Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ebikes: The Science Friday Perspective

On Friday, March 19, 2010, NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday did a segment called "All Aboard the Electric Bikes". Host Ira Flatow spoke with Ed Benjamin, Chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA) and Bert Cebular, founder of NYCeWheels.

Benjamin called in from the Taipei International Cycle Show, where, he reported, ebikes were making a significant presence, "perhaps the most important topic at the show this year". Electric bikes are sensible in China, and many people are stepping up from an un-powered bike, he reports. He claimed that some areas of the US (flat, dense) are more suited to ebikes than others (hilly, less dense) and that the adoption of electric bikes is inevitable.

Sanyo Eneloop Electric Bicycle Bike CY-SPA600NACebular, calling in from NYC, reported business up 100% over last year. He reports compact folders sub-50 lbs are very popular. Fitting a bike to a customer requires some physical adjustment, as well as some lifestyle questions (eg, length of commute, amenities at either end of the ride, do you need to go upstairs? can you charge at work?). With this information, Cebular can narrow down a customer's choices to two-three models from 20+ in stock. Flatow asked if most people expect to not have to pedal; Cebular replied that they don't want to sell motorcycles and that all their models have functioning pedals, so as to not take away the exercise benefits. Cebular's price range is $1500-$3800, with the Sanyo Eneloop currently being the most popular model. Flatow balked a bit at the price, but realized that with an electric bike, you get what you pay for, and the quality is probably worth it. Benjamin confirmed the veracity of Cebular's advice.

Jamie, riding an Optibike in San Francisco. $11k! But comparing an Optibike to a cheaper Chinese model is like comparing a truck to a Ferrari.
BionX PL-350 Kit with Pre-Built 26" WheelEric in Berkely, not a rider, but a DIY'er interested in a kit. Benjamin recommends the Bionx 36v 350w with LiManganese battery, carried in local retailers and available online, and that there are 25 people making kits, with selections at lower prices.

Benjamin stated that in order to make ebikes more popular, we need to rethink they way we move - that transportation is not synonymous with car. We're coming off a 70-80 year love affair with the car, and we've marketed the automobile as our sole transportation. Electric bikes have advantages - the biggest being they don't burn petroleum fuels. Americans are price sensitive, and we're early in learning we can't afford to continue our love affair with the car, as it is consuming too much of our personal and national resources. Electric bikes are one part of the new transportation mix - train, metro, bus, normal bicycles, electric bikes, electric scooters - all have a place.

Flatow said its important to feel safe - we need bike paths, secure parking. Benjamin responded that America is quietly and persistently investing in bike paths, but we still have a long way to go - the Dutch can get around better on bikes than automobile. Another advantage is that by Federal law, an ebike is a bicycle, with all the rights of a bike, and a bike is a very privileged vehicle

Dennis in Iowa - has a Bionx retrofitted to a Trek frame. Use it to go up and down a hill and bike in town.

Benjamin reported several hundred thousand ebikes in the US, and lots of positive stories about their use.

Flatow inquired about parking. Benjamin can fit 10 electric bikes in the space of 1 car in his garage.

Fuel efficiency? Around town Benjamin claims 13 cents for 20 miles of electricity. This is less efficient than a train, but much more efficient than any ICE personal transportation.

Oliver in Woodside - doing a cross-country electric bike tour to promote awareness
Tweet - With increased popularity, will laws change? The laws recently changed in favor of ebikes - HR727(2003) officially made electric bikes of specific parameters legally bicycles.
Terry(63) in San Francisco - Professional Bionx conversion. San Francisco hills no problem, and he rarely drives. He gets lots of questions.

Benjamin stated any competent bike store could make the conversion; in fact most probably have already done them, and that getting a conversion professionally done can be a good idea.

Flatow inquired as to range; as little as 8-10 miles, some with as much as 40-50m. Range depends on a variety of factors, including battery size, efficiency, how much a rider pedals, and age and condition of bike and battery.

Finally, Benjamin concluded that there both lots of big companies in the market, there is also a "flock" of little guys, importing ebikes, and that its an exciting time in the market.

Local bike seller Kalkhoff live-tweeted the broadcast.

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