace only in 2012.
“The technology just wasn’t there,” says David Gengler, co-founder and CEO of FUZDesigns, a Utah-based company which manufactures the Noke, a Bluetooth-unlockable model which begins shipping in 2015. The Noke features a ‘sleep’ function that, Gentler says, greatly extends its battery life.
“Old tech required large batteries and expensive components that just didn’t make sense for portable locks,” he adds. “The ubiquity of smartphones and the introduction of Bluetooth 4.0 made it possible to make small portable locks that didn’t need constant recharging.”
“Bluetooth 4.0 is the big revolution that made smart bike locks possible,” adds Jack Al-Kahwati, CEO of Velo Labs. “It’s low power, and pairs to your phone easily.”
Bicycle production hit 133 million in 2012, a 500% increase on 1962. Bike share schemes exist in over 500 cities worldwide, and cycling infrastructure has become one of the 21st century’s key urban planning challenges.
Velo Labs, founded in San Francisco by former Boeing and Jawbone engineers, has developed the Skylock, a feature-rich, solar-powered smart lock that is smartphone-unlockable and includes an accelerometer which can alert bike owners to tampering, and medical services in the event of a crash.
Al-Kahwati believes that the Internet of Things revolution, spurred by the smartphone industry, “is allowing the re-invention of commodity products into new smart devices.” Skylock, for example, has capitalized on new technology to carry a special antenna and amplifier that increases Bluetooth range to 200 million.
He adds that Europe has provided the biggest battle ground for smart lock companies, and that Skylock has seen more demand in London than New York City and San Francisco combined.
Mehrdad Majzoobi, founder and CEO of Bitlock, a smart lock firm which is also hoping to add 50,000 bicycles to its in-house bike share scheme, also views Europe as the world’s most lucrative market. Its Nordic sales are “massive,” he says, the company’s biggest sales coming from there, Germany and Switzerland.
“The high level idea is that our smartphones will over time replace everything that we fit in our pocket, wallets and keys,” he adds. “However, we are still far from mass adoption of smart locks on a consumer level.”
With so many smart locks beginning to enter the market, or become available on pre-order, that is surely set to change. The pain point is, of course, huge. Bicycle travel is one of the most important factors in reducing road traffic worldwide. The number of cars on the planet passed a billion in 2011, and is thought today to be around 1.2 billion.
By 2035, CNBC estimates, there could be 1.7 billion cars on roads across the planet. Aside from the ecological damage that could do, if the current share of new cars with hybrid engines – 2.5% – continues, the human toll will be huge. In 2010 the World Health Organization found that a person dies roughly every 25 seconds from traffic-related incidents.
“As population of the cities are constantly increasing, if we continue using cars at the same rate, roads in denser cities like New York will get completely jammed with cars, and it will be impossible to move around in the city,” says Majzoobi.
“Even services such as Uber and Lyft will stop working in traffic jams,” he adds. “The ultimate solution will be using smaller vehicles – bikes and e-bikes – for short distance trips, while using cars only for trips longer than 5-10 miles.”
David Gengler has faith that “key (will) go away, just like they have in cars,” which will make biking more omnipresent. Jack Al-Kahwati, too, believes that bike shares and smart technology is the way forward: “Allowing anyone to rent a bike on-demand is the next logical leap for dense cities around Europe and the rest of the world.”
It may be one of Bluetooth’s lesser-lauded achievements, but the standard’s effect on bike locks may have started a ripple effect that will change the planet forever.