In part I, I described the appeal of and demand for electric bikes, and mentioned that three trends bode well for them in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of North America. Battery-juiced two-wheelers could finally break out of their current status as transportation novelties, helping us rise to challenges as great as climate change, oil addiction, and recession. In this post, I detail these trends.
Technology, overseas markets, and political trends all bring good portents for e-bikes.
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Trend 1. Technical innovation keeps improving electric bikes. The latest Giant, with lithium ion batteries, reportedly has a real-life battery range of 50 miles, doubling what previous models achieved. Sanyo has introduced a European style city bike (pictured on the left) with impressive power-system integration.
Trek, a leading American bike maker has entered the e-bike market with designs that may prove appealing to muscle-powered cyclists because of their high-performance feel (pictured on the right).
Meanwhile, garage inventors keep coming up with intriguing innovations like the StokeMonkey (which I described previously); Electric Mountain Drive from Oregon’s Ecospeed (pictured atop this post); and this VoltWagon electrified trailerthat hitches to a regular bike and hauls cargo effortlessly.
Luckily for e-bike makers, advanced battery research is in its heyday, thanks to billions of dollars of investment from public and private institutions around the world. The hunt is on for better batteries not only because they’re essential to electrifying transportation and getting the world off of oil but also because they’re needed to harness intermittent, renewable power sources such as the sun and the wind. As battery improvements emerge, electric bikes stand to gain quickly.
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Trend 2. Electric bikes are spreading like wildfire in China and are catching on in parts of Europe as well. As David Goodman recently wrote in the New York Times:
In China, an estimated 120 million electric bicycles now hum along the roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s. They are replacing traditional bikes and motorcycles at a rapid clip and, in many cases, allowing people to put off the switch to cars. . . . From virtually nothing a decade ago, electric bikes have become an $11 billion global industry.
In the Netherlands, a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models. Industry experts predict similar growth elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, France and Italy, as rising interest in cycling coincides with an aging population. India had virtually no sales until two years ago, but its nascent market is fast expanding and could eclipse Europe’s in the next year.
China reportedly had 56,000 electric bikes in 1998. Getting to 120 million in 12 years’ time is a phenomenal change, even in a country as populous as China, and e-bikes don’t appear to be slowing: USA Today reports that sales in China are expected to reach a staggering 22 million in 2010 alone, bringing the number of e-bike owners in the country to one tenth of the population. It’s an impressive example of electrifying the transportation sector. It’s also good news for e-bike prices: mass production on that scale has brought production costs down, and just as Chinese-made motor cycles have spread quickly in Asia and Africa, e-bikes are now radiating from China as well.
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Trend 3. Political trends are encouraging for electric bikes as well. Despite disappointment at Copenhagen and slow progress on a climate bill in Washington, DC, climate change, oil addiction, and the chance to transition to a job-generating clean-energy economy remain potent political issues across much of the industrial world, prominently including the Pacific Northwest.
To seize the opportunity for a clean-energy revolution and move beyond carbon, we need to get completely off coal and oil quickly. Efficiency, compact communities, and transportation alternatives are our best friends in these tasks. But even with great success on all these strategies, we will still need some way to propel our trains, buses, trucks, and cars. The main no-carbon candidates are biofuels and electricity. We’ll need some of each, but electricity has tremendous advantages. It can come from many different carbon-free sources, can travel easily by wire, and can integrate the transportation sector with the rest of the electric grid in ways that make each stronger and more economical.
An impressive array of political and industry leaders have recognized and embraced the pivotal role the electrification of transportation can play in advancing a clean-energy economy. That’s why, for example, the 2009 US federal stimulus included a bevy of investments in research on advanced batteries and electric vehicles.
Electrifying bikes is a perfect first step in pursuit of vehicle electrification, because battery-assisted two wheelers are an easier engineering challenge than are electric cars. Frank Jamerson of Electric Bike World Report told USA Today, “The electric bike is the first wave of the electrification of the personal transportation industry.”
Vehicle electrification is an energy storage problem, not a propulsion problem. Electric motors are much more efficient than fossil-fueled engines, but storing e
lectricity is dramatically harder than is storing liquid fuels. For example, you can fill the tank of a gasoline-powered car in five minutes then drive on that fuel for several hours at highway speeds. Conversely, you need to recharge the Tesla Roadster, a $100,000 all-electric sports car, for roughly an hour for each hour of highway driving. (It takes 3.5 hours to charge fully. Its range is 244 miles, which it could cover in 3.5 hours at 70 mph. A Chevy Volt, which takes longer to recharge, has an electric-only range of 40 miles, after which it runs on a separate gasoline engine.)
Simple physics favor e-bikes over e-cars. Bicycles, even ones loaded with batteries, weigh less than their riders. Electric cars, in contrast, weigh many multiples as much as their drivers. Consequently, most of e-bikes’ battery charge can be spent moving the mass of the rider, but most of electric cars’ charge must be spent moving the bulk of the car itself. What’s more, part of e-bikes’ energy comes from leg muscles, again reducing the required battery power. In auto parlance, e-bikes have human-electric hybrid drives.
For these reasons, electric bikes are in the cat bird seat of electrified transportation at a time when many forces are aligned to speed electrification.
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This alignment of interests (trend 3) coincides with rapid technical progress (trend 1) and huge economies of scale coming from China (trend 2). Together, surely these trends will push electric bikes into the mainstream of personal transportation, at least in good weather, at least in urban parts of the bike- and tech-loving Northwest.
Many observers think so. Many marketers think so. Big-box retailer Best Buy is confident enough that it has introduced e-bikes and other small electric vehicles to a Portland outlet in 2009 and is rolling them into more Northwest stores in 2010.
Maybe electric bikes are on the verge of breaking through in the Pacific Northwest, spreading contagiously as they have in China. But maybe they are not. Maybe the barriers to electric bikes are different in North America than in China or Europe. Whether or not you should buy one doesn’t depend on this question. But our public policies with regard to electric bikes, and perhaps with regard to other electric vehicles, depend on what’s blocking e-bikes in North America. If it’s just a matter of pushing them to a market tipping point, public subsidies can help—the subject of my next post.
Read the next installment of this five-part series, “Flipping the Switch.”
This is a great article, thank you for writing it. I have one point I would like to address, directed at your opening paragraph, “Battery-juiced two-wheelers could finally break out of their current status as transportation novelties….” I think that if electric bikes are to become real transportation- they have to REALLY work for people. Real range and speed data, reliable long lasting batteries and components, etc. I work for Optibike, the only US based manufacturer of electric bicycles, and our goal is to build electric bikes that work well in the real world. Check us out: http://www.optibike.com Thanks again, Craig
I think the biggest thing blocking electric bikes is lack of bicycle infrastructure—e-bikes are half of the solution to getting non-traditional riders using bicycles. The other half is safe routes. But there’s an important change in the climate on that, too, as Ray LaHood’s statement at the National Bike Summit (http://fastlane.dot.gov/2010/03/my-view-from-atop-the-table-at-the-national-bike-summit.html) shows:”Today, I want to announce a sea change. People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects. We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.To set this approach in motion, we have formulated key recommendations for state DOTs and communities:Treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes.Ensure convenient access for people of all ages and abilities.Go beyond minimum design standards.Collect data on walking and biking trips.Set a mode share target for walking and bicycling.Protect sidewalks and shared-use paths the same way roadways are protected (for example, snow removal)Improve nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects.”As a middle-aged, slightly un-fit, traffic-scaredy-cat bicyclist wannabe, I find this very hopeful.
I’ll second the notion that the main problem for all kinds of bicycling is infrastructure, and add that bicycling becomes more viable as pedestrian infrastructure improves. In my book, pedestrian infrastructure comes first, and the two modes should share more space. Rather than increase the speeds bicycling may attain to keep up with motor vehicles (or out of their way), bicycling need not exceed the speed of walking to actually construct most of its essential infrastructure. I must disagree with Alan’s statement: “Vehicle electrification is an energy storage problem, not a propulsion problem.” This is way off the mark and should be regarded with some skepticism. Alan buttresses this ‘theory’ by comparing the GM Volt to a Tesla Roadster, and concludes that because the Tesla driving range on its battery pack is 200 more miles than the GM Volt, all that’s needed is a better battery pack. It’s a complete simplification comparing apples to oranges, and neglects land-use elements (infrastructure) which are intregal to transportation planning. I’m no fan of the suspiciously overpriced GM Volt hybrid, (may GM go bankrupt soon), but I’m even less impressed with the technologically tepid Tesla Roadster.
Excellent series. I work for a local electric bicycle company in Kent WA and we supply electric bikes to bike shops and to REI. We also produce electric scooters for motor sports dealers and will be supplying electric scooters to Best Buy starting this summer. This is a very real trend because the technology has finally caught up to the hope. In the past a stated range and speed for an electric bike might be 25 miles at 15 mph but would end up being far less than that leading to disappointment. Our bikes can travel 20 – 40 miles on a single charge at 15 mph and weigh 43-47 pounds depending on the model. Check us out at http://www.emotoev.com for a local company that is delivering on the promise.I want to see our company succeed but more than that I want to see the electric bike and scooter alternative take a full footing in the US because there are endless benefits associated with it. Finally, I do agree that it will take progressive public policy to push this dream even further.
The good thing is that congestion and local air quality improve when people switch from cars to e-bikes. However, what is the environmental footprint of all these old e-bike batteries? There should be a recycling program in place.
I drive one of these every day from March to November. I have been doing it for three years.The biggest barrier is culture. The car is a large part of American culture and mindset. The centrality of the car in the American mind dictates that we design much of our cities around car lifestyles. Freeways without nearby sidewalks? I see patches of this accross America, even within cities. I am not sure how this changes. Perhaps this is one of the few benefits of the economic crisis along with it’s poverty and unemployment. If many are forced to admitt they can no longer afford the automobile lifstyle, perhaps we can finally break free and better design our cities and allocate our resources.
Matt the Engineer
Seattle is a great city for electric bikes – because all of those hills. Biking can actually get you around faster than a bus or even a car in most places in a city – if you remove the time and inconvenience of having to shower at your destination. Chiming in on the infrastructure comments, I haven’t mentioned my idea for bicycle freeways for a few years. Imagine a few 8′ wide ribbons of concrete around 15′ in the air running N-S in an alley in the city. Imagine how much time you would save without having to stop for cars, pedestrians, or stop lights. I think we could do this for very little money, and it could be in place in a year.
It’s surprisingly expensive to put anything up in the air due to the significant engineering costs, planning, permitting, etc to that…My idea, it least for the sprawling ‘burbs like we have in Chicago and Houston, is to find streets that parallel the main car arteries and designate them one-way roads where bikes get one side dedicated to them and cars the other side. Everyone moves the same direction. Bikes get lot’s of room, cars can pass as necessary. This should work in local neighborhoods too.
The NE 12th overpass for I-405 has been reduced from 4 lanes to 2 for 2 years while a new bridge and pedestrian/bike crossing are constructed. Funny thing though, traffic has become more congested but it doesn’t look horrible. If you can reduce NE 12th, a major arterial crossing I-405 from 4 to 2 lanes without a congestion apocalypse, there is definitely room for Patrick’s idea. Sadly, Bellevue still seems hell bent on improving conditions for automobiles with only relatively small improvements in bicycle and transit infrastructure. The new NE 10th overpass near Overlake and Group Health hospitals cost around $64 Million. I suspect $64 Million would fund virtually all of Bellevue’s Bike & Ped.
That should read Bike & Ped plan. Not sure what happened, but at least the link works.
Nice series on electric bikes. Thanks. But why a SERIES? I came across this only today, and I’m having a heck of a time following your train of thought. To me the format of 5 posts is the tail wagging the dog. Why not ONE CONTINUOUS spool of text??? While the concept of a blog may be well-served by chopping up your argument into daily increments, this reader is not.
Sea Wolf—Thanks for your feedback. We cut this topic up into five posts because we’ve found that a 5,000 word post tends to not get read all the way through. We try to make it easy to follow by including all the posts on one series page (which you can view here), but it has its limitations.
Alan,Your series is the most concise and accurate description I have seen. You are spot-on.Last week, a former president of Chevron was in my shop putting my eBikes through the paces. As we chatted, I was amazed at all of the pieces that had to come together for the auto industry to succeed. Roads, refineries, a legal framework, operational laws, a service network – Just a few of the many pieces that led to the world-wide adoption of the automobile. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the original market for crude oil was lamps.As you mentioned, widespread eBike adoption lacks adequate repair facilities -however, these will develop quickly. I would argue that the ‘eBike Explosion’ is currently (pun intended) hindered by scarcity of lifestyle marketing. Think of how many advertisements you have seen that involve cars… Most eBike ads are a techno looking bicycle with lots of words. People simply have not envisioned what their lifestyle might look like on an electric bicycle. My forecast is that it will take a triggering event to rectify this.For China, the triggering event was SARS. People who previously took public transportation did not want to stand next to someone on the bus or subway who could potentially kill them. Aided by increasing personal income and a prohibition on gas powered motorcycles in most large cities, The Chinese eBike Explosion began.It will be interesting to see if a similar triggering event will be required to launch eBike success in the US as well and what type of societal, governmental and legal structures/frameworks it will take to sustain that success.Thank you for your thoughtful work,Wake GreggOwnerThe eBike StorePortland, OR
Maarten, You ask about recycling the batteries. Go to http://www.rbrc.org or http://www.call2recycle.org and type your zip. Any place that accepts rechargeable batteries should accept the e-bike batteries. Free to consumers, paid for by rechargeable battery manufacturers. Spread the word!
Having to adopt the anemic EPAC’s here because they are all the rage on the Continent is not a good thing. OR has a 1000w limit compared to the 250w that is being used solely to satisfy the China and EU market. Most states and the federal regs state 750w. The advantage gained by using a higher wattage motor is not about speed it is about torque. For carrying heavy loads uphill and starting from a stop requires as much as you can get I find. Also our regs here in the states allow for another 5 mph on the top end which can be achieved more efficiently with a higher wattage motor. Sure there are a few companies, some that are taking the opportunity to pimp their products here, that are selling a higher wattage bike but there are other considerations. The regs call for automatic transmissions or PAS. PAS can actually work quite well and is a good gate way to cycling for those that are uncomfortable with the concept of actually having to pedal, for real anyway. But any systems that allow for the manual changing of gear ratios under motor are in a definite grey area but largely considered to be illegal. There is always the upgrade to MoPed classification which allows for more top speed at 30 most states but 24 here in OR but alas still require an auto trans. You have to get a plate, be able to hold a drivers license and wear a helmet. All things that are not insurmountable. It is my experience that being able to travel at a higher rate of speed on equipment engineered to do so allows for a much safer environment within the traffic fabric. 15 mph gains no respect from the cars and trucks but if you are in a 25/35 mph zone and keeping up and sort of keeping up with traffic it gains you more respect and less people to go around you in their inimitable looping ways…..Great article so far and I like the way you chopped it up!
e-Bike or not, I believe what truly matters is how we handle these bikes when they are no longer useful. A little searching won’t hurt. If you want to get rid of an e-bike or a typical bike, you can find a recycling center that would accept it. Before I got a bike from Morpheus, I brought my old bike to a nearby recycling shop. They paid me several bucks and spared my garage for more space.