Quikbyke's prototype solar-powered eBike rental Qiosk in Omaha.
Quikbyke's First Summer
By Bill Moore
This summer we tested the technology and trialled the concept of renting electric-assist bicycles on a street corner in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Here's some of what we learned.
You may have noticed that things have been a tad static here on EV World over the summer. There's a good reason. We've been focusing much of our energy, time and attention on our electric bicycle rental startup Quikbyke (http://quikebyke.com).
Yesterday, a tilt-bed car hauler arrived at the corner of 10th & Dodge and we loaded the repurposed 20 ft shipping container on it in preparation for moving it this Fall to the Florida Gulf Coast.
Now that we have our first summer of operation under our belt, so to speak, I thought I'd share some of our experiences and analysis of the project, on which we now have a United States patent pending (15/260,232). But first a bit of background.
I launched EV World in the late fall of 1997, now almost twenty years ago, largely as a result of seeing an advertisement in BusinessWeek magazine for an early electric bicycle, the founders of which were Malcolm Bricklin and Dr. Malcolm Currie. Like a lot of early EV pioneers, including EV World, they were about a decade ahead of their time. It would be another 10 years before technology in the form of improved batteries and high-power electronics would make practical electric cars like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and Tesla Roadster feasible. The same applied to electric bicycles. Now China manufacturers tens of millions of them every year, with increasing numbers of them ending up in Europe and North America.
I bought my first electric bike, an early Currie folding bike around 2002. Later I bartered with then-WaveCrest Labs for one of their prototype TidalForce M750s, the first really powerful (750W), dead silent, rear hub motor eBike. It was mounted on an aluminum Montague folding mountain bike frame. With a matching NiMH battery pack mounted in the front wheel hub, it was heavy, close to 60 lbs, but durable. I still have that bike and it still works fine, though I don't ride it much anymore. I've found a couple of new loves: a Falco eMotors Maverick, which is the direct descendant of the WaveCrest motor; and my super-light K15 bamboo and aluminum powered by a ZeHus Bike+ all-in-one rear hub motor. It weighs half what the M750 does.
All this 'fooling around' with electric-assist bicycles over the last decade finally culminating in my desire to share the experience with others. Like your first ride in an electric car, your first ride on an electric-assist bicycle is revelatory. It's also just good clean fun, as you can tell from the broad smiles and twinkle in people's eyes when they return from their first ride.
But for all their promise and pleasure, eBikes face two significant obstacles: one is cultural, the other is economic. I can't tell you how many times people told me this summer they wouldn't want to ride an electric bike because they want to get some exercise. The other barrier is their cost. You're going to spend a couple thousand dollars for a quality eBike, though you can find them for less. You just get what you pay for.
I figured the way to overcome both these objections was to give people the opportunity to experience what it's like to ride one. Because of the cultural objection - I want exercise and I won't get it on an eBike (Not True) - few bicycle shops carry eBikes and those that do tend to regard them as a sideline: their core business is catering to "serious" cyclists who are in it for the sport.. and yes, the exercise. Companies like Pedego have established exclusive brand stores to overcome this and have enjoyed growing success, but they are few and far between.
Currie and other US-based brands will host or sponsor public demonstrations, hauling a dozen bikes or so to various cities and offering free rides to the public. They're there for the weekend and then move on.
Quikbyke's insight is to place electric bikes in a high traffic area frequented by potentially our best customers: baby boomers. And where would be find them? At cruise ship ports-of-call. It turns out the demographics of people buying eBikes in the USA, especially, and couples taking cruises are nearly identical. When passengers disembark off their cruises, and often up to four ships at a time at some Caribbean ports, they have about 8-hours of free time to do what they want. They also have to return to the same spot to re-board the ship.
What if, I asked myself several years ago now, we could put a bunch of eBikes on or near the dock for them to rent? Unlike renting regular, manual bikes, our eBikes would give them greater flexibility in where they could go, traveling further and faster; seeing more, doing more… at their own pace. It sounds good, in theory. But it faces a number of potential "hiccups," the first being how do we get the bikes there? You can't legally ship them by plane. They have to go by sea. You can't put them on the cruise ships for logistics reasons: some ports like Grand Cayman "tender" their passengers ashore, anchoring a few hundred yards off shore. Besides space is at a premium on cruise ships. They wouldn't want the hassle of loading and unloading a container.
But what if we turned a container into a rental shop, so to speak? That would solve a couple of problems: how to get the bikes to the islands and provide a secure venue in which to house them. But most containers are steel boxes with a pair of doors on the end, not particularly conducive to conducting an open-to-the-public business like rentals, not without major structural modification that would invalidate their ISO certificate.
Fortunately, a new type of container has emerged. One that provides full access to the container from the side through a pair of bi-fold doors. This is what we use for our prototype, as you can see from the masthead photo.
Shortly after I bought my first eBike, I found a colleague who built me a solar charger for it, which I connected to a pair of Harbor Freight 50W solar panels attached to the south side of our house. I'd remove the heavy lead-acid battery, take it down to the basement and plug it into the homemade charger. While it took hours to recharge that battery, it demonstrated to me that eBikes and solar are made for each other. The 1.8kW PV array on the top of our container is the natural extension of that early experiment.
Last Fall, I applied for a matching grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to build our first solar-powered electric-assist bicycle Qiosk. The State awarded us the grant in October 2015, which along with matching investor funds, allowed us to begin work this past spring on the project, the first deadline being the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, which we missed. Fortunately for us, it rained hard all that weekend anyway.
The real "drop dead" deadline was the start of the NCAA Men's College World Series held yearly a few blocks away from the property we'd leased from Shamrock Development at 10th & Dodge in downtown Omaha, just a few hundred yards from where the 2016 Olympic Swim Trials would be held.
While we still didn't have the online payment system working or the DC-to-DC chargers in place (we used a AC inverter with two 110V outlets), nor did we even have the signage on the container, we did have enough of the project complete to install it on the lot where hundreds of passersby would see it and, hopefully, rent the half-dozen Prodecotech Stride 300s we'd acquired.
We learned that Olympic swim trial fans are more interested in riding bikes -- our electric models and the Omaha B-cycles parked a few feet away - then are College World Series fans. During the swim trials, we enjoyed steady rentals, including the parents of two Rio Olympics gold metal winners: Leah Smith and Gunnar Bentz.
Technologically speaking, the system we developed for charging the bikes and handling rentals work, the former much better than the latter, but that's because I personally wrote most of the code. All summer, we enjoyed a surplus of solar power stored in a 400Ah lead-acid battery bank. Operationally, because of our location, it didn't make sense being open more than a few hours on the weekend, especially since I was doing double duty as the program manager, rental operator, and business marketer. We never really "stress" tested the system. The battery bank never dropped below 97% state-of-charge (SOC) and most of the time, the Midnight Charge Controller was usually in "Float" mode at 99-100% SOC. Our eBike batteries, 10.4Ah Samsung SDI models were always fully charged. We had several spares ready to swap as soon as the bikes were returned.
We usually rented bikes to couples, sometimes trios, occasionally families of four. Generally most rented the bikes for two hours, followed by one hour rentals, and then a few three hour rentals. Battery usage ranged from one to three "bars" depending on how far they rode and how much they used the throttle. One gentleman, who claimed to a friend of Michael Phelps, took one out for three hours and came back with the rear-mounted pack down just one green light out of four having ridden from 10th Street west of 67th and back with some other friends. At the other extreme one couple two weeks ago rented for an hour and returned with one green light still on: they'd used 75-80% of their batteries, riding probably 15 miles and using the throttle extensively.
I initially set the maximum rental time at two hours because I wasn't sure how the bikes would be used. I then upped it to three hours as i grew more comfortable with the capacity of the battery. Prodeco claims the batteries are good for 20-30 miles, but that clearly depends on terrain, and Omaha is surprisingly hilly, especially if you ride west or south of the downtown district.
The system worked so well this summer that the only problem we had was a single flat tire and that was because I hadn't kept the tires properly inflated. When a renter went over a curb, the under-inflated tire got "snake bit": two of the spokes punctured the inner tube leaving what looks like a snake bite.
Conceptually, Quikbyke works. We can power the Qiosk, the point-of-sale station, the wireless network, the LED interior lights, and the batteries chargers using solar energy alone. We have adequate energy reserve, enough I am confident to go to the full dozen bike configuration without having to add additional panels or storage battery capacity, but we also engineered the system to be able to go from the present six 310W LG panels to 12.
We deliberately designed the Qiosk and its support systems to remain fully ISO certified. Apart from four small 1.5 inch holes in the roof through which we pass the solar power cables, we made no structural modifications to the exterior. This allows us to ship the container by surface (truck or train) or by sea anywhere in the world. All we need is sunshine and a good cellular phone signal and we can be in business in a couple hours time. We designed the solar array to be disassembled and stowed securely inside the container for shipment. It gets its first long distance test this month when we ship it to St. Petersburg, Florida for the winter. This will bring us closer to our business model of serving high traffic tourist areas frequented by "snowbird" baby boomers and vacationing families.
Quikbyke is still very much an embryonic effort with much still to prove and lots to learn, but the Summer of 2016 on the corner of 10th & Dodge demonstrated the concept works technologically. It also works in terms of people's satisfaction. We asked our renters after each ride to share their opinions and views of the experience on one of the end walls of the container. I call this our "memory wall." You can view many of their comments, including those of the two Olympians' parents on our Flickr account: http://flickr.com/photos/quikbyke.
Ultimately, our goal is to franchise the business all across the Caribbean and eventually around the world. We've got some exciting plans for employing Internet of Things (IoT) technologies for tracking the bikes, reporting on the status of the batteries, collecting community air quality data and more. I am working on creating an App for our renters that takes the tour guide to a whole new level, "gamifying" the rental experience. We also have plans for retailing both new and "refurbished" eBikes (our rental bikes), as well as eventually launching electric scooter rentals, operating autonomous vehicle networks, and offering electric "quad" rentals.
But first we have to learn to crawl before we can walk, much less run. The move to St. Pete is the "next semester" of our education in the world of sustainable mobility startups. You can follow our progress on Twitter @quikbyke, Flickr, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And, of course, if you'd like to learn more as a potential franchisee or investor, feel free to reach out to me at bill.moore(at)quikbyke(dot)com.
Originally published: 04 Oct 2016
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