Tipping point for electric bikes?

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:

Lahaina electric bike, essentially a conventional bicycle with a motor in the front wheel and a battery on the rear rack.

Nirve Lahaina electric bike, essentially a conventional bicycle with a motor in the front hub and a battery on the rear rack.

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.

Front brake and hub of the Lahaina bike

Front brake and hub of the Lahaina bike

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.

Fat-tire electric bike, with distinct motorcycle tendencies.

Fat-tire electric bike, with distinct motorcycle tendencies.

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.

An electric bike which is more like a motor scooter

An electric bike which is more like a motor scooter

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.

5 responses to “Tipping point for electric bikes?

  1. When escalators are next to stairs, most people take the easy electric conveyance. I believe electric bikes may displace some motoring trips and augment some bicycling trips that might otherwise not have happened, but their much greater effect will be to displace regular bicycling and walking.

  2. Pingback: Street Smarts » Blog Archive » Nasty law covers electrically-assisted bicycles

  3. Pingback: John S. Allen's Bicycle Blog » Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

  4. I don`t believe that the price of electric power will be the reason that finally pushes us to adopt electric vehicles. It is of course a variable to take into account when comparing both vehicle types but not a deciding factor.

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