The 175 Watt Solution
It is an exciting time for electric vehicles. Companies like Tesla Motors, Wrightspeed and AC Propulsion are building battery-electric cars that give their internal-combustion-powered counterparts a run for their money in terms of power, range and convenience. Almost everyone agrees that these electric cars do less damage to the environment than those powered by gasoline.
Electric cars do, however, have a significant environmental impact. The Tesla roadster makes 185kW (248 hp). The AC Propulsion eBox makes 120kW (161 hp). Both vehicles weigh between one and two tons. Moving vehicles this heavy, using all the power available to them, uses energy – lots of energy. Generating this much energy damages the environment, whether the electricity is made by a coal-fired plant, a nuclear reactor, or a photovoltaic array. Storing the energy generally requires batteries which can be made from toxic materials and can pose safety issues in normal use. Don't get me wrong; I am not saying that electric cars are as bad as gasoline-powered cars. I am simply pointing out that, although they are better, they are not perfect.
“Alright, Smartypants,” the astute reader now comments, “What is better than the electric car?”
Glad you asked. There are vehicles out there that use less than 0.1% as much power as the Tesla Roadster. They weigh 1.5% as much as the AC Propulsion eBox. They can carry all your groceries, and when they are appropriately configured, you can use them to take your kids to school or soccer practice. Of course, their small size and low power output means that their battery packs are far smaller, so they use less toxic material and pose less of a safety hazard.
Intrigued? Now let me tell you that these miracle-vehicles will keep you healthier, help you live longer, and they can improve your mood and your outlook on life. Sold yet? What if I told you that they cost about 1% of the price of the Tesla Roadster. What's more, they are being mass-produced right now! You don't have to put down a deposit and wait months or years for delivery. Ladies and gentlemen, please try to avoid causing a stampede as you rush to your local bike shop to pick up your very own electric bicycle.
I recently attended Interbike in Las Vegas, the annual industry bike show in which the bicycle companies show bicycle dealers all that is new and exciting. I have been following the electric bicycle industry since I was lead engineer for Charger Electric Bicycles in 1998. Although some companies are still peddling 1990s technology, clunky-looking bicycles with simplistic control systems and lead-acid batteries, many other manufacturers are pushing the limits of e-bike design. They are coming out with products that are functional, beautiful and fun.
In terms of beauty and practicality, I was most impressed by Schwinn's new line of electric bicycles (www.schwinnbike.com/products/intbikes_category.php?id=110). For 2007, Schwinn has partnered with Protanium, Inc., who provided motors and batteries for the line. They have seventeen new models to choose from which will be available by Spring,2007. Styles of the bikes vary considerably. Some, such as the “Campus” bear a striking resemblance to old English three speeds with leather saddles and handlebar grips. Others, such as the “Speedster” look like an Indian-brand motorcycle with pedals. The “Transit Europa” resembles many of the new breed of dedicated commuter bikes appearing these days, with a full chain guard, integrated lighting system, and an adjustable handlebar stem.
The Schwinn e-bikes all minimize their electric nature. Lithium polymer batteries are hidden in pseudo gas tanks or tucked in small, flat packages under a rear rack. The hub motor on the front wheel is unobtrusive. The designers even hid the electric wiring in the fork tubes in their effort to keep their products looking like normal bikes.
Schwinn e-bikes weigh between forty and forty five pounds, with riding ranges up to forty miles. Pricing on the Schwinns was not available, but it is clear that Schwinn is going to be making a lot of these and marketing them aggressively. Prices will be competitive.
Currie Technologies also went for the minimally-electric look in their line of IZIP bikes (izipusa.com). Many models feature lithium-ion or nickel-metal-hydride batteries hidden inside one of the tubes of the bicycle frame. Most of their e-bikes come with a 180W motor, small enough to make them qualify as “electric bicycles” instead of mopeds in Europe. Most of the bikes have cruiser-style 26” tires, but the “Street Enlightened” model uses sportier 700C wheels with 28mm tires. Its aggressive looks are similar to other bikes designed for hard riding in the urban jungle, such as the Cannondale “Bad Boy” or the Jamis Coda series.
The IZIP bikes weigh between 44 and 48 pounds. Prices run between $599.99 and $2499.99. Different models will become available between December 2006 and April 2007.
On the other side of the “looks” category lies the Aerorider, made by Bart Dewert in the Netherlands (www.aerorider.com). Calling the Aerorider an electric bicycle would not do it justice. In fact, it would be flat-out wrong. This vehicle is a fully-faired recumbent tricycle, with a cockpit filled with controls that might make a jet pilot scratch his/her head. The padded seat looked quite comfortable, although the low-slung riding position would make getting in and out quite a bit trickier than entering and exiting a car. The Aerorider is powered by a 600W electric motor which drives a belt that mounts to what looks like a second rim welded to the rear wheel. The vehicle is geared for a top speed of 28 mph in Europe, where it is registered as a moped. In the USA the unit will be geared to stay within a top speed of 20 mph so it can be sold as an electric bicycle. This lower gearing will result in improved acceleration and should make the vehicle more fun to ride (drive?). If you have $7500 burning a hole in your pocket, sign up for one of these ASAP, as production will be limited until demand grows.
In between the two extremes, there was a lot of interesting technology. Anticipating growth in the e-bike market, the world's largest bicycle component manufacturer, Shimano Inc., has made all their internally-geared hub drivetrains more robust. Nirve Sports Ltd. (www.nirve.com) teamed up with long-time electric bicycle designer Marcus Hays of ZVO Bikes (www.zvoinc.com) to take advantage of this increased robustness. They are putting out two models in which electric motors drive the crankset instead of a rear cog. This configuration links the electric drivetrain to the internal gearing, which should result in drastic increases in efficiency and range. One of the models is a cruiser-style bike with 26” wheels and a three-speed transmission. The other is a unique model, with immensely fat 20” slick tires and an eight-speed tranny.
Canadian company BionX (www.bionx.ca) brought a direct-drive hub motor and controller which can be mounted on almost any bicycle. Although its power output was only 350W, the bicycle I rode felt much zippier than other e-bikes I have ridden with similarly-sized motors. Chalk it up to a very nice motor design from people who really know what they are doing.
A small startup call Acurrent International showed an interesting hub motor with a three-speed planetary gearing system built into the assembly. They do not have a website yet, but they are about to change their name to “Planetary Enterprises,” so keep your eyes out for them to hit the scene full force soon. In the meantime, you can contact them by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many other companies brought electric bicycles and related products, from major players like Giant Bicycles and Fuji Bicycles, to small companies from Taiwan, China and Korea. E-bike industry veterans Ed Benjamin and Mike Fritz have created a new company, Tres Terra (www.tresterra.com), with a nifty stand-up/sit-down scooter among other things. Big Asian players, like ADDA e-bike (www.addaebike.com) made their first appearances in the USA.
By the end of my day at Interbike, my feet were sore, but my heart was content. The electric bicycle industry, which seemed doomed to failure as recently as 2004, has made a remarkable resurgence. There were more e-bikes at the show than I had ever seen gathered in one place before. The designs varied widely. People are experimenting and innovation is flourishing. Big companies are taking the concept of electric bicycles seriously. This is very good news for those of you who wish to minimize the damage you do as you wander about this planet. Rejoice!
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