Chinese manufacturer Ninebot isn’t the only company making electric unicycles — or one-wheeled personal transportation devices, if you prefer — but, by all accounts (which is code for “trawling through online electric unicycle forums”), the Ninebot One E+ is considered the current market leader thanks to its space-age design, build quality, excellent range and top speed.
Ninebot makes Segway-like, two-wheeled, self-balancing electric scooters in addition to electric unicycles. In fact, Segway filed a complaint for patent infringement against the company over the similarities between the two companies’ products, only to find itself acquired by Ninebot (with the financial assistance of mobile phone manufacturer Xiaomi) in April.
Launched more than a decade ago, Segways never really took off, largely due to their hefty price tags. That and consumers seemed to decide early on that two-wheeled scooters were, well, more than a little silly. The Ninebot One E+ — and other electric unicycles like it — may well be even sillier, but they garner far more interest from passersby than their two-wheeled brethren, and have a far steeper learning curve.
Like a Segway, the One E+ is controlled by the rider shifting their centre of gravity. Shift your weight forwards and the unit accelerates, shift it backwards and it brakes (or, if you’re stationary, reverses) and steering is achieved by shifting your weight left or right. However, while pretty much anyone can hop on a Segway and go, the One E+ takes some getting used to, particularly when it comes to turning or getting on the thing without having something to hold onto.
It took us about four and half hours to get the hang of the One E+, the first two of which were spent riding up and down a parallel to a waist-height fence we could hang onto and the rest of which were spent in an empty shopping mall parking lot where we could safely try our hand (or feet) and wide, banking turns without fear of hitting anything.
That said, it took an inebriated former pro skateboarder we met while out with the device about five minutes to get to grips with it, and an enthusiastic, barefoot teenage boy we showed it to had it down pat in about ten minutes, so YMMV.
Turn the One E+ on and it immediately levels out with the two foot stands parallel to the ground. Tilt the unit forward and it’ll go forward, tilt it backwards and, as expected, it reverses. However, the terms “forwards” and “backwards” are a bit misleading as, at one point, we hopped on the unit with it back to front and were none the wiser until we stopped riding it ten minutes later.
This means that, really, you’re only responsible for keeping your balance so that the unit doesn’t topple to the left or the right, making it far easier than a conventional unicycle, where it’s possible to fall in any of the 360º on offer.
Ticket to ride
With its 16-inch tyre the Ninebot handles more terrain types than we’d expect. While it’s best used on concrete, tar or other hard, smooth surfaces, it manages perfectly well on short grass and even gravel. The company claims it can handle inclines of 20º, but we found it had no problems with even steeper ones closer to 30º.
The battery (a 320Wh one in the case of the One E+) takes between two and four hours to charge and offers a range of 25-30km on a single charge. The top speed is 22km/h, which we managed to confirm by taking our lives in our hands and watching the accompanying app for iOS and Android that connects to the unit using Bluetooth and shows the user live speedometer, wattage and temperature readings. The app also lets you to change the colours and patterns of the pair of rings of LEDs on each side of the unit, or turn them off completely.
Hit top speed or lean too far forwards and the One E+ emits a warning beep and tilts backwards. It’s a little unnerving at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly and, over time, get a good idea when you’re nearing top speed. For those who do want to go faster (you crazy bastards) Ninebot is releasing the One P in months to come that promises increased range and a top speed of around 30km/h.
Above each foot rest there’s a padded panel that presses against the inside of the rider’s calf muscles when turning. These, along with the plastic case can be replaced, in a move reminiscent of early Nokia phones that offered a range of colourful shells. The entire unit is modular, making it relatively easy to swap out the battery or other components if necessary, though we wonder how readily available replacement parts are outside of China.
Have Ninebot, will travel
On top of the unit there’s a carry handle that sits flush against the device when not in use. But, considering the One E+ weighs around 14kg, you’re going to want to ride it rather than carry it whenever possible. Ninebot makes a backpack carry case for the One E+, but we didn’t get to test this out. Frankly, the prospect of lugging the device around on our backs isn’t very appealing anyway.
Though you can set the LED lights to turn red on the rear half of the device when braking, we’d like to see a pair of proper front and rear lights built in for night-time use. We also wouldn’t mind seeing the carry handle replaced with a collapsible rolling-suitcase-style handle that extends to waist height so that should one run out of charge the unit can be rolled rather than carried. And the valve for adjusting tyre pressure could be easier to get to.
Otherwise, the Ninebot One E+ is a beautifully designed device and definitely the most aesthetically pleasing one-wheeler currently on the market. With the current lack of dedicated bicycle lanes in South Africa (something that’s gradually changing) we don’t expect to see anyone riding one to the office any time soon, but we’ve already started seeing the odd one show up in parks and the like.
It may take a few hours to get to grips with the intricacies of riding the Ninebot, and particularly the hop-on-and-lean-forward-immediately method of mounting the unit without assistance, but once you do its an oddly satisfying experience riding one.
The unit is extremely quiet — only incurring an electrical whirring noise at high speed — and once you’ve overcome the initial terror that saw us squeezing the leg rests for dear life, it’s a very comfortable and low-intensity activity. Of course, the lack of effort required might just mean mass Ninebot adoption would bring us closer to the future of extreme laziness and obesity imagined in WALL·E, but if laziness is this much fun we’ll take our chances.
“Look mom, it’s futureman!”
We fully expected to be chastised and taunted by members of the public while riding the Ninebot around Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake, but instead people were by and large amazed, intrigued and inquisitive about it. We also bumped into a family of five with all three children riding a different brand of electric one-wheeler, suggesting that, while electric unicycle’s like the Ninebot may remain leisure devices for the well-heeled rather than the future of personal, urban transport, perhaps it’s a stepping stone to whatever that future eventually turns out to look like.
If nothing else, the One E+ has taught us that you can, indeed, teach an old tech journo new tricks. And it’s made us wonder what our offspring are going to be using to commute. Hoverboots, perhaps?
The Ninebot One E+ is available in South Africa from Imperial Green Mobility for R12,000.