Today, that legacy of essentialism can still be found in a slightly more advanced form: the electric bike, which requires the rider to pedal but provides an electric boost. As an increasingly popular means of getting around in overcrowded cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the number of e-bikes in China has ridden rapidly and surpassed 200 million.
Contrast that with the United States, where the notion of motorized pedal assistance is, well, quite foreign. For instance, while sales figures from 2014 showed a 30 percent bump over the previous year, the addition of 198,000 e-bikes were easily dwarfed by the 16.5 million new cars that hit the streets during that same period.
In a way, it makes sense as much of our commuting habits and infrastructure have coalesced largely around automobiles. Bicycling, viewed mostly as a secondary option, is typically taken up as exercise, to go short distances or as a sport. It’s hard to see, then, how a motorized bicycle that starts at about $1,000 fits into all of this.
But with more and more cities around the world pushing reforms to curtail driving as a way of reducing congestion and lessen the negative impact on the environment, perceptions are changing. And not surprisingly, automakers claim to be looking for new ways to adapt.
One of these possibilities is selling e-bikes. But while many have tested and toyed with numerous prototypes, only one car company actually has an e-bike in production. This has led some experts to believe that car companies have launched such concepts merely as a vanity project to soup up their reputation as environmentally friendly.
The latest indication of the auto industry’s deepening interest took place at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Proudly on display was Ford’s MoDe:Me, a compact and collapsible concept designed for your everyday urban commuter, and the MoDe:Pro, which boasts a wide platform to carry stacked transport bikes and is aimed at those who carry out transport services, such as couriers.
Both prototypes, conceived as part of an initiative to spread the company’s vision of a more interconnected transportation future, are equipped with a 200 Watt motor and a 9 Ah rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. The max speed tops out at 15 mph.
Other bells and whistles include an accompanying iPhone app that lets riders not only map out routes using GPS, but also receive vibrating alerts via the handlebars that tell them when to turn. There’s also a heart sensor, which allows users to set the pedal-assistance to kick in certain situations, such as whenever the bike detects a rider is about to break into a undesired sweat.
“What we wanted to do was to integrate Ford vehicles into a multi-modal journey, where you can incorporate all the efficient ways of getting around in an urban setting into one seamless experience,” says Bill Coughlin, president and chief executive of Ford Global Technologies.
This renewed sense of direction, he says, can to some degree be credited to measures enacted across Asia and the west to reduce the number of cars on the road. Officials in Beijing, for example, have for years instituted a series of periodic bans on driving to clear up some of the city’s dense air pollution. The practice has also gone into effect in Paris, where they’re zeroing in at the worse offenders, trucks and coaches. And in Hamburg, Germany transport systems are being revamped in ways that’ll enable the city to become the first to phase out cars entirely.
As a potentially environmentally friendlier alternative to automobiles, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that electric bikes really started to come onto the scene. During that time, e-bike sales have rose sharply — not only in China, but in bike-friendly parts of Europe as well. In Germany and the Netherlands, at least 1 in 10 bicyclists rides an e-bike. Yet despite rising demand, the market for e-bikes presently boils down to little more than a choice between cheap configurations made in China and pricier, high-end European models.
But in recent years, it’s carmakers that have flashed the kind of engineering and design prowess that may someday take e-bikes to the next level. In 2001, the Honda introduced the “Step” e-bike, which was ahead of its time in that it can literally be folded in half. For the 2012 Olympic Games in London, sponsor BMW built and lent out to participants a limited set of their elegantly designed “i Pedelec” e-bikes as a part of an ongoing campaign to promote the much hyped i-3 concept car.
But the crown for the biggest tease perhaps goes to an engineering marvel developed by German manufacturer Audi. Unveiled in 2012, the Wörthersee packed a host of advanced features such as WiFi, a self-balancing gyroscope and a powerful 2.3 kW motor that pushed speeds upwards of 50 mph — all in a stealthy body that weighed in at a lithe 24 pounds.
Eric Hicks, editor of review site electricbikes.com, says that what really impressed him was that the developers were able to solve some of the most pressing design issues users often encounter. For starters, the battery was housed discreetly inside the rigid, protective frame. And rather than going with a simple, but less efficient hub motor, the Audi team opted for a smoother-performing mid drive system.
“That bike got people more interested in buying one than all the others combined,” he says. “With Audi’s mass production and marketing capabilities, producing a slick product like that and putting their name behind it could have easily given the entire industry some serious mainstream appeal.”
To date, Smart Motors — a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz’s parent DaimlerAG — is the only car company that currently offers an e-bike — albeit in Europe. The rest, such as the Audi e-bike, either never progressed beyond being a prototype phenom or simply flopped, as was the case with the Mercedes branded e-bike that was somehow released in the early 2000’s.
As for why Audi has yet to follow through on what many felt was a promising performance concept, company spokesman Bradley Stertz cited at least two obstacles: the range limitations of Lithium-ion battery packs and the necessity of having the right partnerships in place to deliver a production version that met the company’s standards for quality.
“For the record, the chances of furthering the e-bike concept into something for consumers aren’t dead, but it’s also not something we are preparing for at this time,” Stertz says, “There are also other more important priorities on the table for which we have limited resources to allocate.”
To that end, Hicks says he can think of at least a few more specific, yet undisclosed reasons that have deterred car companies from getting into the e-bike business. For one, there’s the added cost of servicing, along with product liability insurance in case of injury caused by defects. And unless the bike comes with an advanced technology that’s proprietary and difficult to manufacture, competitors could simply copy and incorporate it into their design.
“There’s so many things that can go wrong with electric bikes,” Hicks says. “If you’re going to build something that’s high quality and affordable, which is what Americans want, you have to be confident that you can sell a ton of them just to make a decent profit.”
While Ford’s foray into the e-bike space is still more or less “exploratory,” Coughlin made a point to emphasize that the bikes have been tested internally by employees. And should a product end up being released, they’re certainly willing to service and stand behind it.
Another possibility he mentioned was licensing the technology to manufacturers that specialize in e-bikes. “We’re happy to talk to anyone who may be interested in working with us to at least bring some of the technology to consumers,” Coughlin says.
Hicks, however, isn’t holding his breath. At trade shows, he’s seen novelty concepts come and go with such frequency that even ones going through the motions of prototype testing isn’t much of indicator as to whether an idea comes to fruition.
“These projects help them improve their image as being more eco-conscious, but beyond that i just don’t think they’re serious about producing an actual product,” he adds.
Still, he has written off the possibility entirely. If anything, he’s particularly intrigued by the more basic Mode:Me model, which so happens to be compact, portable and has a battery and mid drive system built discreetly into the frame.
“They don’t need to make the most awesome electric bike out there,” Hicks says. “Just offering something that isn’t costly and can be a useful upgrade for car buyers would likely ensure you’ll see a lot of them around.”