Zikes! Here Come The Electric Bikes
By EV World
24 July 1999 -- "The bicycle is the vehicle most human beings worldwide turn to if they want to go anyplace," began Ed Benjamin, a 30 year veteran of the bicycle business who started out a bicycle mechanic and ended owning a successful chain of retail bike store in Florida. Later, Benjamin sold the business and moved to Idaho where he runs his electric bicycle consulting business. He currently is a consultant to CSW Total EV, an division of Central Southwest Corporation. CSW Total EV has several exclusive distribution rights for electric bicycles within the American Midwest and South.
According to Benjamin, worldwide the bicycle industry builds between 100 to 130 million units every year! "Most of those bicycles," he said,"stay in service more than 10 years."
A Look At the Global Bicycle Market
Compared to the rest of the world, the US market is an important, but small part of the total picture, Consumers in the United States buy about 10 million bicycles a year and nearly all of these are used for recreational purposes. However, Benjamin pointed out that Americans tend to buy more expensive bikes, while in China, where they buy 30-40 million a year, Chinese consumers tend to buy low cost units.
After China, India represents the second largest market for bicycles where riders in the sub-continent buy another 30 million bicycles a year. By comparison, Benjamin thought that sales in Europe totaled roughly 10-15 million bikes every year.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, Benjamin said Americans buy bicycles for fitness and recreation but these bicycles are, in fact, ridden very little.
"A person who would describe themselves as riding regularly in the United States, usually means they ride their bicycle 14 or 15 times a year. We only have about 3 million people in the United States who ride more than 15 days a year, and we have about 55 million people who say they ride about 14 or 15 days a year. And then we've about about 200 million people who may or may not ride a bike at all."
"In Europe a bicycle is a standard piece of transportation equipment and I suspect that probably half of all Europeans ride a bicycle more than 15 times a year, and in a place like China probably almost every adult Chinese rides a bicycle at least once a day on some task.
As a result of the necessity to use a bicycle virtually every day of the year in China, there is little obesity evident among the population.
"Every time that I have come back from Asia," Benjamin remarked, "after sometimes spending a couple of weeks in the company of folks who are uniformly trim, I am always a little bit aghast when I go through the LA or San Francisco airport and see the enormous variety of sizes and shapes that Americans come in."
The Birth of the Electric Bicycle
Turning his attention to the recent appearance of electric-assist bicycles, Benjamin said, "There's been a lot of things change in recent years, one of them is the cost of the motors, the battery and the control circuitry has come way down from what it was. It's now practical and inexpensive to have a light, efficient electric-assisted bicycle, and this is a new thing." Benjamin estimates that it has only become possible to offer an affordable, practical electric bike since about 1993. "Before that we had some real challenges in cost or in the size and weight of the equipment."
Not only is the technology driving the emergence of affordable electric-assist bicycles, but Benjamin also believes there is a growing global interest in the potential of the electric bicycle to help reduce "the impact of human transportation on the environment."
"Some of the folks that are building electric bikes and some of the folks that are promoting electric bikes have no interest at all in this as a vehicle or a technology. Their interest is in the fact that if they can get folks to ride an electric bicycle, they're going to dramatically improve the quality of our environment." Benjamin pointed to just such an organization in Germany called Extra Energy which recently sponsored an electric bicycle evaluation competition in Europe. "They believe they are on a mission to save the human race from the impact of its transportation on the environment."
"Other folks are interested in the fact that this is very inexpensive transportation. Right now you can buy an electric bicycle in China for about $300 US, and this provides a pretty attractive and inexpensive vehicle."
"Yet another view of the E bike is that is fun," Benjamin added. "They have become very inexpensive, very entertaining vehicles for the folks in America, and Americans can easily afford a recreational device in the price range the latest generation of electric bikes are falling into."
Traffic Congestion Fueling Growth In US
Benjamin feels that one of the factors fueling an interest in electric bicycles is the steady growth in the US of bicycle pathways in communities across the United States.
"In the United States, transportation planners have pretty much come to the conclusion that there's no way they can ever build enough highways to provide an adequate level of service for America's automobile-oriented transportation network. That at some point they're going to say, 'Look we can't pave the entire planet.' And they're saying that now. They're saying,'This is it. This is what we're going to build. If you're going to get more people through those highways, you're going to have to do it in smaller vehicles.'"
Benjamin also added that emission standards like those pioneered in California are also causing planners to rethink how we move people around our cities. "Electric vehicles could continue to be a challenge. Electric bicycles work quite well at a low price, and I think they're the only electric vehicle we can say that about."
"Transportation planners, a lot of them are looking at the electric bicycle and saying, 'Gee if I could get 2% or 5% or 10% of the transportation events in my community to occur on an electric bicycle, this would have a tremendous positive impact on the level of service of my road ways. It could have a positive impact on the air pollution in my area.'"
Of course, getting Americans out of their two-ton cars an on to a 40-50 pound electric bicycle won't be easy. It will require a change of attitude and a safe, efficient infrastructure, something Benjamin readily admits.
"The goal of the folks involved in the electric bicycle industry in the United States is that the electric bicycle be viewed by the law as a bicycle." This means E bikes and their riders would not need to be licensed, Benjamin explained. In addition, it would have the privilege of using either the roadway or the bicycle path.
Benjamin estimates that using federal dollar figures alone, each state is constructing over 600 miles of bicycle paths in the US over the next five years, most of them being built inside urban areas, often using abandoned railroad right-of-ways. "In America, we've been building bicycle paths at a pretty aggressive clip, and the pace of that is accelerating," he stated. "In general, (federal planners) would rather see you build a bicycle path than a new highway."
However, many of these hiking and biking paths currently prohibit "motorized" vehicles which could be interpreted to include electric-assist bicycles, precluding their use by commuters or shoppers who might want to use them instead of their automobiles.
"Our intention is that the electric-assist bicycle (Editor: In contrast to an electric-bicycle, moped or motorscooter) will be regarded as a bicycle, that (state) law will define it as a non-motorized vehicle."
The "E" Bicycle's Health Benefits
As our interview turned to the topic of the benefits of riding an electric bicycle, Benjamin commented that the list was a long one.
"Let's start with the health benefits," he began. "One of the things that I believe is going to emerge as one of the best things about an electric bicycle is that people are going to ride them more. An electric-assist bicycle, which is Europe is now being called a 'pedalec' which is a term we expect is going to catch on in the United States. This is a bike that in order for the motor to run, you have to keep pedaling. Now this has many benefits."
Those benefits include longer riding range and better acceleration and hill climbing performance since the human rider is providing some of the power to the low torque motor. "Because the riders got to keep pedaling," Benjamin explained, "even if they are exerting themselves only mildly, they are exerting themselves and hopefully for long periods of time."
"A common phenomenon with bikes is a person gets on a bike, rides it a fairly short distance, is tired and terminates their ride. Now on an electric bicycle, if we can keep you working longer, at a lower level of effort, you're going to find its more fun, you'll do it more often, and when you do it even though you won't feel you're 'whipped' when you get back, you're heart and your lungs will be getting a little bit stronger, you're going to be losing some weight. I believe we're going to discover that after we've gotten enough electric-assist bicycles or pedalecs out in the market, we're going to discover that the people who own these are reporting back a pretty nice health benefit."
Benjamin sees this as a quiet revolution that will gradually sweep the country and not a flash-in-the-pan fitness graze.
Cost Benefits of Electric Bikes
Another benefit Benjamin described are the cost savings of an electric bicycle. In addition to the fact they cost a fraction of the cost of a conventional automobile, they also cost significantly less to operate. He estimated the cost to recharge an electric bicycle at about five cents for enough electricity to go 20 miles. He figured he'd spend $5 in his 1980 Jeep to go the same distance and $2 in his Honda.
Reduced Environmental Costs
Benjamin observed that the total environmental life cycle costs of an automobile are enormous. (See EV World's interview with Kevin Mills of the Environmental Defense Fund on this same issue). While there are similar costs associated with the manufacture and disposal of an bicycle, there are approximately 5% that of an automobile. "The only thing better
He also pointed out that the operational and emissions costs of an electric bicycle are virtually nil. "The only thing better than an electric bicycle on the environment is a conventional bicycle, and the environmental impact of the conventional bicycle is so small as to be almost unmeasured."
The Choking of Shanghai
Benjamin illustrated the potential of the electric bicycle to help clean up polluted urban centers, especially in some of the world's most congested, over-populated cities with the example of Shanghai. He estimates there are some 7 million bicycles, 1.5 million two-stroke, gasoline-powered mopeds and comparable number of similarly-powered motorscooters.
"When I first visited Shanghai," he stated, "I was there on a nice pretty day and I am riding in a cab in the middle of the day, and I am looking around and I'm saying, 'There's some serious air pollution here," but I don't really understand what people were talking about when they said it was horrible beyond description."
"A few hours later, I got in a cab to go through rush hour traffic. I was having a very hard time breathing. I would say that within 20 or 30 feet of our traffic at any time there must have been 20, maybe more mopeds and motorscooters busily pumping out exhaust. It was choking, and there was a solid cloud of this two cycle exhaust that filled the space between the buildings, it was a canyon full of exhaust and this was my experience for about 45 minutes as my cab worked its way through the rush hour traffic jam."
"At that point, I immediately understood why the city fathers of Shanghai wanted to stop issuing licenses for mopeds." Benjamin explained that Shanghai will no longer license new gasoline powered mopeds or motorscooter. Currently owners won't have to stop using them, they simply won't be able to buy new ones.
"Let's imagine for a minute that the environment that I just described had been full of electric bicycles which can have similar performance. They can go similar speeds, similar distances and they can do it for a similar cost of manufacture and for a lot lower energy cost. If we had that same street full of electric bicycles, which is probably what we will have in about 10 years.. I wouldn't have been choking, and the people that live in at city and have to breathe that every work day, would probably have longer, much healthier lives."
"This is a night and day difference we're going to see in this city and other Chinese cities, that for an American is perhaps a little bit hard to imagine issue... For a person living in China, it's like, 'Oh good, perhaps I will live my full span instead of die of some chemically-induced pneumonia.'"
In part two of his interview with EV World, Ed Benjamin, a twenty year veteran of the bicycle business, turned his attention to the question of who are the key players in the developing electric bicycle industry.
Mister Iacocca's E-Bike
"Lee Iacocca is obviously the highest profile member of the industry, and he has said a lot of things that I respect," Benjamin began. "He basically said, 'I've spent most of my career creating automobiles that pollute and have a very heavy impact on the environment. Now the technology is available, I would like to spend the remainder of my career building vehicles that will have a kinder impact to the earth's environment.' And has, as many people have observed, while he'd kind of like to build electric automobiles, that at the moment the technology exists to build electric bicycles. So he launched his company, EV Global, on the premise that they would build a stand-out electric bicycle and that this would be the leading edge of future expansion into a wider variety of light electric vehicles. Light electric vehicles I would describe as two wheelers and three-wheelers, and perhaps even four-wheelers built with an eye towards minimum weight, maximum efficiency."
According to Benjamin, Iacocca's company has published some very interesting conceptual drawings of such vehicles. The former chairman of Chrysler and the man credited with inventing the Ford Mustang in 1964, also had a hand in the the development of a Pinafarina-designed electric car which debuted at the 14th Electric Vehicle Symposium.
"Iacocca is a guy that attracts gigantic attention to anything he's doing and I think that everyone in the electric bicycle industry is very, very pleased to see him bringing this to the industry. At the moment there is a little bit of apprehension because his company has been very slow to bring out their product. I've seen and ridden their product and I am very pleased with it, and we all wish him a lot of success. We're all kind of holding our breathes and hoping his plans work and his product gets up and flies off the dealer's floor. At the moment it's a little too early to tell. We're in that uncomfortable position where the product is being delivered and no one's quite sure what the consumer response is going to be to it, yet."
Even the Italians Were Impressed
Needless to say, Benjamin is impressed with EV Global's E-Bike, which he got to ride in Italy as part of a European-wide "ride-off" competition between the leading electric bicycle manufacturers. But he's not the only one. So were the Italians who hosted the event in Modena, Italy.
"Italians are very style-oriented people," Benjamin observed. "They've got beautiful clothing, they've got beautiful cars, they've got beautiful architecture. The average Italian when he steps out his front door is dressed about 400% better than the average American is. These folks understand appearance and style, and they really liked Iacocca's bike. It was clearly the favorite of the Italian populous."
Rating Other US Electric Bicycle Manufacturers
Since Benjamin's had the opportunity to ride and evaluate many of the world's electric bicycles, EV World asked him how he'd rate US manufacturers compared to their counterparts in Europe and Asia.
He began with ZAP, essentially because they've been in what he described as the unique position of actually having something to ship.
"ZAP has a very simple system that does its job quite well within the limitations of its design; and the ZAP is very inexpensive to build. Gary Starr and Jim McGreen may be some of the best promoters... I think they've gotten more mileage out of less of a promotional budget then anybody I've every heard of. So, here we have ZAP early in the field shipping product, the sales leader in the United States with a very simple, inexpensive to build type system."
"Now usually the flip-side of inexpensive to build is perhaps the performance isn't as good as a more expensive system would be. This is made pretty obvious when you look at Currie Technologies," Benjamin observed.
From the Man Who Brought You the Cruise Missile
"You know, talk about a characters, Malcolm Currie is a scientific legend. We could probably talk for thirty minutes about the things this man has done. You know he was the man in charge of the United States Department of Defense research efforts... on things like the cruise missile. He apparently came to similar conclusions as Iacocca and said, 'I want to build things like electric bicycles.' (Currie Technology's) US ProDrive electric bicycle is a real study in simple, smart and practical. I am very impressed with the way it performs. It's very powerful. It's a very well thought out system, but of course, it's more expensive than the ZAP. The Currie system might be a real good example of what Americans can do when it comes to technology issues. It's a combination of cutting-edge technology and 'Oh-my-gosh' simplicity."
Long-time American bicycle maker, Schwinn, has licensed Currie's motor system and are offering it on their own electric bicycle model. "Schwinn reps are now starting to tell me they're getting reorders for the USProDrive-equipped Schwinn bicycles, which I think is terrific news." Benjamin says this is good news because it in a similar arrange several years ago, Trek licensed Yamaha's electric bicycle technology, but few bikes were every sold. "I feel they simply never managed to get the word out."
Continuous Quality Improvement
Benjamin next focused on another up-and-coming electric bicycle manufacturer, the Electric Transport Company.
"They have a very ingenious system where you can install their rack on a bicycle and then their power system is a compact unit that you can pick up with one hand. You can clip it on and you have an electric bike. Unclip it and you don't have an electric bike. Very, very ingenious and the company apparently as done a terrific job in improving and striving for further improvement in their product. A lot of nice stories coming out of the folks who've done business with them."
Return of the Charger
In a piece of really good news, Benjamin announced that with the help of CSW Total EV, it now appears that the innovative Charger electric bicycle is about to emerge from its premature retirement. The product of a collaboration with world-reknown innovator Aerovironment, the Charger may represent one of the most sophisticated electric bikes on the market.
"In the electric bicycle world, technology changes every fifteen minutes," Benjamin explained. "The Charger was designed about two years ago, which makes it old in our little world, but it still may be the most advanced bicycle on the market in terms of the sophistication of its charging ability, the sophistication of its control circuitry... this is an advanced product."
Benjamin explained that as of this interview, CSW was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement to help revive the Charger. "That's good news for a product that shouldn't be allowed to go away," he said.
The Other BAAT Mobile
Finally, another promising electric bicycle company is BAAT, who is also involved in a number of other advanced vehicle development programs. Benjamin said he hasn't seen their bike, but he was going to visit the company and try one out on an upcoming trip to California.
He remarked, "That company has pulled off some PR successes that I think the entire industry should be grateful for. Going out and setting a world record for the endurance distance on an electric bicycle on one battery charge, four hundred and something miles. It got us a lot of positive attention, and hopefully those folks will be successful in bringing a product to market.
A Mercedes Electric Bike? Yep!
While there are maybe a half-dozen electric bicycle makers in the US (and most actually buy their bicycles from Taiwan and add their proprietary electric-drive components there or when they arrive in the US), Benjamin says there are more than twice as many manufacturers in Europe and 200-250 in China.
"The rest of the world is a pressure cooker of product development. In Europe, at the test that Extra Energy ran (in Modena) Italy, they had 26 bikes entered. One was from the United States. Two were from Taiwan and all the rest of them were from Europe, and these weren't concepts or prototypes, but bikes in production."
"Europe is producing a wide variety of concepts, everything from 45 mph Swiss-made Fast, as they call them, electric bikes to that are extremely energy efficient to recumbents, a wide-variety of product and much of it very, very well executed."
Benjamin believes it is, "absolutely inevitable" that many of these bicycles will eventually arrive in the United States. "We've got such creativity and such high quality product being built in the Europe that we're going to see a number of those products in the United States. I suspect that we'll see bikes by Piaggio, La Prima, Mercedes; we will see these bikes sold in the United States and I suspect within a year."
Israel's Programmable BikeIt
Yet another electric bike is the BikeIt manufactured in Israel. One reason Benjamin likes this product is because it can be programmed to meet the motor vehicle regulations of any country. It can be set to operate as a pedalec or as a 100% electric-powered bicycle. "I believe this is the way most electric bikes will be equipped in the future," he stated.
Before leaving the subject of the international electric bicycle market, Benjamin predicted that the Chinese would begin exporting their electric bikes at prices that will "cause people to gasp, and they are going to be good bikes."
"People like to say about Chinese bikes is they're cheap, but the quality is no good. You know, that's not true. The Chinese have some different ideas about what's important and what's not important, but they ride their bikes every day. So my comment about this is, watch China. We're going to see high quality products at amazingly low prices come out of a pressure cooker of electric vehicle development in China."
Given this kind of technical and economic pressure, Benjamin thinks most electric bicycle production will be done in China, including companies like ZAP and EV Global. But he doesn't think this is solely because of China's low-cost labor force.
"Again, this is one of the frequent comments. People say, well you can get stuff made in China mainly because they've got cheap labor. Yes, they do." he candidly state. "What they also have is quite competent electric vehicle and electronics technology. The Chinese are advanced, sophisticated in technology. They are sophisticated in business, and the fact that their labor force works very hard for a low wage is a big advantage, but not their only advantage."
Identifying the Niches
Benjamin thinks that Iacocca has probably uncovered the largest marketing niche for electric bicycles among the Over-50 set, but it's not the only niche.
He says the aging baby-boomers (including this author) are finding it a little harder every year to get up those hills on their conventional vehicles. "We know that Baby-Boomers like to go outdoors. We know Baby-Boomers like bicycles, but they keep turning up gravity every year," he teased. "It's getting a little harder to ride a bike and a little harder to enjoy the out-of-doors; and the electric bicycle offers to dramatically extend the Baby-Boomers ability to enjoy the out-of-doors. And the Baby-Boomers have got plenty of money to spend on this. I think that for Americans, the electric bike has got to be fun, and I think America is about to discover that electric bicycles are a lot of fun.
Enabling the Aged
Another niche he sees is among the aged, who while they might no longer be able to safely drive a car, are still in need of mobility for shopping, running errands and exercise. He sees electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers filling this niche and helping give the aged an improved quality of life.
He reported that ZAP has said it's best market is among the people who live in retirement communities. He also cited a quiet, little-known company named Palmer which has been supplying three-wheel bicycles to this community for years.
Beside the more easily identifiable markets of Baby-Boomers and the retired, he also sees electric bicycles becoming popular with youth and that they'll discover things to do with electrics that we've not even dreamed of.
He also thinks there's a "sleeper" market about to awaken among low income workers who man the fast food chains and hotel housekeeping staffs of the world. He said you'll see a surprising number of bicycles behind these types of establishments, and that inexpensive electric bicycles will empower these people, who can't afford a car and car insurance, registration fees and taxes or may have lost their licenses.
"I think we're going to see the electric bicycle become the preferred vehicle of the person who uses a two-wheeler for transportation in America."
Buying An Electric Bicycle
Benjamin suggests that if someone is in the market for an electric bicycle that they look at two things: the quality of the battery and the reliability of the manufacturer.
His second recommendations is to ride the bike first, and if possible try several different types.
"All of them are fun," he said. "Almost all of the one's I've encountered work quite well, but there are some very significant differences between the ways they feel and the things that they have that is a strength or a weakness of these products. Test ride as many different types as you can and buy the bike from someone who can provide you with parts and service backup in the future."
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