Ebike Marathon Part I: Eurobike 2013
Running The New Wheel has become a marathon - there is always a lot going on, many things to see, new concepts to understand, people to meet, and (of course) bikes to ride. The culmination of this flurry of activity is, without a doubt, in late August and September, when the shop is teeming with new and old customers, we are building bikes as fast as we can, and, to top it all off, we travel to Eurobike, on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, and Interbike, in the heart of the American wild west, Las Vegas.
This year, we thought we’d offer a glimpse into what it is like to shop for electric bikes in these two very different markets and to try to shed a little light onto the research, thought process, and the interests that informs the curation of electric bicycles at The New Wheel.
Part I: Eurobike
Walking through Eurobike on our first days, it was hard not to feel as if we were approaching the end of ebike history, with the winner being the established bicycle brands. Brand after brand introduced e-versions of everything we have seen before: e-mountain bike, e-road bike, e-city bike. Panasonic set the standard for quality and reliability, Bosch one-upped them with quicker innovation and by being German - a great thing to be in the largest market for high quality ebikes in the world, Germany - and now each manufacturer has taken the pedelec plunge with a Bosch motor and a more or less integrated battery. The ebike being mainstream was given a whole new meaning with Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spending 75% of her time headlining Eurobike at booths from ebike manufacturers Kreidler, Haibike, & Bosch. The risk is gone, the rewards are huge, and it’s all a bit boring.
Dig a little deeper though and you can see new revolutions brewing. The most fundamental part of the ebike, the motor, is still very much evolving. The very concept of what an ebike should be is developing. And most fundamentally, the ebikes move into the mainstream in Europe is injecting new energy into cooperative strategies to standardize technology to make the ebike a better servant to riders everywhere.
The middle motor continues to get smaller and quieter, improving a technology that has proven itself to be the best all around solution. Bosch introduced their newest drives that will soon make their way to the U.S., Derby demoed Impulse 2.0 featuring first of its kind shift sensor technology, and a host of middle motor manufacturers big and small elbowed to be seen.
But the real foment is in the world of hub motors. Bionx gave a sneak peak of it’s new D-Series motor, perhaps the most remarkable looking system on display. Bionx has dramatically expanded the D-Series motor’s diameter in the name of more torque with less power, and claims an incredible 25 newton meters of nominal torque - the most important measurement for a hub motor - and up to 50 newton meters of peak torque. If it all pans out, expect this motor to stand out from the competition in terms of torque to efficiency.
Another interesting technology on display was transverse flux motors. Transverse flux technology offers many of the benefits of a direct drive hub motor - silent operation, reliability - but in a smaller package with the possibility of more torque for less wattage. Höganäs, a Swedish metal powder manufacturer, had a number of bikes available for test riding with it’s new motor utilizing this technology. Höganäs’ motor prototype offers 18 newton meters of nominal torque in a tidy little package. Unfortunately, the motors we tried weren’t yet vibration free like a honed direct drive motor from Xion or Bionx. Only the open road will test this new technology’s reliability and durability.
Most interesting were the manufacturers that demoed ebike concepts with an entirely new perspective. Coboc and Electrolyte are two German manufacturers that had bikes on display that eschew the trajectory of ever more tech heavy machines full of graphic feedback, GPS, bluetooth and the like for a simple paired down machine with the primary goal of being as lightweight as possible.
Coboc offered up a stunning featherweight single speed that was a perfect example of the elegance of a good torque sensor and smart software: A single button on the top tube turned the system on. Five green LED lights below the on/off button display your state of charge. There is no power level to select: simply start pedaling and the bottom bracket torque sensor tells the small 250 Watt rear hub motor how much power to deliver in harmony with your pedaling. The relatively large 320Wh battery and controller are neatly tucked into the downtube, completely out of sight. The ride feel was incredible.
The Electrolyte on the other hand, while beautiful to look at, was an example of how bad cadence sensors are for electric bicycles. Rather than work harmoniously with your pedaling, the Electrolyte jerked and stuttered across the test track. The creators seemed to have compensated for the obvious shortcomings of their motor/controller by putting a metallic button at your thumb: press it and the cadence sensor starts sensing; stop pressing and the bike becomes none electric. The concept in practice didn’t work well and made an otherwise innovative design fall flat.
It always takes a few days at these events to bump into what really inspires us. Walking through the halls on our last day at Eurobike we had a chance encounter with Hannes Neupert, the founder of Extra Energy, the most important independent consumer testing agency for ebikes, and the preeminent expert on light electric vehicles in Europe.
Mr. Neupert was demoing EnergyBus, an open source standardized connector and communication protocol for all light electric vehicles that brings better reliability, serviceability and safety to the ebike sector. The vision is one in which a standard connector as ubiquitous as USB on a computer is found on all ebikes, allowing for easy swapping of components and things such as public charging stations in which EnergyBus locks both secure your bike and charge it on the grid. It may seem far fetched, but the project is moving along quickly, with most of the major bike brands and motor manufacturers signed on to help develop and deploy the standard. This cooperative technology is part of Mr. Neupert’s vision of a future when the ebike is not just a consumable but a pillar of urban transportation. This concept, which Mr. Neupert has been promoting for twenty years, is now starting to become a reality with the gradual adoption of EnergyBus. As Mr Neuper aptly put it, ebikes look pretty good now, but there is still a long way to go.
As we left the convention on that last day we realized how easy it is to get carried away by the mania of the model year cycle. Our talk with Mr. Neupert refocused us on our true passion for this technology as something that transcends the world of crass consumption to actively engage with problems of sustainability, infrastructure, and policy. The next giant leap that is coming in the European market will be based on structural changes that see the introduction of cooperative technology that acknowledges ebikes as public goods. Chancellor Merkel’s visit approximated, and our talk with Mr. Neupert precipitated our realization that even after over 20 years of innovation, there is nothing boring in the world of ebikes in Europe: this is the most dynamic sector in transportation.
And in just a few days we’ll see what giant leaps are afoot at Interbike 2013 in Las Vegas… Stay tuned for Part II!