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"Science fiction operates a little bit like science itself, in principle. You've got thousands of people exploring ideas, putting forth their own hypotheses. Most of them are dead wrong; a few stand the test of time; everything looks kind of quaint in hind"
- Peter Watts

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.

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.

Engineers and historians may recall the Pedrail Wheel, invented in 1903.


( Pedrail Wheel, invented in 1903 )

'The tread consists of a number of rubber shod feet which are connected by ball-and-socket joints to the ends of sliding spokes. Each spoke has attached to it a small roller which in its turn runs under a short pivoted rail controlled by a powerful set of springs. This arrangement permits the feet to accommodate themselves to obstacles even such as steps or stairs...'

(Thanks to Stephen Thomas for pointing this out.)

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.

Compare to the spherical tires from The Death's Head Meteor, by Neil R. Jones and the flex-wheels from Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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?
  - Flexup Tire Design Good For Tumblebugs
  - Flying Car Concept By Kash Sirinanda

Articles related to Transportation
Aťroplume Blimp For One Reflects 150 Years
Shift Moonwalkers Help You Walk Faster? How About Tractor Treads!
CopterPack Is Robert Heinlein's 1954 Copter Harness
Las Vegas Tunnels To Have Autonomous Teslas

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