Pedal Power! The World of Human-Powered Vehicles

Updated on March 23, 2018
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

The author's parents on a recumbent tandem that the father, Tom Traylor built. This was taken in San Jose, 2004
The author's parents on a recumbent tandem that the father, Tom Traylor built. This was taken in San Jose, 2004 | Source

Sleek and shaped like a bullet, a small, silent vehicle passes by at 30 miles per hour on a busy street. Some pedestrians gawk, and a few drivers and passengers in gas-powered cars crane their heads toward this fully enclosed three-wheeler. While not a speedster when compared with the gas-powered vehicles it shares the road with, it manages to keep pace with them. This is amazing, considering that this unique vehicle’s engine is barely visible under the fiberglass canopy. And that engine is pedaling as hard as he can.

This “vehicle”—often characterized as a bicycle or tricycle—is part of a growing trend of vehicles using an alternative form of fuel: human power. While many mechanical engineers and mechanics are experimenting with fuel cells, electricity, biodiesel, clean coal, and solar power, others are looking at aerodynamic canopies, Kevlar frames, pedals, gears, and cranks to form an efficient human-powered vehicle.

What Qualifies as HPV?

Human-powered vehicle (HPV) is a classification given to certain vehicles powered by pedal power. Most are bicycles, tricycles or Quadra-cycles. However, the classification goes beyond bikes. It includes boats (some with hydrofoils), submarines, planes, and amphibian vehicles.

The most popular or mainstream versions of HPVs are recumbent bicycles. Once considered an oddity, these single or tandem bicycles and tricycles are being manufactured for public use. One can find them on bike paths and city streets throughout the world. The most popular brand is Easy Rider. Others are homemade and come from plans sold on the Internet or through ads in bicycling magazines.

Another type of recumbent HPV that has gained popularity are the hand-crank versions. These particular models have helped those with paralysis from the waist down. It allows them to ride in bike tours, and bike centuries (100 mile rides), as well giving them an efficient form of travel.

A growing number of high school vocational teachers throughout the United States implemented curriculum focused on building an HPV.

Fully Faired Recumbent

Fully covered “cars," also known as fully faired recumbent or streamliners, are not as common. The makers built them for races and time-trials. Interestingly, many inventors of these sleek vehicles are amateurs.

Others come from the ranks of engineers, mechanics, and engineering students from universities around the world. In fact, the latter come build and race the bikes in numerous events held around the country. In several cases, they are not college students. A growing number of high school vocational teachers throughout the United States implemented curriculum focused on building an HPV. And, yes, they’ve built them for racing, too.

Aerovelo Eta at Blue Mountain, Nevada, 2016. Originally published in
Aerovelo Eta at Blue Mountain, Nevada, 2016. Originally published in

The Race Becomes the Showcase

The International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA), often organizes these races. They organize other events and races for non-bike HPVs as well. Over the years, they managed to heighten the exposure of HPVs through parades, national and international races, fairs, and expositions. One such event was part of the 1986 World Fair held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Time trials have become crucial to HPVs, especially for streamliners. In fact, serious speeds have been reached in these trials. In 1986, Gardner Martin’s HPV, Gold Rush, won the DuPont prize after its rider, “Fast Freddy” Markham, topped speeds at 65.484 mph. The bike was later put on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

That feat was later broken in 1992 when the bike Cheetah, ridden by Chris Huber, hit 68 mph. Then in 2008, Sam Whittingham powered his streamlined Varna Diablo III to an astounding 82.33 mph.

In 2016, a bullet-shaped bike named Aerovelo Eta hit 89.59 mph at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge held at Blue Mountain, Nevada (the site of many land speed records).

Tom Traylor (the author's father) on one of two human powered boats. This was taken at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, 2008.
Tom Traylor (the author's father) on one of two human powered boats. This was taken at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, 2008. | Source

HPV on Water

When one thinks of pedal-powered boats, the first things that comes to mind are the slow, cumbersome ones found on recreational ponds, reservoirs and lakes. However, intrepid inventors have changed that imagery.

Several years ago, this writer’s father entered his HPV boat in an open class human-powered boat race in Long Beach Harbor. The coordinator was hesitant, believing that a pedal-boat was one of those heavy square, fiber-glass boats. Still, he allowed him to enter it in the race. He was blown away by what he saw in terms of its sleek catamaran design and speed on the water.

The HPV boat and rider (at the tender age of 60) raced against two dozen paddlers that included several Olympian medalists in canoe and kayak racing. He came in second.

That was one mere race. There have been many. And there have been some impressive records broken in the process. Not only that, some major players in the corporate and collegiate community have created their own pedal-powered water beasts.

Decavitator, a fully faired, pedal- and propeller-powered boat, ridden by Mark Drela and designed by students and instructors fromm MIT, achieved a speed of 18.50 knots (21.28 mph), breaking the record of 12.94 knots held by Allen Abbott’s hydrofoil Flying Fish.

March 7, 1988 NASA Photo / Beasley
March 7, 1988 NASA Photo / Beasley | Source

HPV in the Air

As the saying goes, the sky is the limit. And that’s exactly where HPV went. They haven’t reached the heights that motorized or jet powered plane can go, but they’ve made impressive strides.

Competition breeds progress, and in the world of flying HPV, breaking the distance they can travel in the air is the main competition. MIT’s pedal and propeller-powered Daedalus broke records by flying 74 miles across the Aegean Sea. In 1989, Cal Poly’s DaVinci III became the first successful human powered helicopter. Also, the Gossamer Albatross, a human powered blimp, took flight in 1985.

Scubster by Terence Dewaele
Scubster by Terence Dewaele | Source

Under Water

The latest human-powered vehicles to emerge are submarines or submergible. Usually, teams comprised of engineering students and programs from various colleges and universities have become leaders in this field.

To date, the fastest time for a one-person vehicle was 6.97 knots, set by the sub Omer 3 from the University of Quebec’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure in Montreal. The pilot was Francois Maisonneuve.

From the 2011 Kinetic Sculpture Race in Humbolt County, California
From the 2011 Kinetic Sculpture Race in Humbolt County, California | Source

Kinetic Sculpture

Another interesting class of HPVs is the all-terrain vehicles known as Kinetic Sculptures. Usually, these amphibian vehicles are not fast, but they can travel on land and ocean. They can travel on dirt or muddy terrain, as well. And, they’re often the most decorative of all HPVs.

They can be big and cumbersome, and be adorned with flashy colors or themed decorations. These vehicles have their own races as well; the premiere event is Humboldt County, California’s Kinetic Grand Championship. It’s also known as the “Triathlon of the Art World” since it’s a race that combines art and engineering with a physical endurance race.

The Future

There are other vehicles. There’s talk of creating a human-powered rocket, also, there are pedal powered vehicles being used on abandoned railroad tracks.

There’s no doubt that HPVs are fuel efficient. Also, these vehicles have become popular among engineers, amateur builders and designers, and colleges. At this point, these vehicles have found some success as a leisure sport or as an alternative mode of transportation.

Right now, their unique designs and speeds are turning heads. Soon, those same people may be able to have their own to race on streets, waterways or the air.

From Arcata Kinetic Sculpture Race of 2015

© 2018 Dean Traylor


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    • Dean Traylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Dean Traylor 

      2 years ago from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story)

      As a side note: if one takes a close look at the leading photo with my father and mother riding the tandem, the pedal system is called a front-wheel drive (he patented it). In other words, the system is connect to the front wheel rather than the rear wheel. This system is on a majority of his bikes (all recumbent). Also, the body of the bike is carbon fiber. His earlier models used light sheet metal. There's very little tubing on these models. His first model, however, had tubing (he created it by dismantling old bikes and welding them into s recumbent frame.


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