Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Electric Bike: From Blue-Rinse to Blue Streak?

Protanium directors Brian Hoehl and Lars Munkso
Among the many electric bike exhibitors at Eurobike 2010 is Protanium directors Brian Hoehl and Lars Munkso.

The Electric Bike: From Blue-Rinse to Blue Streak?

Exclusive report from Friedrichshafen's Eurobike 2010

By Martin Schwoerer

Open Access Article Originally Published: September 27, 2010

Electrically-assisted bicycles are great: they’re green, emission-free, almost silent, and offer a super-low cost-per-mile. You can, in fact, go literally dozens of miles on pennies. For the average bicyclist, an E-Bike means expanding your “comfort-zone” from a radius of around three miles to no-sweat 6 miles -- no matter whether your terrain is hilly or flat.
They’re fun-to-drive, too. It only take a few yards to discover the pleasure of what one could call the “built-in tail-wind”. Anybody who's experienced the incredible lightness of movement a good E-Bike provides, will agree with the industry's mantra of "once driven, always smitten".
But in their present state, electrically-assisted bicycles are also, plainly, horrible: they’re ugly beasts, seen mostly in shades of drab grey or silver-grey and heavy, and look strictly like senior-citizen transport. Also, they suffer from the “why do they cost five times more than in China?” -- syndrome: at a price of often over €2,000, they are perceived as being expensive. Too expensive, in fact, for many people who have a car and a bicycle, and can’t put their mind around the idea of spending money on yet a third mode of getting around.
E-Bike industry guys will tell you that business is booming in places like China and the Netherlands, and that other countries are sure to follow. They’ve been saying this for the past five years. Any chance that the perpetual forecast will transform into reality? How likely, indeed, that E-Bikes will evolve from a senior-citizen’s toy to a desirable, fashionable, affordable must-have?
To find out, I visited Eurobike 2010, the world’s biggest bicycle trade show, in lovely Friedrichshafen, Germany. (Friedrichshafen, ironically, is the home of another century-old technology that for decades has been forecast to have its golden years yet coming: the Zeppelin. You can insert a Hindenburg joke here, but rest assured I didn’t when I interviewed E-Bike enthusiasts).
Bosch: We are Here to Conquer the World
At the moment, E-Bikes are often a garage business. Somebody takes a bike, gets a motor in China, procures some batteries from who knows where, adds somebody’s controller technology, and sells the package to enthusiasts. Branding is a semi-entity and minor details such as guarantees are left to the individual dealer who may or may not be happy to see you when your $1,000 batteries pack up and die after a year. To become ubiquitous, E-Bikes need the power of major brands.
Panasonic is a E-Bike technology brand that has done good, but the buzz at Friedrichshafen was about the world-premiere of Bosch’s E-Bike package.
Bosch is the world’s largest auto parts supplier, and their technology is pretty nifty. Cheaper E-Bikes have motors in the front or rear wheel hubs, and batteries located some which way, often (ungainly) on the rear luggage rack. In contrast, the Bosch package connects the motor to the pedal axle, which is an excellent location, being low and central. (High and peripheral make for an unstable driving experience). Bosch’s battery pack is located relatively low, too, on the bike’s frame. It’s not exactly light-weight stuff (battery: 2.3KG; motor: 4.25KG) but packs a strong punch: 250 Watts (500 peak) and 50 Nm torque.
The techno-German package has a lot of interesting details, such as a “HMI” (human-machine interface) controller offering twelve “speeds” tailored to terrain and the bicyclist’s individual ability. Bosch’s system uses not the usual one, but three sensors: to measure speed, torque and cycling cadence, apparently to provide a smooth and seamless drive. It’s quick-charging, too: the (removable) Li-Ion battery pack can be fully juiced in 2.5 hours.
Although the Bosch system is not a pinnacle of German industrial design (an opinion to which a PR guy loadly objected -- touchy, touchy!), it’s no eyesore either, it comes from a quality brand, is priced OK (at around €800,- for the end-user), and offers substantial durability guarantees. To wit, Bosch promises 500 full charging cycles, and a multiple of that of every-day, semi-complete charges.
(One hopes that Bosch knows that the chain is any bicycle's weak spot. Will a regular bike's chain be able to take peak loads of 500W on a daily basis? If you're worried about replacing your bike's chain every one or so years, then consider making do with a front-wheel or rear-wheel hub motor.)
Anyway: when a company like Bosch says that E-Bikes are ready for prime time, then people listen. Thirteen manufacturers are already using it for their E-Bikes, which is a major success when you consider this is a totally new system. But is it any good? Scroll down for test-drive reviews of two bikes equipped with the new Bosch system.
Toward a Triopoly in E-Bike Technology?
With Panasonic already in the market and Bosch now entering, life was getting hard enough for the smaller technology suppliers. The newest news from Friedrichshafen is that Shimano (the world’s number one bike components maker) will soon introduce an electric system as well. Does this indicate a oligarchical future where the Big Three make life for all the others miserable? My hope is that robust competition will forces prices down while increasing technical innovation. And that success in Europe and Asia will convince Bosch to offer its E-Bike technology in the U.S. as well, soon.
But What to Do With All the “Regular” Bikes?
New E-Bikes are good and fine, but are there really millions of people who have one or two thousand Dollars lying around to spend on a new mode of transport? On the other hand, who doesn’t have a bicycle in a garage that could benefit from some electric uplift? Several companies at Eurobike tried to address this issue with some pretty nifty add-on electric solutions.
I really liked the Japanese Sunstar system, starting with the fact that both the motor and battery are located centrally and low. It looked simple yet solid, takes only a few hours to install, and merely weighs a slender 3.2 KG. Sunstar’s Italian rep was so assured of their add-on E-Bike concept that he let me take a bike for a unguided spin though a packed convention hall, out to an open range. It drove beautifully, with linear power delivery, good meaty handling, and silent acceleration. In contrast to some other electrics, it felt lightweight, too. Retailing somewhere under €1,000, Sunstar might be suffering from the unadvantageous Yen exchange rate, but I think its value-for-money is quite good.

The Pedalix system is a Korean design which has been installed on thousands of Korean bicycles. The Swiss importers who displayed it at Eurobike describe it as “the first sexy E-Bike”, which is a bit of a boast: Cytronex about which I wrote last year, is probably more deserving of the “sexy” designation. Yet, Pedalix is an interesting approach, as it employs a friction-wheel to transfer power from motor to bicycle, just like Velosolexes of yore. Nice and simple, as add-on systems should be, and at 2.6 KG, certainly lightweight. The planned retail price, however, is oddly expensive, at €1,700.
Much cheaper, at around €800, is Ecobike's conversion kit Ecobike's conversion kit. It consists of a front-wheel motor, electronic controller, and a battery pack located (uniquely) on a bike’s seat-bar. Weighing in at 7 Kilos, its conceptual simplicity makes me itch for a test drive to find out how it fares in real life. (To happen soon, hopefully).
So, What’s New? And: Are the New E-Bikes Any Good?
(The answer is: plenty; yes!)
It is a pleasure to report that numerous new E-Bikes look good, drive well, and appear to have reassuring quality. Prices are reaching down to more realistic levels, too.
One of the nice things about Eurobike was that they had a testing course, on which most bikes could be taken for longish spins. Here are some selected bikes that caught my eye and looked worth testing.
The first of the Bosch-tech bikes I drove was a florescent-green model by Scott, a U.S.-based company. (Scott is equipping another five models with the Bosch system). As unlikely as it sounds, the combination of green frame, white wheels, white battery pack and black motor looked positively funky. Weighing in at a sturdy 20 KG, the Scott looked lighter than it is, but did not at all feel ungainly to drive. Quite on the contrary: driving it was a relevation. Zipping around Eurobike had the potential to be an uncomfortably edgy experience, with dozens of risk-prone young guys in close proximity, but the Scott felt reassuringly sturdy due to its low-center of gravity. Power delivery is meaty and muscular, with a well-oiled, Germanic, precise feel that turns into something athletic when you push the pedals. I'd love to ride the Scott on a daily basis -- if I could convince myself to muster the approximately €2,000 you’d need to buy one. On the other hand, the Scott-Bosch feels like a quality machine, has disc brakes and a great-feeling gearshift, and you get what you pay for.
For comparison’s sake, I also tried out a Centurion E-Fire, made in Germany. Slightly sportier than the Scott because of a more mountain-bike-ish outfit, it definitely felt like a member of the Bosch E-Bike family with its safe handling and good pedal feel. Actually, I couldn’t tell a major difference between the Scott and the Centurion, despite Bosch’s claims of easy customizability, but that may be a coincidence.
One noticeable thing at Eurobike was that the term “Pedelec” has become unfashionable. (Pedelec is the official European technical term for electrically-assisted bikes that shut the motor off at speeds above 25 km/h, or when no force is applied to the pedals. Pedelecs neither require insurance nor does the driver need to use a helmet). “Pedelec” sounds sensible-shoes and fogey, so the new hip expressions are either “E-Bike” or “hybrid” (the latter implying both electric and muscle-power).
As unhip as they might be, I wanted to try at least one classic Pedelec: the Gazelle, which is an electrified classic “Holland”-type bicycle. Fogeyish indeed, but not ugly, and somehow charmingly Dutch and old-fashioned, the Gazelle is a very comfortable bike to sit on. On a flat road, it was easy to hold the regulated speed of 25 km/h, and also braved the strong winds that were blowing in Friedrichshafen. The Gazelle ran out of puff on a steep uphill stretch, so it seems well-adapted to Dutch geography, but not so great for mountainous terrain. Front-wheel-drive, and a rear-rack-mounted battery is perfectly OK for an unambitious bike that doesn’t seduce you into hustling it. The charm of such a robust, upright, comfortable and simple Pedelec was still apparent enough. I can understand why such models are highly successful in the Netherlands.

Denmark’s Protanium may also be a member of the low-price cohort, but it is something altogether different. Protanium has been designing E-Bikes for other companies for several years, but recently also introduced their own line. The bike I drove had stylish white rims and frame, and a slender, removable Li-Ion battery. Like with other new E-Bikes, the electric elements were inconspicuous. Priced very reasonably at probably under €1,500, I was very keen on determining whether a bike with a low-tech (front-hub motor) layout can compete. Happily, it did. The thing with modern pedelecs is that you don’t really need electric assistance in flat terrain, and it turns off once you reach the 25 km/h limit anyway, so 250W is really quite enough if neither your bike nor you are obese. The Protanium didn’t exactly storm up the test-drive hill, but neither did it feel phlegmatic. For everyday use, the Protanium looks like a winner.
The Spanish-designed Ecobike is more of a hill-stormer. Their Adventure has unusual yet somehow appealing chic-Spanish looks, a large 36V-10Ah battery that provides a range of up to 100 km in eco mode, and -- as a unique usability proposition -- an iPhone app that records your trip and lets you tailor the motor’s energy output o your training needs. I really like the idea of knowing how many calories I am burning, how much electricity I am using, how my fitness is, and how much I can save by re-charging the battery downhill, using electric regeneration. The Ecobike is right in the intersection of electric assistance and sports, which makes for an intriguing, youthful product.
Conclusion: Never Mind the Pedelecs, E-Bikes are Coming
Some of these new machines are truly desirable. Prices are slowly but surely going down to levels where you can justify purchasing one just based on your savings in gasoline. We’re not quite there yet, but if technological (and marketing) advancements continue, E-Bikes have the potential to become ubiquitous.

Martin Schwoerer's Eurobike 2010 Photos

Sunstar electric bike
Sunstar E-Bike
Scott electric bike
Scott E-Bike

3 comments so far...

  You didn't say whether the E-bike can exceed the European standard of 25Kph but our American regulation of 20 miles per hour makes for a more useful range of boost. I own one of the rare Aerovironment built Charger E-bikes from the early nineties which helped to set the standard. Its design amplified the effort of the rider proportionally, which was a better system for improving ones cycling performance than just letting the motor turn the wheel while pushing on the pedals with just enough pressure to keep the electricity from stopping like most of the others. Still I tend to use my fully faired recumbent bike for the same speeds without having to worry about range. Of course hills are still a workout, but my average speeds are better with the fairing, and unlike the Charger E-bike, It keeps its speed for quite a while after I stop pedaling. I figure that with all the coasting I can do with that bike I do 1/3 fewer pedal strokes per mile average.
Posted by: Paul Gracey

  After visiting Eurobike and seeing all that is offered, I concur with most of the authors observations. Most of the products offered in Europe are ugly, underpowered and overpriced. Any one of these attributes are a formula for failure and most has all three, Pedego ares stylish, powerful and priced right which is why we have been overwhelmed with inquiries from all over Europe. http//
Posted by: Don Dicostanzo

  500 full charges for the Bosch is not overwhelming. The battery is rather light (and thus small), so you might not get great range. If this compounds by exhausting the battery every day (for instance), it only lasts 2 years - oops. Sounds like it needs a bigger battery, or one which can take more deep discharges. I welcome the competition by major players, if you are going to spend 2K on an ebike, you want it to be a good one. The only problem I have with ebikes is that they defeat one of the main benefits of p-bikes - namely that they give you exercise. If you have an ebike, you still have to go to the gym, with a p-bike, you should be fit enough without it. But they do provide excellent urban transport, particularly for people who do not have showers in the office.
Posted by: James Mahon

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