E Motor electric bicycle
Millions of electric-assist bicycles, mopeds and electric scooters are sold every year in China, providing affordable transportation in already congested Chinese cities. Photo credit: Patrick Benjamin.

The Coming Age of the Electric Bicycle

The future of the EV world rides on two-wheels

By Edward Benjamin

Annoying, smug question for electric vehicle people: “What is the only truly successful electric vehicle selling in the tens of millions of units, that is on the road today?”

Answer: Electric bicycles.

Another annoying, smug question: “What vehicle business has been unaffected by the current world wide great recession?”

Answer: Electric bicycles.

Depending upon who you listen to, the first electric bicycle patent was either in 1898 or 1909. But for sure this is an old idea, whose time has not only come, but has been here in a big way for a while.

Electric bike efforts were made in the 70’s in China and Japan, but the convergence of technology and price that allows today’s electric bikes really happened in 1994 when Yamaha patented and started to produce the PAS bicycles. The Chinese quickly overtook the Japanese in innovation, volume and use- breaking a million units per year about 8 years ago. The rest of the world has only started using electric bikes in large numbers in the last 4-5 years.

Today the total world market for electric bicycles is more than 24 million pieces. That makes electric bikes #4 in the world line up of vehicles: Bicycles are about 130 million per year, cars and light trucks about 65 million per year, light motorcycles about 65 million per year.

The China Bicycle Association states that there are more than 100 million ebikes in use in China today.

The markets look something like this:

China: 21-22 million

EU: Nearly one million in 2009

India: Probably near the EU in 2009.

Japan: About 300K

USA: About 200K

Rest of the world: More than 170 nations are buying ebikes from China, in varying amounts, says the CBA.

As a much-ignored category of vehicles, the electric bicycle industry has grown up in unexpected ways at an unexpected pace.

The players on not the same people who brought us ICE motorcycles and cars.

Vehicle makers like Yamaha, Honda, Ford, and others, of the world have floated a few prototypes, show bikes, and production for domestic use over the years, but the major production has been by Chinese companies that you’ve never heard of, for both complete vehicles and components. A lot of the innovation and technology has come from garage sized workshops, USA and EU inventors, students, and start-ups.

The big winners in western markets, so far, have been traditional bicycle brands like Sparta and Gazelle in Holland, or Panther in Germany. A few are ebike specialists like Currie in the USA, Flyer in Switzerland, BionX in Canada. Giant serves most of the western world, as well as having big ebike business in China.

If we examine the information from EU, showing that the Accell Group will sell more than 100,000 units of electric bikes at an average retail of more than 1800 Euros – and then compare that to the likely cost of production and distribution – the Accell group may have made about 100 million dollars in profit on electric bikes in 2009. For sure the bicycle dealers and brands of Europe are very focused on this category – evidenced by the displays at the Eurobike show this fall in Germany. And the fact that nearly every bike shop in Western Europe has an ebike in the window, where a mountain bike used to hang.

And this sort of information has spurred nearly every large bicycle company, and many new entrants, to a heated interest in establishing an ebike business. Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, and nearly every EU brand have electric bike offerings or will soon.

New companies like eZee USA, eMoto of Kent Washington, Aerobic Cruiser are examples of companies that are making serious efforts with innovative, high value products. Major changes are happening such as Panasonic and Sanyo merging their electric bicycle businesses.

Startling innovation has come from companies like YikeBike, and Segway. Controller technology from Navitas of Canada, and new paradigms from companies like Motiv of USA, and ID Bike of Holland. A tiny USA/China JV in Pudong – MAC - is making hub motors up to 1KW. Motor Excellence of Arizona is developing a revolutionary motor.

The biggest players in this business are companies that are just now starting to be heard from internationally: Yadea and Shinri build millions of ebikes. Giant, Fairly / Wettsen, Ideal, Active, Ace Trikes, Dumar are builders of hundreds of thousands of Western branded ebikes. 8Fun is the maker of hundreds of thousands of high quality motors. Nanjing Lishui Electronics is a company no one knows, but they make the motor controllers for millions of ebikes. Phylion Battery Company in Suzhou, China sells hundreds of thousands of Lithium Manganese bicycle battery packs.

This large volume of sophisticated components and vehicles is creating economies of scale for larger vehicles like motorcycles and motor scooters. Already a vigorous business in China, just now experiencing the convergence of cost and capability that occurred for electric bikes 15 years ago.

The vigor and excitement of this industry is hard to describe with words. But the shows that attract tens of thousands of dealers in Asia, and Europe, give a glimpse of the early days of a whole new industry as it climbs into prominence. The river of electric bicycles on Chinese streets, and the large numbers on Dutch bicycle paths help as well.

This industry has relied on bicycle trade journals, with Bike Europe leading the way, followed by the EBB (Electric Bicycle Business) in Chinese and the CBA trade publications. The LEVA now has a regular news letter, and the bi annual EBWR (Electric Bicycles World Wide Reports) documents the rise and players in the industry.

Now the industry has several industry groups: World wide: Light Electric Vehicle Association, based in Maine, USA, In China the dominant group is the China Bicycle Association, and a new group serves the UK.

For the readers of this article, it is not news that increasing urbanization, traffic congestion, parking congestion, and resource limitations mean that more humans will move on two wheels, world wide, than on four. But for North Americans, that is not yet a visceral experience the way it is for most humans world wide.

Our future is a mixture of transportation devices: First kilometer solutions like feet, bicycles, and electric bicycles. Metros and trains. Longer range electric motorcycles and scooters. Electric and hybrid cars, trucks and buses. And as we all know this is not technically, socially or politically simple.

Today’s electric bikes are affordable, reliable, and practical – creating a good and educational precedent for larger vehicles of the future.

As an unflagging cheerleader for electric bikes world wide, I am professionally optimistic. But this is a very easy thing to do, as this is a happy time for the electric bike industry, and the future is brilliant.

Ed Benjamin is the Chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, GM of Benjamin Consulting and co-author, with Dr. Frank Jamerson Ph.D. of Electric Bikes World Wide Reports 1994-2010.

Times Article Viewed: 29908
Published: 18-Dec-2009


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