No futurologist, not even a top-hatted Victorian-era gentleman of a forward-thinking bent, ever suggested bicycles would be the most favored city transport of the 21st century.
But while a practical flying car remains rather unlikely, bikes that would be perfectly recognizable to the likes of H. G. Wells get ever cooler.
Electric-assisted bikes—above all other types—have boomed these past two years, with people looking for speedy, eco-friendly (and, frankly, fashionable) alternatives to commuting on crowded trains and buses. Brands from China and Taiwan especially, some of them excellent, launch almost weekly.
But it’s the equally developed bike culture of Europe’s low countries, Holland and Belgium, which has spawned two particular e-bike brands, each with a compelling blend of engineering excellence, tech innovation, and aesthetic style.
In Amsterdam, VanMoof started out 12 years ago with a vision for Internet-connected electric city bikes. They are now probably the world’s most sought-after brand.
But nearly 130 miles south, in Brussels, a new contender, Cowboy, started as late as 2017. And with $42 million worth of investment and 25,000 in sales already, their latest model, the Cowboy 4, is, for our money, the most advanced—and futuristic-looking—e-bike on the market.
Despite the clunky name, Cowboy bikes are an urban head-turner. Quite literally, wherever you take a Cowboy, heads swivel and admiring comments ensue.
But it’s the technology which will win you over once you’re used to the clean, uncluttered lines. Your smartphone clicks into the center of the handlebar on a Quad Lock mount and becomes the control hub, unlocking the bike and giving you a cascade of information, from your route options to the weather, to your cycling statistics, to your friends’ competing metrics. That’s a lot of draw on the phone’s battery, but it charges wirelessly as you’re moving, at 15 watts of power. And the bike and its central A.I. features can be made to work even if you lose—or choose not to ride with—your phone.
The actual cycling is a dream. The motor cuts in only when the bike’s A.I. senses, be it from the gradient of the road or the extra pressure you are putting on the pedals, that you need a little help. So, it’s not a motorcycle; you get plenty of exercise, but you also feel like Superman when you conquer steep hills without undue stress.
The Cowboy 4 is gearless, the battery is removable, and, if stolen, the bike can be tracked anywhere. In Europe, a Cowboy stolen in Belgium turned up in Albania and was retrieved by the police there.
The Belgian start-up is making a major push into the U.S., concentrating on the exact centers you’d expect: San Francisco; New York City; Los Angeles; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Philadelphia; and Portland. As a new feature, for $20 a month you can get Cowboy Care for unlimited maintenance, even allowing riders to summon a local mechanic to change a tire.
BOSE QUIETCOMFORT 45
’Tis the season of many things, but predominantly of leaf blowers. These ubiquitous, deafening, polluting harbingers of early winter are unpleasant enough when you’re doing nothing much and somebody fires one up close by.
If you’re trying to work from home, however, a neighbor’s leaf blower may soon have you pining for the city office and its mellifluous—by comparison—soundscape of traffic and sirens.
A pair of headphones playing some undemanding music will mask unwanted noise when you’re trying to concentrate, but, for most of us, quietness is much better.
How to achieve the sound of silence, though? Earplugs are uncomfortable and make you too aware of your breathing and heartbeat. Noise-canceling headphones sans music could work, but they are typically not as effective as we hope they might be.
The latest and best iteration yet of Bose’s QuietComfort headphones, however, offers noise cancellation that is almost startling, even when no music is playing, and is achieved with only a touch of that air-pressure sensation that noise cancellation can induce. They are also exceptionally light and soft on the head and ears.
It’s odd, perhaps, to review headphones based on their soundlessness rather than their audio quality. So, O.K.: Bose headphones sound fine. Great, compared with a number of others. Good bass. Loud and powerful. But there are many that are better.
Why is Bose so good at noise-cancel culture? Some might think its connection with M.I.T. explains it. But it’s misleading to see Bose as an M.I.T. spin-off. The university became the majority (non-voting) stock owner after the founder, Dr. Amar Bose, a Bengali-American electrical engineer, gave the bulk of the company to his alma mater.
The real reason for Bose’s pre-eminence is that Bose himself invented noise cancellation, on a 1978 flight from Zurich to Boston, and the company has been developing it for more than 40 years.
The concept—to create an opposing sound wave that mimics the unwanted noise in what’s called “destructive interference”—took 15 years and $50 million worth of research and development to get right, with many of his staff arguing that it was a hopeless dream.
Aviation and the military used Bose noise cancellation first, but since 2000, consumers have been able to benefit from the always improving technology. The Bose QuietComfort 45 is, accordingly, so quiet it’s almost eerie. An achievement to shout about. Quietly.
PUNKT MP02 NEW GENERATION
You need an unusual measure of self-confidence to use a so-called dumbphone—one with no e-mail, Web browsing, or social-media apps. A few years back, the Swiss start-up Punkt introduced stylish cell phones that did nothing but voice calls and texts. They sold all right and appeared in plenty of design stores, but they were just a bit too limited.
The concept that the hyper-socially-assured would never give a damn about the noise of everyday online life and concentrate instead on having great ideas was perhaps unrealistic.
So, the Lugano-based company produced a new model with a clever twist; it had 4G on board, so you had access to the Internet wherever you were, but you had to access it via Bluetooth on your laptop or tablet. As a result, checking your feeds would be less of a neurotic, 10-minutely knee jerk, as it is for many, and more of a conscious effort a couple of times a day. Better.
The Punkt MP02 was a hit. Now Punkt has upgraded it with this MP02 New Generation. Apart from coming in a sweet duck-egg blue as an option, it has a range of (necessary, we feel) hardware and software enhancements for increased responsiveness, multi-band coverage for full global roaming, and ramped-up security—a range of encryption and privacy features aimed at the serious powermonger.
One of those we particularly like: the self-destruct setting, whereby all messages sent through an encrypted app can be made to disappear in a thread on recipients’ devices seconds to days after they are opened.
LARQ PITCHER PUREVIS
Ours may be the first era in history when, the less stuff you include in a product, the more you can sell it for. Food, drink, cosmetics, cleaning products—premium and simple go hand in hand. So, organic food, absent a lab’s worth of chemicals, costs more than processed food.
A secondary irony here is that without seeking background information, we have no way of detecting what’s not in a product or what it truly does. Case in point: a New Zealand brand of sanitizer, Zoono, hit the jackpot globally, from the start of the pandemic, with its range of low-alcohol and alcohol-free products, which claim to keep hands virus-free for 24 hours (even if you wash them) and surfaces sanitized for 30 days.
How do we know it works without resorting to our own lab testing? Trust. Who ever heard of a shady New Zealander?
Silicon Valley isn’t devoid of dubious operators, but the San Mateo water-purification start-up Larq has built a fine reputation based on trust—along with plenty of published research. Their electronic water bottle for hikers uses UVC light to kill up to 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9997 percent of E. coli bacteria in, say, clear river water in the wild. But again, nothing to see.
Their latest purification tech is this digital pitcher for the kitchen rather than the wilderness. Larq argues that regular water-filtering pitchers take out impurities but let bacteria live another day—in your supposedly pure water.
So the brand’s Pitcher PureVis passes your tap water through a filter and then a lithium-battery-powered UV light. They publish plenty of data to show how biologically pure the resultant H20 is. We trust them. And if we’re not imagining it, Larq water does taste notably fresh. Naturally, there’s an accompanying phone app. Don’t worry; it’s not vital. You’ll never use it.
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology