I have just returned home from the 2010 Interbike bicycle trade fair in Las Vegas.
This was the year for electrically-assisted bicycles – over 40 booths displayed them. Here are some examples:
The Nirve Lahaina electric bike is essentially just a conventional bicycle with add-ons. The front brake is an inexpensive long-reach sidepull, marginal even without the added weight of a motor and battery. The rear wheel has a Shimano three-speed hub with a coaster brake.
Here’s another example, a Pedego electric bike configured more or less like a conventional bicycle, and with derailleur gears, but with an electric motor in the rear hub, and on its way to be a motorcycle with fat tires that would have unacceptable rolling resistance with pedal power only. The disc brakes should be adequate to their task.
The e-Solex electric bike shown below is configured more like a motor scooter, with a step-through frame that favors a rider with limited flexibility, or who wears a skirt. The saddle is adjustable upwards, for efficient pedaling. (Note other bike in the background, with raised saddle.) Solex was the classic mid 20th-century French moped add-on, a small gasoline motor that transmitted power through a roller on the front tire of a conventional bicycle. The e-Solex recalls this design, though the motor is actually in the rear hub and the cylinder over the front wheel is a baggage compartment.
At the show, there was even one cargo trailer with a motor, that could be hitched onto any bicycle and could help bring home a heavy load.
I didn’t expect to see so many electric bikes at the show. I have thought in the past that adding a motor to a bicycle would inevitably lead to atrophy of the pedals through disuse. Motorcycles began as a subspecies of bicycles in the first decade of the 20th Century. Again, in the mid-20th Century, bicycles with a small gasoline auxiliary motor evolved into mopeds, with vestigial pedals, and into motor scooters, with no pedals at all. Why?
- The heavier machine with its motor made pedaling ineffective;
- the motor also made pedaling irrelevant;
- the motor made higher speed possible, and a larger and more powerful motor, in turn, required a heavier frame;
- storing a gasoline-powered machine in a living area was not practical.
For these reasons, motorized two-wheelers diverged into entirely different categories from bicycles, with little or no overlap. Electrically-powered two-wheelers never succeeded in the market, as the dead weight of batteries made them more trouble than they were worth – no fun to ride, heavy to carry, with short range.
But now electric bikes have improved substantially thanks to lithium-ion batteries and rare-earth magnets. Concerns about air pollution also come to bear. An electrically-assisted bicycle can be stored in a living area. It can go up in an elevator, though it can’t easily be carried over the rider’s shoulder like a pedal bicycle. Electric two-wheelers have become popular in China (though still using lead-acid batteries there), and the corner may be about to turn in other countries as well, including the USA.
At the dirt demo days at Interbike, people on electrically-assisted bicycles were effortlessly cruising up the steep hill to the demo site in the 99-degree heat. Even in the dry, desert heat of southern Nevada anyone who pedaled up the hill would be wearing a coat of sweat-soaked dust before reaching the top.
There was even a sort of John Henry vs. the steam drill uphill race. Everyone was pedaling furiously, so everyone ended up sweaty, I’m sure. One particularly strong cyclist on a racing bike finished near the front, but a small-wheel, fat-tire electric bike was first.
At Interbike, I spoke with my colleague John Schubert, who suggested that electrically-assisted bicycles would be useful:
- To allow a person incapable of producing enough power to make use of a bicycle for local transportation. This is obvious enough. With the Baby Boom generation aging, this can be a substantial market.
- To make short “Dutch-style” utility-cycling and commuting trips possible without a person’s having to work up a sweat – important for many people.
- To make longer “bigger, hillier US city” trips practical for people who would otherwise only consider shorter trips.
- To allow a bicycle tourist to cover greater distances or keep up with a group of stronger riders. This is, to be sure, only possible where there are places to recharge overnight — but most campgrounds have electrical power. John tells a story of an elderly man who was thrilled to have participated in a multi-day tour which would have been impossible for him otherwise.
- And entirely eliminating the complications and extra weight of pedal power, that small, electrically-powered motor scooters, would be practical for short-distance urban travel — and they exist, but they do not yet fit into a legal category in many places.
I would add one more point: that electrically-assisted bicycles will be much more appealing in hot climates than in cold ones. This is mostly a question of rider comfort, but also, battery performance decreases appreciably in the coldest weather. In impoverished countries with hot climates, bicycling of the very slow, energy-conserving variety has been a favored mode of transportation, but has given way to gasoline-powered motor scooters as soon as rising income made them affordable.
Whether electrically-assisted bicycles are going to find an important niche in the US market remains to be seen. Certainly, they are less expensive than mopeds or motorcycles; their environmentally-friendly and indoor-storage-friendly characteristics may appeal — but for the foreseeable future, the power-to-weight advantage lies with the internal combustion engine and its fuel tank.
Wherever electric or gasoline-powered two-wheelers steal a substantial part of the market for utility trips away from pedal cycles, expect some serious dislocation in planning. But that’s a topic for another article.