To E-bike or Not to E-bike?

That is the question. At Yale e360, Marc Gunther asks, Will Electric Bicycles Get Americans to Start Pedaling?

… Americans bought as many electric bicycles as they did electric cars last year. About 53,000 electric bicycles were sold, according to Dave Hurst, an analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the industry. Electric car sales came in at 52,835. …

Electric bikes make commutes more inviting by easing worries about hills, headwinds, and fatigue. “They increase the distance that people can ride comfortably,” says Evelo’s Mordkovich. Commuters on e-bicycles are also less likely to arrive at the office dripping with sweat. “It seems like a small detail,” Mordkovich says, “but it’s a big deal to a lot of people.”

I’ve been very tempted to get a folding e-bike for just that reason. I have about a ten mile commute one way, and every other day I bring the bike in on light rail, and ride ten sweaty miles home. With a twenty mile range, I could ride every day, bypass the transit system altogether, and stop waiting for trains. I could carry my locks, and bike to the pool or to the grocery store.

However I do relish the small victories of climbing the hills in a higher gear than last time and maintaining a better pace than the day before. Doing the same courtesy of an electric motor doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

More practically, I’m worried about battery life. There are relatively cheap e-bikes on Amazon, but reviewers chime in to complain that their range has dropped dramatically in the first year. As we saw with the Nissan Leaf, some of that may be from improper charging, but a steady degradation of range is to be expected with any battery-powered vehicle.

My other concern is making it too easy to go too fast. While European e-bikes may all be pedal-assist, the ones I see here are often throttle and go – essentially low-powered motorcycles. Even with better brakes, it doesn’t take much loose gravel or leaves for a two-wheeled vehicle to slide at high speeds. And as we see in Asia, a lot of e-bikes leads to a lot of collisions with cars and pedestrians.

Update 2013-04-28: At Cyclelicious, while reviewing a new $5,900 e-bike, Richard Masoner talks about the disconnect between claimed wattage and actual performance of e-bikes:

When I asked Specialized’s electrical engineer about the lack of performance on other 250W motors, he said, “Motor ratings are such a lie.” He also explained that the nominal rating on a motor doesn’t take into account how much the battery can deliver.


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