E-bikes rolling forward…slowly

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Copenhagen Wheel, a fun new entry in the electric bicycle market. The New York Times declares that the market might finally be ready to take off, but to me it sounds like we have many years to go before e-bikes gain any sort of mainstream acceptance.

The good news is that the technology has come a long way, thanks mostly to lightweight, high-capacity lithium ion batteries. The new Eneloop e-bike from Sanyo, for example, looks and rides much like a regular bicycle, but the 250-watt electric motor can double your pedaling power for a full 46 miles before it needs to be recharged. Not bad!

The bad news is that such bikes are still expensive. The Eneloop costs $2,300. Worse, though, is that consumers don’t know what to make of them. Biking is still seen primarily as a form of recreation and exercise in the United States, not a mode of transportation. Bicycle infrastructure, such as dedicated lanes, is woefully lacking. Cycling enthusiasts view e-bikes as cheating. Car drivers view them as a downgrade. And the mainstream probably mostly just views them as an oddity.

Could this change? Maybe. In China, where bicycles are a major mode of transportation, people love them. In Copenhagen, also a cycling hotbed, people are indifferent. I’m not entirely sure what accounts for the difference, but I’m guessing culture plays a big role.

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  1. rich kolker - January 20, 2010

    I bought my electric moped a couple of years ago for getting around Ashburn, VA when gas went past $4 a gallon. But now I’m in Cotonou, Benin, the land of gas/oil powered mopeds spewing blue smoke and they’re all amazed by the nearly silent two wheeler with “no engine” riding alongside. Even better, almost all the electricity here is hydro, so nothing’s getting burned for the electricity it uses.

  2. Jesse - January 20, 2010

    I purchased an Ultra Motor Europa about two years ago and put about 4000 commuting miles on it. Maybe I just got a bad one, or maybe I just had bad luck, but the thing broke down. At $2000 and 4000 miles, I paid $2/mile plus a little bit for electricity (maybe 5 cents, i haven’t done the math on it yet). Compare that to a car, which even in the worst case costs under $1/mile to purchase and operate, and the electric bike I had was a sure example of technology not ready for prime time.

  3. Adam Stein - January 20, 2010

    It sounds like you got a bum deal, but just for the record, the cost of operating a car is almost certainly more than $1/mile. The cost of the car, gas, insurance, maintenance, tickets, parking, etc., add up pretty quickly.
    That said, electric bikes do seem too expensive, mainly because they’re so much less functional than cars. I think the market in which they’re most likely to make sense is urban environments where having a car is either unnecessary or actually inconvenient.

  4. Ed - January 20, 2010

    Jesse, if you are calculating dollars per mile, isn

  5. Oemissions - January 20, 2010

    Costs per mile for auto use need to include all the social costs and expenses we all have to pay for roads, maintenance,street cleaning,emergency response, police surveillance, coroners courts,injuries,stress, noise, pollution,a orld designed to serve the use of autos.

  6. Evan Little - January 20, 2010

    Excellent article! Right on the money for where I live in Orange County, CA. These bikes are luxury items, not a mode of transportation choice for most Orange County residents. Our bike lanes are sufficiant, but could certainly use improvement. The problem is our manipulated fuel prices. If they were up in the $4-5/gallon where they should be, these bikes would take off. I think it’s just a matter of time until these take off hear as well.

  7. William Lidstone - January 20, 2010

    Here in Toronto, bike-theft capital of the world, security is the issue. Making sure your multi-thousand dollar investment is till waiting for you at the end of the work day is a major concern. I’ve taken to buying cheap bikes at garage sales, give them a patch and a squirt of oil and my sons and I are good to go.
    Weather is the other issue – while my brave neighbour commutes the 10 K to work and back every day of the year, most people find cycling a two and a half season endeavor. Plus the sand and salt from road maintenance can really mess up any bike.
    Even so, I’ve considered the ebike since my own aging frame isn’t able to get up some of the hills without a power assist.

  8. Dave - January 20, 2010

    The hub motors have been around for over 15 years now, but aren’t in widespread use due to the battery dilemma. Once the battery runs down they have lots of extra drag, I think. I don’t want to lug around 30 extra pounds worth of toxic metal batteries and motor windings, to make my pedaling 20 percent easier when the lever is engaged. No place to plug it in, while parked at work either.
    My commute is 4.5 miles and I do it by a basic pedal-powered bike, which is a joy to ride. I’d rather keep my tires aired up fully, and enjoy the quiet self-powered zero-carbon ride.
    The 60 percent obesity epidemic in America won’t be aided by putting everyone on powered 2-wheelers. No more than it is by putting them in 3,000 lb. petrol-powered steel “safety” cages.
    My friend in Seattle had a 20 mile commute each way, with hills, and used a Giant electric-assist bike with Currie motor, occasionally to commute. When I lived there I vanpooled.

  9. Oemissions - January 20, 2010

    My question is: WHY should we have to share our passageways with automobiles?
    I can no longer tolerate the NOISE and choking fumes.
    It’s very very STRESSFUL.
    As a grandmother, I am scared to cross the street with my little grandchildren.
    Sometimes we have to scurry on a light across 8 to 10 lanes of traffic with all those people hyped up ready to push the pedal to the metal.
    Give city planners HECK!!

  10. Oemissions - January 20, 2010

    And… why should we have to share our passageways with automobiles.
    Everyday our lives are threatened because of this STUPID design.
    Pedestrians have to put up with the NOISE and toxic choking fumes.
    Give city planners HECK!!

  11. Katherine Roberts - January 20, 2010

    Umm..sorry to break the bad news, but: people in China LOVE these bikes, so long as they are not being maimed and killed by them:
    Guys — we’re so lazy. So many more of us can get off our butts & bike without any kind of electric assist. They are so much more resource-intensive than that most elegant of all inventions, the simple human-powered bicycle. We would benefit so much as a nation from more people just giving plain ol’ bicycles a try. But we always try to fix our technological problems by throwing the most technologically-complicated possible “solution” at them. Will we ever learn, more complicated is not necessarily better? These electric bikes can cause the same problems as cars, just on a smaller scale. Human power might not be as sexy, but it is so much smarter. Electric dreams are pie-in-the-sky. That’s not the message that people on this list want to hear, but it’s still true. The sooner we wake up and realize this the better.

  12. Oliver Bock - January 20, 2010

    As an older bicycle rider living in a hilly area, the electric bicycle can often be a great alternative to taking the car. Electric bicycles are also tons of fun, especially when I get to pass the Spandex Jerseys in my blue jeans and a t-shirt. Electric bicycles are true hybrids. Pedaling is not optional if you want to get any range. I get a lot of exercise because I choose to ride, with pedaling, distances that I wouldn’t even consider without motor assist. On that note, check out http://www.thegreenriders.org . We are heading across country on electric bikes and featuring ingenious Americans who are creating sustainable solutions to all sorts of critical issues from renewable energy to green building to sustainable agriculture to what municipalities are doing to increase sustainability.

  13. Anonymous - January 20, 2010

    Yeah, but how many people who can rely on their own steam are using them? The people in that article about China don’t look either old or disabled. In general in this country we use SO much more juice than we need to to perform simple tasks like getting from Point A to Point B. Plus we need to face the repercussions in terms of energy use, which as in China can mean coal, nuclear, etc. — not exactly what you would call “clean” energy sources. And the extra resources needed to produce those heavy batteries, which will leach more poisons into the landfills when they’re spent, are also a problem. These are side effects from both electric bikes and electric cars which I rarely see addressed. We’re so quick to latch onto the next “green” solutions to things that we don’t even see when those solutions aren’t so green after all, but will just lead us into a whole new slew of problems. Biofuels such as ethanol (which just amount to burning food instead of eating it) are another prime example. That’s why I usually look for the simplest possible solution to everyday problems, and I don’t see enough other people doing that.

  14. Edward - January 21, 2010

    Could you provide a little more information than what little your article said? You have this story as a lead story and there is nothing in it but fluff. I was expecting a complete review of what’s out there or on the drawing boards. I remember last year on the Discovery Channel a program where they put electric cars, motorcycles, snowmobiles and maybe bikes up against their gas guzzling counterparts and all did surprisingly well and to a degree beat the other side. The silent motorcycle dragster was wild and very powerful. The impression coming out of the show was that it was only a matter of time before these electric vehicles would be coming to market, but your article showed one bike(not identified), mentioned 2 bikes, WOW, how about some beef on the subject?

  15. Carl Johnson - January 21, 2010

    All the disadvantages of a bike, and it takes away the exercise value. I can’t imagine why I’d want anything like this. It’s not PEDALING that keeps me off the bike — and in fact, in colder weather, it’s pedaling that makes the ride tolerable (I’ve ridden a scooter in winter, and I’d much rather be pedaling).

  16. David Belden - January 21, 2010

    I’m an avid cyclist in San Francisco and have been surprised at how many electric bikes I now see on the Golden Gate Bridge. And I don’t mean tourists on electric bikes. These appear to be commuters who have decided that riding an electric bike allows them to get a bit more range out of their legs and allows them to avoid the $6 bridge toll. They don’t look like spandex wearing cyclists who have gotten lazy, but instead look like average commuters who want to save money, be green, avoid traffic, and get a bit of exercise in while they’re at it.

  17. Anonymous - January 22, 2010

    David, thanks for replying to my post, I use to be an avid bike rider here in hilly Connecticut, but an electric bike could help me jump start myself back in to cycling program again and at the same time allow me to commute on sunny rain free days. What the writer of the article and others that have replied to my post aren’t talking about are the bikes themselves, makes, models, prices. Which are the best in hilly conditions verse flat conditions. I can’t imagine a someone in Nebraska or Kansas needs the same bike as I do in Connecticut.

  18. Charles Duffy - January 24, 2010

    The best response to accusations of cheating by traditional cyclists:
    “I’m not cheating, I’m commuting!”
    I ride both a conventional bicycle and an electric. On the conventional bike, my commute requires 75 minutes each way. On the electric, with the same amount of effort put into the pedals, 45 minutes.
    At 1h30m per day, I can afford to commute by bike day-in and day-out; it’s less time than the commute by car plus an hour at the gym. At 2h30m, it’s simply not practical.
    And yes, I do mean “the same amount of effort” — I wear a heart rate monitor on both bikes. The motor makes me fast, not lazy.

  19. Gordon C - January 27, 2010

    You forgot to include most of the military budget which is spent trying to keep the oil supply lines stable.

  20. Phil - January 27, 2010

    Yes Gordon, very good point – military budget to keep oil lines open.
    Isn’t it bizarre that America (supposedly the worlds ‘best’ democracy – but only questioned by people outside… looking in at you) thinks it’s acceptable to use its military supremacy to feed its insatiable appetite for oil. To the detriment to all the rest of us that inhabit this planet.
    Every American needs to have a very good look at them-self, problem is – the ones reading this website already have – it’s the other 99.9999% .

  21. Phoenix Woman - January 27, 2010

    I’m a cyclist too, and I would love a lightweight and affordable e-bike to give me that extra boost when getting started on an uphill. Why? Because we share the road with things besides others bikes, and which are generally faster than us, and which don’t take kindly to having to sit behind someone as he/she struggles to get up an incline at 3.0 MPH.
    Sadly, purism and snobbery, has always infected cycling. Racers hated touring cyclist and REALLY hated mountain bikers, and then wondered why mountain and cross bikes were killing the squirrelly and skittish skinny-tired bikes in terms of sales. I see my bike as a tool to get me from Point A to Point B. If a small electric motor helps me safely climb a hill I would have otherwise walked to save my heart or knees, then no amount of misplaced purism will keep me from wanting one on my bike.
    Oh, and as for all this hoo-ha about e-bikes being cherished mainly by lazy fat Americans: Tell that to the UK folks behind A to B Magazine. They adore e-bikes and hate Americans. 😉

  22. Phoenix Woman - January 27, 2010

    Exactly! The motor is too small to be enough to push you on its own; it’s there to help you get more out of your hard pedaling, not to let you atrophy.

  23. Charles Duffy - January 27, 2010

    To provide some answers for the fellow interested in details on specific bikes and comparing their suitability for different purposes —
    On the lower end of the US market there are numerous conversion kits available to be fitted to a preexisting bicycle; BionX is one of the better-known brands (and Canadian-made), though the Chinese brand Golden Motor has recently come out with the Magic Pie, which looks like a great deal for the money but is relatively unproven. If you’re looking for a prebuilt bike at the low end of the market, iZip is a fairly well-known brand. If you want the higher end of the market in hub-motor e-bikes, E+ Electric Bikes is a continuation of the well-respected TidalForce brand, and has a very mature and well-engineered product (though personally, I think putting the batteries in the wheels is idiotic… ah, well). A2B is another brand which has gotten substantial media play — but having taken one for a test drive, I do not recommend them; to me, the A2B I rode felt more like an underpowered moped with pedals than a bicycle.
    If you want a top-of-the-line e-bike for mountain use, see Stealth Electric Bikes in Australia; their bikes are too powerful to be street-legal in most of the US, and are built to be robust enough for serious offroading (jumps, etc).
    All of the above are hub motors. These are relatively inexpensive, and don’t drive through the regular drivechain — the downside is that the motor can’t benefit from your shifting, and can suck down quite a lot of power (decreasing range and generating heat) going uphill; the upsides are that regenerative braking is possible (which is actually a fairly limited upside, bikes being as lightweight as they are and regen being hard on batteries) and that the systems being decoupled means you can try to make it home on motor power alone if you break a chain, bend a chainring, or otherwise have mechanical problems elsewhere in the system.
    As someone living in a hilly area, however, my preference is for mid-drive rather than hub motors; these motors are located in or near your bottom bracket and drive through your derailer or geared hub, such that (as long as your bike has a wide enough gearing range) your motor can be at its optimal power level whether you’re sprinting on flat ground or climbing a steep hill. An appropriately geared mid-drive system will be running best when you’re pedaling at an optimal cadence, so you just shift as comes naturally to keep your cadence up and the motor benefits as much as your legs do. (For this reason, mid-drive systems can encourage pedal input more effectively than hub-motor ebikes).
    The most popular mid-drive assist system in the US may well be the Stokemonkey (which is built for use with Xtracycle-compatible cargo bikes), while the highest-end is that built and used by Optibike (a Boulder company which aims to be to the electric bike market what Tesla Motors is to electric cars; their bikes are very expensive, but have outstanding handling, over 100 mile range when run in low power mode with lots of pedaling and both internal and external batteries, and climb “like a mountain goat” — especially when fitted with a Rohloff, for which they’re now one of the few American importers). Others are available — one company local to me has a Chinese import mid-drive ebike they rebrand, but I don’t recall the name.
    These are just the companies of which I’m most aware — there are many more out there, and also lots of people with the time and skills to build their own; endless-sphere.com hosts a forum dedicated to the latter set, though they tend to be disdainful towards those who prefer to purchase an off-the-shelf, commercially supported product.
    I hope this helps!

  24. Kevin Young - January 28, 2010

    Charles, thanks for the excellent info. I would add to the mid-drive assist the kits & bikes from eLation eLectric in Australia. It’s pricey for a kit, but I think they have a great product. I’ll mention that I got to test ride an Optibike and it was amazing–that bike will take you places you probably should not go. It will also leave others on the trail wondering at your superpower, since the motor and battery are totally hidden.
    Nobody in this discussion has mentioned scooter-style ebikes. From the nature of the replies I don’t think this audience would be much in favor of them, but I find them a joy to ride. Not only are they an inexpensive and practical form of transport, but they help you reconnect with your neighborhood by encouraging exploration and travel for the fun of it.
    Some have mentioned concerns about coal-generated electricity being used to charge the batteries, but the amount of energy used is so small compared to a gas-powered vehicle that I see any ebike as an improvement over most any form of transportation. I can’t help but agree with those who are all for human-powered transport–that is simply the best–but I just don’t see masses of people opting in.
    In the spirit of full disclosure I will say that I sell Veloteq scooter-style ebikes (UtaheBikes.com). Veloteq is introducing several new models of pedal-assist this year and I hope that I can help many people get out of their cars and onto a bike of one sort or another.

  25. Charles Duffy - January 28, 2010

    Thanks for pointing out eLation; it looks like great kit! I agree that getting people out of cars is a noble goal, and wish your business success.
    To add to your point about an e-bike’s efficiency, you might find http://knol.google.com/k/energy-global-warming-and-electric-bicycles interesting; the argument is made that splitting the effort with an electric motor is actually more environmentally sound than using human power alone (based on an energy flow analysis of the US food distribution system). The curve between energy intake and physical activity is also interesting — the takeaway is that sedentary individuals actually consume more calories than those who get light exercise on a regular basis, reinforcing that getting some amount of exercise is not only personally rewarding but better for the environment than getting none at all.

  26. Kevin Young - January 28, 2010

    Charles, that analysis of energy flow was fascinating. I had never considered the possibility that an ebike could have a lower environmental cost than a regular pedal-bike. I loved the conclusion that for personal travel of 5-30 miles per day ebikes offer the lowest environmental and monetary costs of any form of transportation. Wow! I got into the ebike business from an interest in sustainability and wanting to create a business that can make a positive difference–that energy analysis makes me feel all the better about my decision :)