interbike, the organization you might remember from the yearly Vegas bash decided to throw an event called “The Electric Bike Media Event: Growing the E-Bike Segment in North America”
so this happened:
At Terranea Resort, a place so classy I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t accidentally gone to a convention of heart surgeons, about 10 different companies enjoyed lectures, rides and then set up tents and demo bikes on the resort grounds. For 2 hours registered retailers were invited to come out to test the bikes and get a very pleasant sales pitch. I have to admit, even if they were selling rotten tomatoes it still would have seemed tre chic. Bikes, you might recall, are generally not an industry that’s famous for making people rich… or even catering to people who are rich, outside the occasional full custom carbon play toy.
And yet! e-bikes, they’re a big question plus living in SoCal where you’re likely on the hook for traveling upwards of 20+ miles to get to a friends house, job or date generally means that e-bikes have the incredible potential to get a lot more people to use bikes as transportation – including older people and those not interested in becoming ironman fit just to get around. So I was pretty psyched to make it out to a fancy spot and get the secret low-down on the coming e-bike revolution. Here’s what I saw:
There’s a few key things about this new and as yet mysterious technology: there’s pedal assist and clutch (meaning you rev it from the handlebar) some have one or the other, some make use of both. Many of the manufacturers Americans will be familiar with via home appliances (Panasonic, Bosch) and there’s generally 3 places the “power unit” is installed: the back hub, as part of the crank or integrated into the seat tube. Everyone who sells one kind over the other believes that that specific type is better than the other types. And to a certain degree they’re all right. A battery in the seat tube does have the most “natural” feel. A battery in the back hub means that a “kit” can convert a normal bike into an e-bike. A battery integrated into the crank might be able to get some residual power from pedaling to keep the battery from wearing out. All very nice.
Some of them had a lot of power and were a joy to ride. Others, not so much. I apologize if I accidentally broke one or two going up the little hill from the turn around spot. Like most things the higher the price the better the ride.
My questions of all of them was: how much money are these for consumers? How many recharges is the battery expected to have over its’ life? What is the product warranty?
Most were the same:
- $1,200 lo end to $5,000 retail
- 500 charges
- 2 year warranty
Many of these products are so new that they’re not sure how many charges it will last. I asked the Swiss manufacturer that I liked the best what the common customer feedback was – did people have problems with hills, going too long without charging? What was the percentage of sales where the warranty was needed to repair or replace something? Almost none of them were able to say – they simply didn’t know or got frustrated that people didn’t properly maintain batteries.
In general a charge will probably last you a good day of (assisted – you’re still pedaling) riding. So, 1 charge = 1 day. Most people won’t ride everyday, so 500 charges and keeping good care of your new e-bike should last you right up until that 2 year warranty. I’m pretty sure that the higher end e-bikes, the delightful $5,000 one that I liked so much would be a hard sell, but not impossible if say, it lasted 10 years. Or if the manufacturer could confidently say that in 3 years the battery technology will be even better and when you take it in to be recycled you get to upgrade to a newer model for… I don’t know a few hundred bucks. The rest of us might have a lower priced e-bike and have a different battery maintenance schedule trade-off. But seriously? We all kinda walked away hoping battery technology gets awesome way faster and that e-bike companies begin to realize that you can get a motorcycle or a cheap car for that. Which kind of defeats the purpose of the revolution.
No matter what it was, something didn’t compute. In some ways this is due to how segmented the bicycling industry is. Manufacturers and brands sorta work together, who sorta work with independent bike shops, who sorta try to understand average people. We’re not all living in the same cities, making the same money or living the same lives and it seems that few people putting these bikes together realize how hard it is for your local bike shop to choose or risk carrying something that might not be a good investment for an individual with lots of practical and logistical concerns. Even Bicycling magazine managed to totally forget that if hundreds of thousands of e-bikes are about to blossom as a new trend in the US – that they need to appeal to individuals, not just global marketing projections.
Beyond that – e-bikes are creating a lot of chatter in the advocacy and local government planning circles. If there’s about to be a bunch of e-bikes flooding our cities and towns – don’t they need to be regulated? NYC has already seen what it looks like when thousands of Chinese food delivery guys overwhelm the burgeoning bike lanes. And it’s true that those bikes: super loud, some smelling of gas fumes, many going way too fast for bike traffic – are an abomination. The fancy pretty things shown at the Terranea Resort expo were a world apart: quiet and pretty. But they’re all e-bikes and so it leads people to wonder what regulations should exist. Do we limit how fast they can go? Only allow electric (not gas) powered? Do we limit them to the bike path or keep them with regular traffic? What do we need to do to get them to enhance the growing bicycle infrastructure and culture – instead of making it another point of contention.