The other hybrids
E-bikes have been written off as clunky and expensive, but manufacturers say they're getting better.
Tue, Aug 01, 2006 at 02:36 PM
I’m not going to lie to you. I’m a single girl who’s been around the block. Usually I don’t look back, but there’s at least one hookup I really regret: My 1998 cherry-red Jeep Cherokee. Sure, it gets me where I need to go, but I feel pretty guilty afterward. The emissions streaming out of the tailpipe wreck our air quality, and my dependence on foreign oil wrecks my conscience. I feel dirty.
So I’m ready to make a clean break — well, a cleaner break anyway. Originally, I vowed to take all short, local trips on my bicycle — but it wasn’t long before I began to pine away for the gas guzzler in my garage. Scrawny asthmatic that I am, I get winded just walking to my favorite juice bar. Rather than continue to struggle up the hills of southcentral Indiana on my old Schwinn — and arrive at my destination a sweaty mess — I thought I could make things easier on myself with an electric bike. Little did I know how hard finding one would be.
An electric bike (or “e-bike”) is a regular bicycle outfitted with a small motor, battery pack, throttle and a controller that adjusts the amount of electricity supplied to the motor. An e-bike can be ridden just like a traditional bike, but if you want a little extra oomph you can switch on the motor, which then delivers power to the wheels in conjunction with your pedaling. Many of the new e-bikes offer adjustable pedal-to-motor power ratios, so riders can decide to what extent they’ll rely on an e-bike’s electric assistance. (Really lazy souls like me, for example, might choose to ride with one-quarter human power and three-quarters electric power.) Typically, though, about half of an e-bike’s energy comes from the physical work of the rider. An e-bike with a 24-volt, 12-amp-hour battery could take you 10 to 20 miles on a single charge.
Not bad, but when I went to try one for myself it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I drove up to Indianapolis to test-ride Giant Bicycle’s LAfree Lite model — only to find that its battery was dead. (“Uh, no one’s asked to ride it since October,” the shop clerk stammered.) Turns out e-bikes aren’t even close to being perfect. Largely Asian-made to capitalize on inexpensive labor, the technology isn’t cheap — an e-bike may cost between $1,000 and $1,500 (owing to factors including shipping, distribution costs and retail markup). They weigh in at a hefty 50 pounds or more. And finally, like boyfriends, the really good ones are hard to find.
Frank Jamerson, publisher of the biennial Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports and owner of the Electric Battery Bicycle Company in Naples, Florida, thinks retailers are hesitant to stock e-bikes because electric bike manufacturers had a collectively shaky start in the early ’90s: “It’s like any new industry. There were a lot of poor-quality products out there initially,” he says.
Retailer Bob Nohren agrees. He tried stocking a couple of e-bikes in his Energy Conservatory Bike Shop in Dunedin, Florida, a few years back, and said the only one he sold went to a commuter: “She was in here every other week with something, practically in tears.” After getting caught a few times in the rain, her bike simply stopped working; several gratis repairs later, Nohren gave up. “On some of these electric bikes, you have to take the whole thing apart to fix it. It’s hours and hours of labor. So we said, ‘We’re going to get you a real nice mountain bike,’ because she had just had it up to here.”
But current e-bike retailers promise that things have changed. Rob Means, owner of Electro Ride Bikes and Scooters, a San Francisco Bay Area business since 1996, notes that manufacturers are responding to retailer and customer needs. For example, while an e-bike’s controller and motor often used to be packaged together, you’ll now find them separated on many models: “Now when the controller goes bad — and it still goes bad sometimes — it’s just a relatively inexpensive replacement.” Doug McKinney, an employee at NYCEWheels in New York City, has noticed the need for repairs has decreased as e-bike battery technology has improved, and lighter, more powerful e-bikes are attracting all kinds of people, from the physically disabled and the elderly to “the guys that just want to go as fast as possible.”
Despite all the progress, the cost, weight, and seemingly inevitable need for repairs associated with e-bikes didn’t exactly turn me on. But a heart-to-heart with Piet Canin, deputy director of the Santa Cruz Area Transportation Management Association in California, quelled my doubts: “I think the technology’s at a good place. It’s reliable enough. It works well enough. Electric bikes definitely serve a purpose.”
Canin helps oversee the local Electric Bicycle Rebate Program, which affords every participant a $375 instant rebate on the purchase of an e-bike. So far, more than 1,200 Santa Cruz, residents have purchased e-bikes through the program during the last four years, and 62 percent of participants use their bikes to replace car trips. Best of all, 84 percent of the participants have been “delighted” or “satisfied” with their bikes, and a whopping 97 percent would recommend riding an e-bike. Looks like the Jeep and I are heading out again — this time to find the e-bike of my dreams. And then we’re speeding to Splitsville.
Manufacturer: Giant Bicycles
Model: Suede E (Complete bike includes battery, motor, throttle, and controller)
Cost: $1,000 MSRP
Weight: about 56 pounds
Technology: pedal-activated 36-volt nickel metal hydride battery
Battery life/range: about 30 miles per charge
Warranty: one year for parts and electrical components
Availability: check giantbicycle.com for dealer information
Model: BionX kit (Install the battery and motor assembly on your existing bike)
Cost: $1,100 MSRP
Weight: ranges from 15 to 23 pounds, depending on model
Technology: pedal-activated brushless motor; nickel metal hydride or lithium ion battery options
Battery life/range: 15-20 miles per charge depending on assistance use and model
Warranty: two years
Availability: visit bionx.ca for a dealer locator.
Manufacturer: Currie Technologies
Model: iZip IQ Series Trekking bike
Cost: $1,299 MSRP
Weight: 48 pounds
Technology: pedal-activated nickel metal hydride battery
Battery life/range: up to 25 miles per charge
Warranty: see currietech.com
Availability: see dealer information online
When it comes to buying and using e-bikes, many areas of Europe, India, and China are way ahead of us. While not quite 100,000 e-bikes were sold in the U.S. last year, the Chinese snapped up over 10 million of them during the same period. And, according to Frank Jamerson, publisher of the biennial Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, Chinese sales should hold steady: “We expect [e-bike] sales there will level off to the 15 million units-peryear range over the next few years.”
That China is not crisscrossed with expressways certainly has helped fuel its affinity for two-wheeled transportation. Another incentive: the bulk of e-bikes are manufactured there. Riders can easily get parts and service for their bikes, which sell for about $300 on average. “That’s like a month or two month’s wages [in China], which is a reasonable percentage of your disposable income for transportation,” Jamerson added.
Still, China’s reliance on both traditional and electric bikes may be in flux, thanks to its growing economy and burgeoning love affair with the automobile. Jamerson noted that auto sales were up to nearly 3.8 million units in China last year, “but the fact is that you’ve got 1.3 billion people that need transportation, and you’re not going to have 1.3 billion cars on the road ever over there. The electric bike, just like the traditional bike, will go on forever.”
Story by Susan M. Brackney. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.