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"One can see the free software movement as a precusor for a "free hardware" or "free wetware" movement--one that will provide free libraries of designs for biological or nanotechnological products that replicators can be programmed to churn out."
- Charles Stross

Smartwheels  
  Special "wheels" that are actually sets of spokes that telescope to be as long as they need to be for a smooth ride.  

RadiKS Mark II Smartwheels. Every skateboarder on Earth would have these - if only they really existed. I've never heard of an idea like this being considered. You might think of it as a variable radius wheel, or a really sophisticated system of stilts.

But to Kouriers, this was professional equipment that got your messages through on time.

Smartwheels use sonar, laser range finding and millimeter wave radar to identify mufflers and other debris. Each one consists of a hub with many tiny spokes. Each spoke telescopes into five sections. On the end is a squat foot, rubber tread on the bottom, swiveling on a ball joint. As the wheel rolls, the feet plant themselves one at a time, almost glomming into one continuous tire. If you surf over a bump, the spokes contract to roll over it. If you surf over a pothole, the rubber prongs probe its asphalt depths. Either way, the shock is thereby absorbed, no thuds, smacks, vibrations, or clunks will make their way into the plank or the Converse hightops with which you tread it. The ad was right - you cannot be a professional road surfer without smartwheels.
From Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.
Published by Bantam in 1992
Additional resources -

I want a car with wheels like these! When you think about it, wheels like this are very minimalist - which is a cyberpunk trait as well. The spoked wheel (for bicycles) was only invented in the last 150 years; now, we can do with out the round outer "wheel" part, and just use the spokes.

Here's another quote that gets the nature of smartwheels across:

The smartwheels of her skateboard, many, many spokes extending and retracting to fit the shape of the ground, take her across the lawn like a pat of butter skidding across hot Teflon.

For an earlier reference to a similar concept, see the flex-wheels from Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Snow Crash is the novel that put the word "cyberpunk" on the map*; it's a great ride. (* Okay, I had just finished rereading the novel, and it's true that I could - fairly - be accused of an excess of enthusiasm, since the term had been around since being coined in a story published in 1983. Yes, yes I've read lots of the other stories by Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and others, all of whose works are represented elsewhere on the site.) And yes, the pizza delivery scene that starts the book is the most remarkable such scene in all of world literature.

You might also be interested in a different sort of "smart wheels" - a real-world technology with potential uses in robotics:

CSOIS students, faculty, and staff at Utah State University have developed a key enabling technology concept called the 'smart wheel'. This is a self-contained wheel module with a steering motor, drive motor, and an innovative slip ring that allows data and power to pass from the chassis to the wheel without a wired connection. The slip ring allows infinite rotation in the steering degree of freedom.

See USU center for self-organizing intelligent systems.

Comment/Join this discussion ( 5 ) | RSS/XML | Blog This |

Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Snow Crash
  More Ideas and Technology by Neal Stephenson
  Tech news articles related to Snow Crash
  Tech news articles related to works by Neal Stephenson

Smartwheels-related news articles:
  - Soft Robot Powered By Shape Memory Alloy Spokes
  - IMPASS Robot Has Snow Crash 'Smart Wheels'
  - Smart Wheels Are Artificially Intelligent
  - Segway's New RMP - Robotic Mobility Platform
  - Virtual Body-Swapping Tech
  - Dynamic Augmented Wheel System Eight-Part Wheel
  - IMPASS Robot 'Smart Wheel' Video
  - Is The OutRunner Robot Like Smartwheels?

Articles related to Transportation
Fleets Of Ford Autonomous Cars In 5 Years
No Human Drivers By 2040 - Israel
Human-Carrying Drone Taxi 184 Approved For Test Flights
Solowheel Xtreme Heinlein Tumblebug Video

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