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An electric bike design competition from eBikeTec

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  1. Impossibly Stupid February 20, 2013 at 7:46 pm -  Reply

    “they have a serious image problem to overcome in order to gain wider acceptance in the U.S.”

    I disagree. Going beyond the general lack of popularity for bikes in the US, the only thing wrong with the “image” of e-bikes is their reality. I’ve said this before here, but let me repeat it for any aspiring designers who might be new.

    The safety bike was a genius design from the beginning. Materials science has evolved it to an amazing ~25lbs package that is extremely efficient and mechanically solid. You can spend $200 to get a “bad” one, $500 to get a good one, and up over $5000 to get one that really is only marginally better than a great $1000 bike.

    Electric bikes seem to want to throw all that out. Weight for the electric gear pushes them up to 50-75lbs. Consequently, they make very bad *bikes* if you ever have to pedal beyond whatever the range is (usually a couple hours of biking). Hope you don’t have to hike it up too many stairs to get to the charger, either! Prices usually start at $1000 (and be prepared to shell out big bucks for a new battery after less than a year of regular riding), and you could buy a nice scooter (or motorcycle, even) for the price of a “good” e-bike.

    You could try to design something reality-based that would sell, but it wouldn’t be a full e-bike. It would be an improved conversion kit; made especially to go on and off a normal bike quickly. Likely something that goes above the bottom bracket and drives the front sprocket; it’s pretty much the only place to interface with the drive train without excessive modification. Then I could use it on those rare days I felt lazy (or just didn’t want to start sweating), but I can remove it on most days when I need my bike to be a great bike. It’s still probably going to cost and weigh more than it is worth, but it would at least make sense as a product.

  2. Steve Stollman February 21, 2013 at 8:51 am -  Reply

    How can you be so wrong about so many things at one time?

    1. The experience of being able to propel oneself when you want by your own power and also access ease when desired is a new one, far superior to either alternative by themselves. It is so novel that it disturbs us, since we have acclimated ourselves to no choice and it forces us to wonder what other choices are being made for us rather than being left to our own judgement.

    2. Electric-assisted bikes can be the first important step towards replacing the automobile once we have done the rest of the job of designing and building weather-protecting, passenger-carrying vehicles of this nature. (Rob Cotter’s ELF is one good example). We know that batteries are getting smaller and motors too and soon there will be a 35 pound electric-assist bike that is about the same weight as many mountain bikes.

    3. The biggest barrier to the popularity of electric-assist bikes is that hardly anybody has had a chance to ride them. The narrow-minded attitude of pure cyclists, especially those who tend to populate bike stores and bike clubs is another barrier that will fall soon but regards these machines as prosthetic devices, only suitable for the hopelessly out-of-shape or lazy person. Once you have the experience, you want to do it again and again. It is liberating and could add another equal number of former and new cyclists to the road while expanding their profile to older and other groups not well represented now, and making riding conditions much safer for all riders. How could anyone have a problem with these developments?

    • Impossibly Stupid February 21, 2013 at 11:38 am -  Reply

      Oh, please! If I am wrong, then reality is wrong. I notice that you fail to address any of the hard numbers I brought up. Your lofty ideals are what is “so wrong” in this matter, not my nuts and bolts practicality. To address your points in turn:

      1. Your “far superior” desire is full of too many compromises, as I already noted. An electric bike is both a poor bike and a poor scooter. I would rather buy a $500 bike and a $2000 scooter than spend $2500 on a really bad combo of the two. Nobody is making that choice for me, rather I’m simply looking at the reality of e-bikes and deciding they’re not a good value (yet).

      2. You mixed two point in one here. Firstly, replacing cars is something that could already be done by motorcycles at the top end and regular bikes at the bottom end, if people wanted to do that. Most people don’t, so the potential e-bike market is vanishingly small regardless of how advanced the technology gets. It is also worth noting that any new tech that could benefit an electric bike would benefit an electric car more.

      Secondly, people buy what is available today, not your imagined future bike. Until something ships that matches your specs, it’s just idle speculation. And I’ll take it further and speculate that such a bike will start shipping well north of $2500. You won’t get many people lined up to spend that much for a vehicle that does so little.

      3. Feel free to send me a loner e-bike and I will give it an honest review (note: I’m in Minnesota and I ride in the winter, so it better not be a piece of junk that can’t handle some snow and ice). Test ride or no test ride, people do the math before they buy. You seem unable to point to any existing technology that scales down to a decent bike, so why not do the sensible thing and admit that it is too soon to be talking about an e-bike revolution? I fully believe that e-bikes will eventually compare favorably to the alternatives, but that day is not today, and that day is probably not in the next 5 years, either.

      • James Thomas February 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm -  Reply

        Impossibly Stupid, I don’t have time for a long rebuttal at the moment, but I am curious. Have you ever ridden a nice pedelec…or any e-bike for that matter? The assumptions that so you adamantly claim to be “reality” don’t seem to be based on any real firsthand experience.

        You are clearly not the target customer for an e-bike (and neither am I), but you do seem to have that “serious cyclist” bias that Steve mentioned against the very idea of an electric assist bike. Your use of the word lazy in your first comment makes that pretty clear. I suggest you try a few with an open mind before dismissing the category entirely. Perhaps in 30 or 40 years, you might just appreciate a little boost on the hills.

        • Impossibly Stupid February 21, 2013 at 4:19 pm -  Reply

          I didn’t use lazy as a pejorative, just as a simple statement that the selling point of an e-bike is to reduce the “effort” of biking. On a normal bike, that really isn’t much effort at all, and you have to balance the “boost” you get from an electric assist against the costs that come with it.

          It has nothing to do with what *I* am in the market for. I’m just making a pointed observation that everyone *else* doesn’t appear to be in the market for an e-bike. The proper response to that should not be denial, but a frank examination of why that is the case. I would love, for example, an honest look at what factors make a country like China have an electric bike boom, but a country like the US (or France) does not.

          So I do hope you find time to rebut with hard facts. I would very much like to be wrong, because I’m only a “serious cyclist” by way of being a practical person. If there were *any* situation that made sense for an e-bike, I would be happy to recommend one (hell, I’ve even looked into whether or not electric skateboards made sense for certain commutes). From where I’m sitting, though, all other alternatives make a lot more sense.

      • Nick F. February 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm -  Reply

        I agree with James – most of your arguments boil down to: “It doesn’t fit my lifestyle or bike commute, so it must not be a viable product.”

        The weight issue is a red herring – there are plenty of fantastic non-electric city bikes in the 40-50lb range that sell huge numbers. They aren’t being carried indoors to begin with, so adding a few pounds for electric doesn’t negatively impact the experience, and they prove the market for such a heavy bike regardless of its drive system. Furthermore, e-bike weight is going to continue to drop, range will continue to increase – this isn’t magical thinking… it’s the inevitable march of progress.

        The cost issue is the biggest barrier to entry at this point, but like any new technology… maturity in the market, competition among brands, and a strong used ecosystem will all drive those prices down significantly.

        Ultimately though, I don’t really think the entrenched opinions of “cyclists” matter too much for the fate of the e-bike. Bicyclists currently make up such a small percent of the population that it doesn’t matter if e-bikes are LOATHED by every single person who has ever owned a traditional bike… e-bikes have the potential to succeed greater than traditional bikes ever have just by being accessible to an entirely different user base.

        For the record, I don’t own an e-bike, and love traditional bikes. But I see the potential of e-bikes, and think it’s probably better for everyone if I spend my time trying to solve the problems preventing their adoption, not trolling concept design blogs and espousing retrogrouchy false obstacles.

        • Impossibly Stupid February 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm -  Reply

          You have it backwards. I’m reality based, so my argument boils down to: It doesn’t appear to be a viable product, so what needs to be changed to fit *someone’s* lifestyle or bike commute. Feel free to offer up differing suggestions if you have a more common use case, but don’t pile on with the Segway-esque empty claims of replacing cars. Motorcycles and scooters haven’t replaced cars, and you’ll get nowhere with e-bikes until you address that reality. Handwaving technology advances doesn’t change the fact that e-bikes are not *currently* a good buy, either. Join me in today’s reality and we can have a serious discussion about what it *will* take to increase e-bike adoption rates; I thought that’s what encouraging new design was all about.

  3. Steve Stollman February 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm -  Reply

    In defense of my point of view……….What I said was that once we are able to provide for weather protection and passenger capacity we are moving strongly towards replacing industrial-scale vehicles (like cars) with human-scale vehicles. o motorcycle or scooter has accomplished that and as long as they are exiting poison gas out of their tailpipes I hope they never do. We need creative design and use of appropriate materials, preferably the lightest and most durable. This process is just beginning and will take a while to get up to full speed but there are no barriers except our imaginations.

    Yes ebikes are relatively expensive at thousands of dollars although there are some that sell in the mid-hundreds as well. Usually they are the heavier models since they use $30 lead acid batteries instead of $200+ lithium ion but those p[rices are coming down rapidly and will provide for a decent ride with extended range within most pocketbooks. Bike-sharing is an obvious hedge against the cost and needs to be developed as well. If these machines are used by commuters to get into work and can be conveniently recharges, they can be used all day for other purposes and still be in shape to return somebody home after their work (or shopping or visiting or recreating) day is over.

    One reason these bikes are so popular in China is because they include mopeds, which are called electric bikes and nobody pedals. This is a shame since getting some exercise is part of the point and there is a serious argument in Europe over whether they should be pedal-activated or throttle-activated. I am distressed by the fact that 300 poiund mopeds are asserting their legality as bikes when they have useless pedals and can not be pedaled. The better of the ebikes, Giant for instance and several models of other manufacturers, are perfectly fine bikes, with 7 gear internal hubs and excellent qualities as a regular bike. I agree that many are garbage as bikes and are expected to be motor-driven constantly and really should be called mopeds and not be able to claim to be bikes. That has been a problem for 30 years, since they first appeared but there are reputable manufacturers who understand this issue and make them right and there are those who will try to scam you if you let them.

    One big problem is their legal status. Federal law HR727 says that under 1 horse and 20 mph they’re bikes not motorized vehicles and that this law supersedes State laws more restrictive but it just ain’t so. NYC claims they are illegal even though the restaurant delivery business is loaded with them. This ambiguity or uncertainty is very discouraging to possible users and is one of the reasons that they have not caught on here.

    Segways are over-priced bullshit. They bribed legislators in 30 some states to make them legal to the exclusion of scooters at 1/10 the price, created a monopoly because J and J invested 200 million in it and didn’t want to lose their money. Corrupting politicians is how GM and Standard oil destroyed the rail system and we need integrity as much as we need better transportation. Please don’t accuse me of siding with them.

    If 25% of the bikes sold in that flat Republic the Netherlands are ebikes, how are they not viable here? Still pricey, yes, but not viable? Share one with a friend and the cost drops by 50%. Put a couple of big baskets on it and compute how much you save in gas and insurance. They are the portal to a new paradigm and that doesn’t happen very often but it is going to take a boost in our expectations and lots of creative energy to take it to the next level. I am reality-based too. When ebikes were 75-80 pounds there was little interest. Now that they are beginning to resemble ordinary bikes in all respects they have arrived and should be welcomed with cheers and gratitude, not fear and resentment.

    • Impossibly Stupid February 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm -  Reply

      So much to cover . . .

      “there are no barriers except our imaginations”

      Incorrect. There is the reality of physics. Economies of scale. Resource usage and waste disposal. Infrastructure allocation and legal issues. You can’t just imagine a far-distant, far-different future and take it as a given. You have to chart a path of the necessary steps it will take to get there. There are all kinds of barriers that need to be overcome, and they *can* be, but you have to acknowledge that they’re there instead of running head on into them like a brick wall.

      I agree that, from what I’ve read, e-bikes in China are essentially electric scooters. As such, they probably shouldn’t be part of an e-bike discussion, save for the fact that scooters themselves aren’t popular in the US either.

      I mentioned Segways only to point out that they were another vehicle that was pushed as being the catalyst for car-free cities. Not only did it fail to achieve that, but it isn’t a very popular product. It is easy to see parallels with e-bikes in the “over-priced bullshit” department.

      I agree that places like The Netherlands and China are worth examining. In context, biking is already more popular there than in places like the US, so moving “up” to an e-bike is a lot easier to understand. It just isn’t obvious to US drivers that alternatives (not only bikes of all kinds, but motorcycles and public transit, too) are worth the bother.

      Like it or not, it is *we* cyclists who have to be convinced that e-bikes are viable, because we’re the ones who will be out there to show the drivers that change might not be as hard as they think. Back when I rode a motorcycle more, my favorite thing to do was to accelerate away from stop lights as quick as I could; I wanted to make it obvious why *that* vehicle was better than a car for me, and maybe they’d think about changing their commute to be more fun, too. Other than having a smile on my face, most drivers can’t tell why I like even a lowly bike better than a car. I’d love to see an e-bike that made it obvious to drivers why they might be a good choice, but that’ll never happen if they can’t even make an e-bike that makes *me* think they’re a good choice.

  4. Let’s all drive Yukons February 22, 2013 at 8:44 am -  Reply

    Impossibly Stupid is right. Practical thinking Americans will never accept heavy, expensive e-bikes. We all know that six ton SUV’s are the reality based solution for all of our personal transportation needs. No need for further discussion.

    • Impossibly Stupid February 22, 2013 at 11:23 am -  Reply

      Again, you’re approaching things backwards. The reality *is* that people buy SUVs more than they buy e-bikes. The smart thing to do would be to figure out why that is the case, and address that gap (perhaps in a design competition, such as we have here! :-). But, hey, continue to be dismissive if you think that actually will fix the problem. Of the two approaches, mine is actually more supportive of e-bikes. Shame that nobody here seems to see that.

  5. James Thomas February 22, 2013 at 11:33 am -  Reply

    “The reality *is* that people buy SUVs more than they buy e-bikes. The smart thing to do would be to figure out why that is the case, and address that gap (perhaps in a design competition, such as we have here!”

    Sorry to all that I have not been able to find time to really engage in this discussion, but I do agree with the statement above. I encourage everyone to submit an entry to the eBikeTec competition, and perhaps we can build on this subject with the next design competition here at Bicycle Design.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going! I really do appreciate hearing everyone’s thoughts on this.

  6. Vincent February 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm -  Reply

    I would encourage to try an e-bike with torque measurement (BionX, Panasonic, Bosch…). the effect is allways the same: you come back with a big smile, because this is nothing but a new feeling, a kind of incredible ergonomy. The system understand your need based on your “natural” movements. I just can’t find any other examples with this kind of ergonomy: a motor saw is not a saw with assistance, this a different (parallel) way to make the job.

    Well James, to take part to this design contest, this is unfortunately a bit late… or have YOU prepared something? (I have seen that they reference you…)

    • James Thomas February 26, 2013 at 11:30 am -  Reply

      Hi Vincent. No, I have not prepared anything. Unfortunately, I did find out about this competition a bit late (I overlooked the first email they sent to me), but I will now be participating in it as a jury member. I wish I had been able to promote the competition sooner, but hopefully we will see many good ideas in the entries…and the discussion that is sure to follow.

  7. Mommus February 25, 2013 at 4:13 am -  Reply

    I can’t help wonder why someone would enter a true ‘production ready’ ebike. If the idea is worth perusing then a production ready idea just needs a bit of funding to be released. Why go to all the effort of designing a viable electric bicycle only to pass all the intellectual capital over to a French organisation in exchange for exchange for a trophy and a ‘visibility package’? – whatever that means.

    I understand why they’d want to push for more realistic designs after the sillyness of the Seoul Cycle Design winners a few years ago (which asked for real-world, manufacturable designs but then awarded wins to vapourware and bad science) but I think they’ve effectively ruled out any chance of getting many entries.

    I suspect the winner will be French anyway!

  8. Steve Stollman February 25, 2013 at 9:02 am -  Reply

    Trikes may matter more than bikes and I don’t mean skinny Velomobiles that look difficult to ride even if they are not. We need to get away from the kids models though, that a four year old would be comfortable on. You must be able to withstand side winds and other hazards if you are going to have a full cover. Recumbent postures are safer, more stable and comfortable. Yes, we are victims of our habit patterns, of behavior and thinking. The human scale is the one that matters, the one that we have the broadest access to and we need to explore this region of the Universe.

    Take a look at and We don’t need a contest or a competition, we need an exploration and sharing of information. We need to return to small scale production and craftsmanship. Transportation needs the same make-over that communication and information have gotten. Make it smaller. Bring the cost down so everyone can enjoy the advantages of our new perceptions and discoveries. Please don’t discount the importance of the imagination. It is the most powerful weapon we have against the forces of greed and top-down control.

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