The transportation industry has seen the future and 1895 is the future.
That was the year Ogden Bolton Jr. of Canton, Ohio, was awarded U.S. Patent 552,271 for an “electrical bicycle.” A century and change later, electric bikes have gained new currency as car and motorcycle companies like Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Yamaha have horned into the market with their own designs.
While the pandemic has increased bike sales, the main attraction is that cities around the world are now restricting motor traffic. These companies are betting that e-bikes are the urban vehicles of tomorrow — or at least vehicles for good publicity today.
“In the past 12 to 18 months, you have seen a lot of new brands come into the market,” said Andrew Engelmann, an e-bike sales and marketing manager at Yamaha, which has been in the electric bike business since 1993 and claims sales of two million worldwide. “We in the U.S. have not seen this new energy toward cycling since Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.”
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked bike sales of all kinds, but none as much as ebikes. Electric bikes saw a 140 percent increase in sales, whereas bicycle retail unit sales were up 46 percent compared to a year ago. Measured in dollars, regular bikes were up 67 percent and e-bikes 158 percent — so don’t expect a discount. The market researchers at NPD did not include Rad Power Bikes as an online retailer, so the actual sales might be higher.
Ogden Bolton aside. There is a historical connection between motorcycles and bicycles. Many of the first motorcycles were made by bicycle builders who simply mounted a motor to a bike and kept the pedals the same as a moped.
The automotive industry’s bicycle connection is more recent, with the likes of Malcolm Bricklin and Lee Iacocca introducing electric bikes in the ’90s. Both failed. Mr. Iacocca’s design, typical for the time, was hampered by a lead-acid battery with a 15-mile range and a top speed of 15 miles an hour. Many car companies, such as Ford, Audi, Maserati, and BMW have been using e-bikes in the past.
“No car company has had any success selling an electric bicycle,” said Don DiCostanzo, chief executive of Pedego Electric Bikes, who in 2014 licensed a bike design to Ford. “It’s fool’s gold. It can never replace the profit on a car.”
Yet, motorcycle and car manufacturers are being lured in. “I think they are seeing a lot of the same opportunity we see,” said Ian Kenny, who leads the e-bike effort at the bicycle company Specialized. “But I think there is a very big difference between demonstrating you can do something and doing something very well at scale.”
International motor vehicle companies are attracted by changes in how people move, especially in Europe and Asia. E-bikes can often fill the gap in cities with limited motor traffic and pollution.
“In Europe, the e-bike is more of a fundamental transportation tool,” said Dirk Sorenson, an analyst for NPD. London, Madrid Oslo, Paris and Oslo are just a few of the cities that have begun to restrict downtown traffic.
American cities are experimenting with similar restrictions in response to the pandemic. Slow Streets programs have been implemented in Boston, Minneapolis, and other cities in California. They prohibit motor traffic from side streets and encourage walking and cycling. UPS, Amazon, and DHL are all using e-cargo bikes to get around New York.
“There is a huge opportunity for e-bikes in the U.S., which is a huge untapped market,” said Rasheq Zarif, a mobility technology expert for the consulting firm Deloitte.
Some companies are preparing now for the possibility that “micromobility,” as the buzzword has it, will catch on here.
“Let’s imagine Harley-Davison is not a motorcycle company but a mobility company,” said Aaron Frank, brand director for Serial 1, which builds an e-bike in partnership with Harley. “There is a strong argument we can do for urban commuters what Harley-Davison did for motorcycles.”
Others see e-bikes a way to market their primary products. Though best known for its motorcycles, Ducati North America wants e-bikes to “potentially turn people on to Ducati,” its chief executive, Jason Chinnock, said. “And we’ve seen that with people at some events and with the media reaching out.”
Although e-bikes are more expensive than bikes, they are still cheaper than cars and motorcycles. Prices are dropping because of improved motor technology and battery technology. Low-priced e-bikes with a motor in the wheel hub — similar to that 1895 design — can be had for about $1,000. Prices for versions with more powerful, geared motors at your pedals can rise to more than $10,000.
“Spending $1,000 on a bike seems out there,” Mr. Kenny said, “but when you don’t look at it as a toy — when it becomes transportation — it becomes a very different conversation.”
Price isn’t the only hurdle. E-bikes face a complex array of laws. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed “low speed” e-bikes (with a motor equivalent to 1 horsepower or less) a bicycle, states still decide where that bike can be ridden.
“It’s up to 50 states to define the use, and that’s been a big problem in the past,” said Claudia Wasko, general manager of Bosch eBike, a prominent manufacturer of drive systems.
PeopleForBikes drafted model state legislation that would allow most ebikes to be allowed in bike lanes and parks. It lists three types, with speeds between 20 to 28 m.p.h. It has been adopted in some form by 28 states.
Some companies may not be as concerned with the future mobility of their employees and instead are more interested in getting some attention right now.
“I think it’s a halo thing,” said Mr. DiCostanzo, whose company has produced e-bikes for Tommy Bahama, Ford and others. Halo vehicles represent a brand’s aspirations, like concept cars.
“I think that’s what it is for Ford,” he added. “They wanted it for window dressing, and that’s what they got. I think they sold 500 in the five years it ran.”
Mercedes is accepting orders for its Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team V11 electric bike starting at $12,000
“High-performance road bikes and e-bikes provide a great way to showcase such technologies into a range of consumer products,” said Damian Cook, a spokesman.
For some in the bicycle industry this all smacks of déjà vu. In the 1970s, a bicycle boom was expected to signal a new future in transportation where cycling would be central. It failed. Though there were many contributing factors, roads weren’t made more bicycle-friendly and people didn’t want to arrive at work sweaty.
Experts such as Mr. Zarif are hopeful because of the combination slow streets programs, electric bikes which address the second problem, and a pandemic which has given people the chance to adjust to both.
“When you give people a chance to try something, it reduces resistance to change,” he said. “As a society, the reality is we go forward — we don’t go backward.”
Source: NY Times