I am in the middle of a traffic jam in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., and I’ve just run out of power in my Organic Transit ELF. What’s an ELF, you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a three-wheeled electric bicycle with weather protection — owners don’t like to call it a car, though its cute plastic body makes it look a bit like one.
Running out of juice isn’t that big a deal. It’s a bike, after all, so I just pedal it back to my hotel. The ELF is part of a revolution in two- and three-wheeled electric transportation that, so far, is far bigger in Asia and Europe than it is here in the U.S. But that may soon change.
Consider that electric scooters are now a dominant form of travel in China (see above), where sales are expected to reach 9.4 million in 2013, says Navigant Research. But that’s nothing compared to the market for electric bicycles — that market is experiencing 7.5 percent annual growth, says Pike Research, with sales of over 30 million in 2012 and 47 million by 2018. It’s also mostly a Chinese phenomenon — they’re likely to buy 42 million of those 47 million bikes.
Sales are also growing in North America, but starting from a much smaller base. One reason China loves e-bikes is that, with lead-acid batteries, they’re really the cheapest form of assisted transportation there — the next step up from walking or riding the regular bicycles that once dominated the morning commute. We get lithium-ion batteries and much higher prices.
I’m currently long-term testing a pair of Pedego e-bikes, including a new model City Commuter (above, $2,475). No, that’s not cheap, but the bikes are beautifully made and sturdy for daily runs to work. I can get up to 40 miles of range in pedal assist mode, which is not likely in those bottom-line Chinese models. I’ve also got such niceties as a speedometer, removable battery, five power modes and seven-speed Shimano shifter.
The more I ride the Pedego, the more I pedal. That’s good, because exercise is part of the reason I’m on it. Pedaling not only saves the battery, it makes you stronger to tackle the hills on your own. But that assist sure comes in handy. I also tried, and much enjoyed, a more compact Alva+ from A2B ($3,399, below). It didn't have quite the climbing power of the Pedego, but was otherwise very impressive. Hydraulic disc brakes! A 500-watt rear hub motor! 24 mph!
Rob Cotter of Organic Transit, which has built 115 ELFs and has orders for that many more, is expanding wildly, with a bigger factory in Durham, North Carolina, a new one in San Jose, California (with “skylights, LED lighting, raised vegetable gardens, green walls and beehives”). The company plans to move into the European and Australian markets. Getting certified in Germany (a hotbed of electric bikes) is the first step.
The Europeans are really into using bikes as commercial vehicles, delivering pizza, the mail, ice cream and more. Can you picture a bicycle-based moving company? They made fun of it on Portlandia, but there really are such things. Organic Transit imagines ELF trucks, ELF catering vans, pedicabs and hot rods. The ELF as-is can carry 350 pounds, or eight grocery bags.
Check out this Indiegogo fundraising campaign for a Tokyo-based company that makes two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles for the Asian market. That's a production model for the Philippines above. Terra Motors has a bunch of former high-level Japanese CEOs (from Google, Sony and Apple) as shareholders. “Especially, the oil will be gone in 40 years,” says Terra. “In the long term, human being will move to the sustainable.” Who can argue, except for the grammar? Yes, the Indiegogo campaign has only raised $50 so far (toward a goal of $50,000) but it’s a start.
Here, on video, is an Australian documentary on Chinese e-bikes, vividly contrasting the basic and beat-up models they ride around on with the shiny and featured alternatives they export: