Tuesday, 24 March 2009

E-bikes: Future stars of urban transportation

After only a week of testing, I'm convinced: Electric bicycles are the rising stars of urban transportation. Super fun to ride, getting you faster and further with less sweat. The quality are better than ever, but unfortunately, steep price tags and boring looks still put people off.

(Picture above) EXPERIENCED: Giant of Taiwan is already a veteran among the e-bike manufacturers. The Giant Twist range is their 2009 offering for smart cyclists.

Electric bicycles are close to a commercial breakthrough in the European bike market, even though they still fly under the radar of the general public.

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Electric bicycles are just like ordinary bikes, except for an electric motor, delivering 250 watts of power assist up to 25 kmh. They are legally classified as bicycles, and thus do not require any registration or insurance, and can be ridden in ordinary bicycle lanes.

Most e-bikes require the rider to move the pedals while riding, though, if not, the assistance cuts off. The same goes for exceeding the speed limit of 25 kmh. Beyond that speed, the motor cuts off in order to meet the EU legal classification as a bicycle.

FAST COMMUTER: The German Kalkhoff Pro Connect is one of Europe's most sought after e-bikes at the moment. This one has the motor placed in the crank, instead of the front hub.

The e-bike should be the genius of urban transportation. You get all the advantages of a bicycle, but with much less sweat. Perfect for the hilly street or the long commute, or with a child trailer in tow. I've tested an e-bike for a week only, and loved every second of it. Incredibly fun, and a cool surprise. But most people don't know that they exist, and most bike riders don't get the point of electric assisted bicycles.

No wonder: Just looking at one is enough to make anyone with the slightest appreciation of bicycle design sick. Not only do they look bad and downright clumsy, electric bicycles have long been looked upon as transportation aid for "physically challenged" people. Bikes for those not able to ride up a hill by themselves.

And, since most bicycle shops largely are staffed up with sporty, young Duracell bunnies - the electric bicycles have been belittled for years. Of course it never helped that they cost and weighed twice as much as conventional bikes, struggled with unreliable electronics -and, as mentioned, looked like sh*t.

That is about to change. The bikes are slowly losing weight and improving looks, batteries are faster charging, longer lasting and more compact than ever - and a new e-bike standard for electronic fittings are established, as well as a business network for electric bicycle makers and lobbyists.

BATTERY CHAMP: Schwinn Tailwind feature the latest in Toshiba battery technology.

Still, lots of people find the assistance bit off-putting, as bicycling are widely known as an effective way to exercise while transporting yourself from A to B. This is no different with e-bikes: You can mash the pedals as hard as you want, the motor assistance will only help you ride faster for longer.

I've taken a heavy e-bike up a long and painful uphill traverse from downtown Oslo to my own home, pedalling like a champ, and was just as sweaty and tired on the top as usual. Except I was there several minutes earlier than usual.... Next time I didn't push all that hard, and was home at the usual time - but with no sweaty shirt. With an e-bike, you simply have more choice. If you doubt the effect, check out this rather unusual bicycle race report.

What about actual sales numbers? In European markets like the Netherlands, United Kingdom, France and Germany, the sales of e-bikes have been booming since 2006. Netherlands is taking the top spot with 120 000 e-bikes sold last year (total population 16 mill), and the German market are reported to double between 2007 and 2009.

The UK market are smaller in numbers, with a record sales figure of 15 000 e-bikes last year, but shops already provide more than 100 different models to choose from. The Asian market finds itself in another league - estimates of the annual e-bike sales in China in 2007 ranged between a whopping 20 to 30 million units. There are estimated to be 260 bicycle manufacturing companies in China making electric bikes and electric bike components, according to 2005 numbers from the Promotion Association of Electric Bicycles (PAEB), Taiwan.

In the Western world, the e-bike movement rolls at a slower pace, but nevertheless in a clear direction:

US bicycle maker Cannondale, owner of the e-bike maker Schwinn, expect their e-bike sales to jump fivefold from their upstart in August 2007 and until end of 2009. Cannondale, well known for bold and innovative product development, are doubling their investment in e-bikes in 2009 and plans to establish e-bikes as a separate product group within their company. Giant, one of the world's largest bicycle makers, have been working on e-bikes for more than years, but very few other big brands have been following suit.

Trek, best known as bike sponsor of Lance Armstrong and probably the most responsible advocate of everyday bicycling in the business, are one of the few big brands rumored to have an e-bike in the works. A Trek e-bike will probably open the eyes of both the consumers and competitors, generating a broader understanding of the concept.

NEW BREED: The british GoCycle takes a whole new approach to the electrik bike. It is designed from the ground up as a electric assisted, partially foldable urban bicycle.

While serving a small, but fast growing market, the e-bike industry are looking to the battery manufacturers for marketing push. Today, most e-bikes need at least 4 hours for a full charge, and will run between 20-40 km before needing another plug-in. '

Toshiba is one of the battery makers who are pushing these boundaries. The japanese brand has has, according to the BBC, "announced plans to build a new factory to make its new super charge ion battery (SCiB), which can be used in electric vehicles. Toshiba said it had selected a site in northwest Japan for the plant. Local media reports say it will cost up to 30bn yen ($332m; £224m)". The Schwinn Tailwind is currently using the Toshiba battery, with a record-fast charge time of only 30 minutes.

Shown in this article are e-bikes from the mainstream bicycle makers. In addition you'll find lots of models on the market, made by brands dedicated to electric bikes. I find most of those bikes utterly lacking in the design department, and wonder why they doesn't pay more attention to that aspect - knowing the importance of a well thought-out layout on the showroom floor.

There is of course difficult to achieve a clean look with a 3-5 kilo battery pack involved, but innovative designers have already proven that new thinking will find a way - look at the Gocycle for a prime example.

My bet: A few years forward, we'll se e-bikes that are cheaper, lighter, stronger, longer lasting - and way better looking, and not at least: far more people realizing the huge potential they carry for smarter transportation.

1 comment:

anna said...

so true! i bought one today.
anna from sf