Urtopia’s high-tech e-bike finally nails software

ByLance T. Lee

Oct 24, 2022

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At the end of last year, a curious new entry into the e-bike market emerged: Urtopia. The company’s mission seemed pretty clear, to create the most feature-rich connected bike the world had ever seen. And with a built-in 4G SIM card, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, fingerprint reader and mmWave sensors for collision detection, it was probably accomplished. Except that the model we tested was a prototype leaving us unable to assess some of the most interesting features. So far.

The commercial version of the bike is almost identical to the pre-production version that we tested at the end of last year, except for some minor cosmetic details. The D-pad on the left grip has been slightly redesigned and the fingerprint reader on the right is also now a button. The only other visible change is the dot-matrix display, which is now flat and easier to read.

Perhaps one of the main features we weren’t able to test wasn’t available at all: the app. With so much on the bike, it’s more important to have a companion tool on your phone to confirm settings and extract more use from some of the sensors (ride tracking, for example).

James Trew / Engadget

All I will say is that the bike may be the final hardware, but the software side of things started out a little… less complete. But within weeks the app was revamped and there were a few firmware updates for the bike itself and the experience felt much less like a work in progress.

But first a little reminder. The Urtopia Bike is a fixed-gear (Gates carbon belt), single-motor, three-level speed assist electric bike (20MPH in the US, 15MPH in Europe). The 30lbs/15Kg city bike offers approximately 60 miles of support on the 360Wh battery. It’s a pretty common spec for an e-bike, but one look at the Urtopia will tell you it’s not really a normal bike.

Last time I was able to test Urtopia’s credit as a general road bike, and despite a slightly stiff ride (there’s no suspension) it performed well, with a smooth pick-up from the torque-based motor. Voice control to change gears, lock the bike and more was also fun but maybe not the smoothest experience (and even if it was, I’m not sure we’re collectively ready to talk to our bikes in public at the moment).

The first thing I wanted to try here was 4G connectivity. Utopia isn’t unique in having a cellular connection (the newer VanMoofs, for example, also offer connectivity), but 4G here is behind some nice features. For once, you’ll (theoretically) get a log of your ride in the app every time you step outside. I say theoretically because it often didn’t work for me. Then sometimes it was. I couldn’t quite work out what made it work sometimes and not others, but I suspect it has to do with whether you leave the bike on standby at home or turn it off ( thus completely resetting the sensors).

After one of the firmware updates, this feature has become more reliable. Which is good, because it was frustrating to put in double-digit miles only to get home to find your ride wasn’t logged. Right now you can’t do much with the data other than see where you went and how fast in a smooth animation. Of course it logs all your miles and… while I went to check in the app what other data it logs there was an update to the app (duration, calories, average speed and even CO2 saved are the answer). Right now you can only share rides with the in-app ‘community’, but the option to share with services like Strava would be a real bonus.

Screenshots of the Urtopia ebike app

James Trew / Engadget

Similarly, the app can also tell you exactly where your bike is at all times, as long as the battery is connected and has enough power to ping the network. It will stop working once the battery is totally dead of course, but if someone steals your ride you should have plenty of time to ping them and locate them before they realize it’s the most connected bike in the world and it’s a wild ride.

Another security feature is the fingerprint sensor. This was physically present on the prototype, but without the app there was no way to configure it. It works surprisingly well and makes it quick to turn the bike on or off the alarm. You can still ride the bike unassisted without unlocking the bike with your finger, but it’s effectively a bulky fixie at this point. Unless you activate the alarm, it will start sounding an alert at the slightest, and I mean lesser movement that can only be disabled with a registered number.

One of the most intriguing additions to the Urtopia’s spec sheet are the mmWave sensors. These are designed to detect vehicles approaching from behind from either side. If something is detected, you will be alerted by a visual signal and vibrating handlebars. In practice, it’s a bit difficult to test without deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way, but it seems to work. However, I don’t know if, if you’re faced with a truck coming up behind, you might be more distracted by the alerts than the traffic itself. That is to say, this is clearly a valuable feature, but the result of which is difficult to quantify at the moment.

Integrated Urtopia ebike navigation.

James Trew / Engadget

Something much easier to assess is the navigation on board. Or rather, the ability to enter a destination into the app, then have visual and audio turn instructions through the speaker and displayed on the handlebars. There are, of course, other ways to do this – either with a phone in a holder or simply in your pocket with audio instructions via headphones. But having it here right in the handlebars feels much more futuristic and means you don’t have to expose your phone to the elements/thieves.

The dot-matrix display has a bit of a retro vibe and makes it look a bit more like KITT (especially when it’s talking to you). For navigation, it works quite well as the arrows/directions are displayed clearly enough that you can look at them without being distracted.

Urtopia calls this screen and speaker combo the “smart bar” and it has other plans for it beyond streaming data and other visual feedback. An example is using the bike speaker as a Bluetooth speaker for music. This may be accidentally my idea. I suggested it to them the first time we tested it, and now it’s part of the app. It’s kind of fun, though I’ve never felt more self-conscious than when I’m strolling through a busy park with drums and phone-quality bass playing from my bike. Podcasts might be a bit faster, but glad to see the feature here nonetheless.

A game of the Nokia classic, Snake, is displayed on the Urtopia e-bike's built-in display.

James Trew / Engadget

There is more. Another addition that was designed after our first tests is the “game” mode. It’s not quite what you probably imagine. Or at least, what I imagined. I assumed it could be some sort of virtual race where you have to “catch up” with a ghost driver like in a Mario Kart time trial. Or maybe some kind of way to make training/intervals fun? But no, it’s actually a Snake game that you can play on the screen using the control buttons which, to be fair, are basically a D-pad. Obviously, not to play while moving.

Perhaps the biggest chance since we last looked at the bike is the price. Now that the crowdfunding campaign is over and the bikes are made and ready to ship, the pre-sale price of $2,000 has given way to the regular retail price of $2,799. This puts it in a similar category to something like the Cowboy C4 which has less high-tech features, but has the important theft detection and location capabilities.

All that to say that the Urtopia certainly has a lot of technological appeal, but it still feels like the software and features install themselves. If they can continue to make that side of the experience as comfortable and as exciting as riding, it will be a solid choice for those who want a capital-E e-bike.

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