The Electrobike Cometh

Commuter, E-bike, Guest 5 2

Electric bikes from ChinaNote from James: This is Michael Downes’ second submission to Bicycle Design (wow, he is on a roll). If you are new to the blog and don’t know who Michael is, read the profile about him that I wrote last February. Since that time, Michael has left his position at Giant Bicycles to work as a freelance designer in Portland, OR. If you need the services of an experienced designer with a background in the bike industry, I encourage you to contact Michael here. Now on to his post.

I found this interesting article (via Bike Biz) in the International Herald Tribune business section about the unprecedented growth of electric bikes particularly in China. It got me reminiscing about my visits there when I was working for Giant Bicycle Inc. I attended several meetings where some quite incredible figures were presented about the growth potential in this market. I even had one memorable visit to an electric bicycle and scooter specific store in downtown Shanghai. Memorable, in part, because it involved a white knuckle ride into town in an overcrowded Chinese micro-bus, driven at speed and in the complete absence of any formal ’rules of the road’ (Chinese driving habits have to be experienced to be believed!). The store was enormous, spread across three floors and sold every conceivable type and brand of electrically assisted two-wheeled conveyance. Everything from the cheapest, scariest Vietnamese roadsters that seemed entirely assembled from gas pipe and washing machine parts to the sleekest, sparkly Gundam/Manga inspired scooters with, and I do not exaggerate, cranks two feet apart and three inches in length at best. Apparently to qualify as electric bicycles the scooters had to have cranks and pedals but they were not required to be functional. And of course this plethora of products were decked out in the most migraine-inducing colors. Every possible combination of glitter, holographic Mylar, chromed plastic and blinking LED’s was used to its fullest. When it comes to color the Chinese are nothing if not bold. Alongside all this visual and formal hoopla the products offered by Giant seemed…well boring, designed as they were to appeal to, or at least not offend, European and American sensibilities. To be sure, at the time, it seemed to me that I had entered the industrial designers equivalent of the ninth circle of hell but on reflection I see now, in microcosm, an expression of Chinese confidence. I have no doubt we have entered the Chinese Century. Consider these factoids I gleaned the other day: 30% of people with the highest IQ’s are Chinese, China has more honor students than America has people and China will soon become the largest English speaking nation in the world. What I saw that afternoon as I wandered in a daze through the store was a brashness, confidence and willingness to take risks that has largely evaporated in the west. Sure there was a lot of junk and poor craftsmanship but there was also a lot of inspired pragmatism and balls. When I think back to those interminable meetings where the PD team dissected the pros and cons of two very similar shades of blue for next season’s model or argued endlessly about the inclusion or not of some minor doodad I realize that in our sophistication and maturity we have become timid. We are more fearful of failure than emboldened by opportunity. Self doubt is not a Chinese characteristic.

So what has all this to do with bicycles? In the next decade the smartest, lightest, most energy efficient and environmentally benign electric bicycles (and scooters, car & trucks) will emerge not out of MIT or Silicon Valley but China. I guarantee it.

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James Thomas

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5 Comments

  1. Edu&Nano March 19, 2007 at 6:21 am -  Reply

    I have made a comment on Bk´s blog than Chinese is the language of the future. The future is there, they´ve total manufacturing control for the industry.
    In the European and Usa companies there are much more fear to keep their market (their name) quotes than going further in really R&D projects, resulting advantages. Look at Shimano for instance they remain last ten years in a “one-gear-more-war”, and reduce drastically the reliability and durability of their transmisions. I believe the future bicicle gear is more in the way of rollhoff or Nuvinci gears, than shimano´s way to run out the sprocket posibilities.

    The main problem on that is the bycicle industry owners have not the enough “courage” to change the things, they keep their minds busy with things like those:

    - One twist more on the rear suspension shock
    - What will be the next year shimano evo?
    - Can we create another discipline between the Freeride and DH?
    - Ok, All we have specific women design, why not teenagers Specific design or mid age, or retired?
    - Can we make next year frame ten grams lighter than actual removing seat clamp?

    In the last ten years I´ve seen many unuseful gags for bycicling than many years before. The problem was before they simply disappear in the market, but now there are an artificial pressure on the consumers(magazines, retailers, and the consumers of course) for get´em.

    Like yours I´m a fan of simplicity and all these stuff (tubeless, hydraulic disc brakes, more unuseful gears, etc) make the bikes more complex and expensive, and they do not solve real problems.

    Magazines are clearly divorced for the medium users and beginners, those are the “market”, they don´t test or report about 1000€ bikes, they do not make consistent test of those really interesting bikes, they test hand-made-special-series-custom edition, For what? How much is the market quote for that?0.5 %?

    Edu

  2. mark December 26, 2007 at 9:30 pm -  Reply

    Electric Bicycles and Electric Scooters

    Elmo The Electric Bike and Electric Scooter Guy

    This is an excellent blog for electric bicycles. There are not too many around like this. Thanks for making this such an interesting subject. Oh, by the way, Wired Magazine has a great article on hybrid cars this month. (Jan 2008 issue).

    God Bless,
    Elmo

  3. electric bikes January 6, 2009 at 2:04 am -  Reply

    wow, those bikes look so cool!

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