Story and photos by Glenn Roberts
The 2008 National Motorcycle Show in Toronto has always been heavily influenced by the American V-twin crowd and highlights some of the area’s top custom builders who have on display a fine array of one-off custom machines.
This year’s show, however, had one very unusual one-off custom, the Uno. The orange and grey coloured Uno made its first public appearance balanced on its two side-by-side wheels and its footpegs. Looking more like it should have been ridden by George Jetson as he pulled up to his space platform, it looked out of place amid the other custom creations in the building. Perhaps that’s why it garnered so much attention. Since no one has ever seen a machine like this, the first question asked by on-lookers was:
“What is it?”
Ultra Modern Meets Ultra Custom
The Uno and its inventor, 18-year-old Ben J. Poss Gulak, hung out in a booth neighbouring the show’s special guest, Russell Mitchell of Exile Cycles and was the ultimate in contrast of custom creations. In fact, heavily tattooed Mitchell was seen riding the Uno around the show on Saturday evening. Ben, as you would expect, fielded a multitude of questions about his strange vehicle once people got over his young age. As Ben will tell you, the most common question was, “What’s your background, how did you get into doing something like this?” A worthy question, and also my first question to Ben.
Ben grew up around his grand-father’s basement machine shop. While he doesn’t have any formal training, yet, Ben has spent much of his life making projects like ‘model trains, rockets and other cool stuff.’
The education he gleaned from his grandfather, who was an engineer, and from simply being a tinkerer prompted Ben to enter into a grade nine school science fair with a ‘real simple magnetic car that shot around a track using accelerator coils.’ This is where I started to worry that this guy is going to start speaking a language that is way over my head. He must have noticed my eyes starting to glaze over and came back to earth for me. He did well at the grade nine science fair, and as a result, he was chosen to move up to the Regionals, then to the Nationals. He was then chosen to represent Canada at an International level.
“Team Canada consists of 18 people that compete against 54 other countries. The judges at this level all carry PHD’s in their respective fields,” Ben said. The 18-year-old continued, “There were astronauts and Nobel laureates speaking to the kids in attendance. It was a real eye opener, and after the competition I realized I really wanted to get into engineering.”
About a month after the competition, Ben’s grandfather passed away and his machine shop was willed to Ben. He continued to compete in science fairs with progressively more complicated projects thanks to the increased knowledge he gained as every year of high school passed.
A 2006 trip to China prompted Ben to consider a project in electric transportation after seeing the damage done by the internal combustion engine. “The smog was so thick, we never saw the sun,” Ben said. He then realized that some form of electric transport was desperately needed in the same compact form as a motorcycle or bicycle to help ease congestion and save the environment.
Since Ben had competed at the International level of the science fair before, he was able to apply to Team Canada directly without going through the Regional and National levels of competition. It was this competition that he submitted his first Uno. A simple frame made from angle iron and mountain bike wheels, which were of course powered by electric motors.
The First Public Viewing
The Uno model you see here, Ben’s third prototype, was unveiled at the National Show. After many hand drawn sketches and complex drawings, he began the machining work of building the basic drive/suspension assembly. He didn’t know CAD software, but instead used the free Google software called Google SketchUp. Ironically, a salesman came knocking shortly after, trying to sell SolidWorks, a 3-D CAD software package. Ben explained he couldn’t afford anything like that, but he did show the salesman what he was working on. The next day a copy of SolidWorks and a SolidWorks for Dummies book arrived, (smart salesman, he probably has a customer for life now).
Sometimes You Need a Little Help
While Ben did all the work to get the Uno this far, he was in need of some help. He needed tires mounted on his custom-made wheels and had heard of Motorcycle Enhancements in Oakville, Ontario. Ben called and spoke with owner, John Cosentini. It must have been fate as this was a call that would have a major impact on the finishing touches of the Uno. Cosentini, a well-known figure in the Oakville motorcycle scene, and an accomplished custom bike builder, mounted the tires and since he has an inquiring mind, he began asking a few questions. Ben sensed the curiosity and a couple of days later brought in his project. This time, with questions of his own for John. Ben needed a frame to complete the skeletal structure of the Uno and John suggested a Yamaha R1 frame because of its width between frame spars, a requirement needed to hold the drive/suspension portion of the Uno.
Ben also needed a body to wrap around the framework. Cosentini, a mechanic and never being one to turn down a challenge, took on the project. John and Ben began by making a simple frame which they could mount Styrofoam onto. They carved the Styrofoam into the general shape they were looking for and then began to apply drywall compound over top of the styrofoam. The drywall mud was used for a couple of reasons; if fiberglass was applied directly to the styrofoam, it would chemically melt it; also, the drywall mud could then be fine tuned by building up and sanding for the final shape. Latex primer and paint was applied to create a smooth surface and the latex would also allow for easier removal of the fiberglass from the mold.
The molding took six weeks to complete and only two hours to destroy once the fiberglass was set. The body was then cut in half and sent to Roger Pouw at Extreme Measures Kustom Paint (www.extrememeasures.ca) for final bodywork and paint.
Ben was now well on his way to having a physical entity, but had a lot of fine-tuning to do on the computer side of things. He had programmed the software to understand what the digital gyros were feeding into the ECU (electronic control unit) but couldn’t quite get it right, after all, it’s a pretty grey area. Soon he was on a plane to meet Trevor Blackwell in California. Blackwell is a robotics and gyro expert. After a couple of visits to Blackwell, Ben had the Uno in full operation mode. Ben claims a single gyro was easy to program, but this project was more complicated because the Uno has two gyros, one for forward and backward motion and the other is for turning, while keeping the forward or reverse momentum constant.
The Operation of the Uno
Operation of the 54.4 kg (120 lb) machine is simple, in fact it’s so simple there are no controls except for an on-off switch. To go forward you simply push your body weight forward to tilt the machine. To back up, just lean back on the seat to tilt it backwards and back it goes. The farther you lean, the faster it accelerates. The gyro tells the ECU how much to accelerate and that in turn delivers the proper amount of current to the electric motors, one for each wheel.
If you likened it to being a fancy Segway, Ben will quickly correct you. “It’s much more complicated than a Segway. The Segway uses a hand control to turn left or right. On the Uno, you just need to lean in the direction you wish to go. If you want to turn right you just lean right.” The independent suspension allows the unit to lean like a motorcycle during a turn. The inner wheel will then compress the suspension so the wheel moves up inside the body while the outer wheel continues to make contact with the ground. The gyro detects the sideways motion and instructs the ECU accordingly. Since each wheel has its own electric motor, the outer wheel speeds up in order to complete the turn.
If the rider is moving forward and needs to stop, he simply leans back. The electric motors have inherently high torque so stopping is very quick. If you continue to lean backward, the Uno will go backwards. All the while, the Uno feels quite stable. A full battery pack will provide about 3 hours of travel time and charging time is only 17 minutes if using a fast charger.
In My Own Experience
Ben was kind enough to let me try the Uno and while it takes some getting used to, it is very manageable, at least going forwards and backwards. I felt stable on the machine and it is even easy to balance while stationary. I did find it a little unnerving while trying to corner and I didn’t quite get that right.
The Future of the Uno
At this point, the Uno only has the capability of doing 16 km/h (10 mph). This is due to software programming. The fourth generation Uno is in the works as you read this, and Ben assures me it will be able to motor along at a healthy 50 km/h (30 mph). He has to programme the ECU in 10 mph increments and will be increasing its speed for the new Uno.
Ben understands there is probably not much of a market for the Uno in North America, but feels very strongly about the possibility for its use in Europe and Asia. It may just be the way of a greener future in heavily populated cities.
While he has to decide his future education, remember the name Ben J. Poss Gulak. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing more of this talented lad in the future. At press time he had been accepted at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford University in California and was expecting acceptance results from other universities. Ben also proudly mentioned to me that the Uno will be on the cover of Popular Science’s June issue which will be released at the end of May, and will also be on Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet in May.
Incidentally, I’m sure you are wondering if the Uno took home any awards in the custom bike competition at the National Motorcycle Show. Ben took home the Best Engineering Award, and rightfully so. This hand-built machine is truly a one-off custom unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.