The Electric Passion of Frank Jamerson
By Bill Moore
Frank Jamerson's email address starts with "elecbike", which should tell you how passionate he is about the uniquely-entwined, high-tech-low-tech world of modern Light Electric Vehicles.
But the good Doctor -- his PhD is from Notre Dame, his BS in physics is from MIT -- isn't your stereo-typical sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, long-hair from the 60's. He's a former nuclear scientist-turned-auto engineer with 35 years at General Motors, 18 of them as the head of its Physics and Electrochemistry Department. He's the guy whose team not only developed the world's most powerful magnet, but he then went on to start GM's fuel cell and lithium ion battery research programs in the 1980s.
Ready to retire in early 1990s, he gave his last presentations on behalf of the US Advanced Battery Consortium, of which he was then the Assistance Program Manager for Electric Vehicles, at a conference in Austria. It was here he saw his first electric bicycle and was hooked. Like Bob Stemple, Lee Iacocca and Malcolm Currie, Jamerson decided to focus his retirement years on the electric vehicle industry, electric bicycles and batteries specifically, starting in 1995 with a report he wrote for Currie, now one of the most successful electric bike companies in America.
That report has grown now into its Seventh Edition and 150-plus pages of data and information on the burgeoning LEV industry and relevant technologies. After providing me with a complementary copy, I wanted to talk to Jamerson about his interest in light electric vehicles and his views on a number of issues including the role he sees them playing in the future.
Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports is a truly worldwide collaborative effort with contributions from LEV experts around the world including Ed Benjamin (Asia), Susan Bruesch and Hannes Neupert (Europe), Guo Ziqiang (China), Phil Leavitt, Donald MacArthur and Steve Hansen (US), and others. Jamerson uses his global contacts and rich technical background to edit the report. [See special discount offer below for EV World subscribers].
"What I've done is try to put together information that is helpful to people in the bicycle business," he explained to me, "and also people who are in the component business; for example, batteries, fuel cells and motors. So, I write technology information, as well as product information".
Since starting the report ten years ago, he's gradually expanded its coverage as the market for LEVs has grown. Light electric scooter pioneered by the success of the Zappy soon joined the increasing number of electric-assist bicycles starting to pour out of Asia. As the market for Neighborhood EVs grew with the success of the GEM, Jamerson added them to the report, along with the most recent addition of two-wheel and unicycle self-balancing EVs like the Segway Transporter and Bombardier Embrio concept EV.
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"I put more value in the report," he added, noting that he now has a large section on LEV-relevant regulations, which is becoming an increasingly important issue for manufacturers, distributor, dealers and consumers as more and more communities pass ordinances impacting motorcycles, motor scooters and related vehicles.
In addition to commercial manufacturing and sales, the Report also offers a section on academic activities from high school solar bikes races to university solar car competitions.
"I try to present a worldwide picture", he told me. "In addition, on the automotive side, since I am an automotive guy, I do have a section on automotive developments, which includes hybrids and fuel cells, because technology in the automotive area is going to spin-off to the electric bike and scooter business..."
I asked Jamerson what's new in the 2004 edition and he responded with a long list of new products since the 2002 edition, some of which are in production and for sale to consumers, others still in the proof-of-concept-phase and early production prototype stage. These included various Segway spin-offs and knock-offs, a parallel-hybrid bike from eBici, WaveCrest's new 750 watt hub motor and Autork's Series-Hybrid quadraped, just to name a few.
While Jamerson updates the report every two years, he does offer yearly-revisions to the market statistics. Now that the Report is in an interim year, he is now offering a substantial discount off the original price, which was $475 originally. He told me that clients can now buy the 2004 report for $350 and he's willing to work with anyone on the price.
"I do deals with people who are interested in the industry," he commented. "My objective is to help people and we do that by accommodating to their needs."
When Jamerson wrote his first report for Malcolm Currie thee were less than 200,000 electric assists bikes being built annually, most in Japan. That has mushroomed in 2004 to 10 million units, largely because of the Chinese market where there are literally hundreds of electric bike manufacturers; and where's there's a huge market for people trading up from their conventional pedal bikes.
"Last year in China they sold 7.5 million," he noted. There are more electric bikes sold every year in China, where private car ownership is still beyond the means of the average worker. He told me that he's seen women in China riding a sort of hybrid bicycle-motor scooter that they can pedal if the wish or rest their feet on a platform like a motor scooter and use the electric power only.
"The total market for bikes in China is about 50 million a year," he said, adding that 20 percent of those are electric.
In a market where quality has, at times, suffered, Jamerson explained that the Chinese are addressing this problem, following the technological lead of the Japanese who are, in many respects, the leaders in advanced ebike systems. He commented that Panasonic has made dramatic improvements in its electric bikes, decreasing the weight and doubling the range. The Chinese electric bicycle and scooter industry is starting to copy this model and gradually improving the quality of their goods, which have suffered from quality control problems, with many of those defective products arriving in America.
The three biggest QC problems are faulty controllers, batteries and motors -- the main components of an electric bicycle and scooter. He recommended contacting Phil Leavitt who leads Light Electric Vehicle Technologies in Pocatello, Idaho about quality control and service questions.
While buyers need to be aware of these problems, it's awfully hard to ignore the substantial cost savings cheap Chinese LEVs offer. You can buy an electric bicycle in China for as little as $300-350US. European and US models can cost six times as much. Jamerson added that, for the moment, at least, the rule of thumb is the highest quality products come out of Asia come from Japan, followed by Taiwan and then China. He thinks Panasonic, Merida and Giant are the industry leaders. Virtually all America electric bike companies source their parts from Asia including EV Global Motors, Currie, TidalForce, and ZAP.
Road to Conflict
While bicycles and cars have reached a sort of respectful truce in places like Beijing where there are 6 million bicycles and 2 million cars, more and more communities in North America are passing ordinances banning or restricting the use of motorized -- both gasoline and electric -- bicycles and light scooter, as well as vehicles like the Segway.
Since Jamerson's report talks about the regulatory environment impacting LEVs, I wanted his impressions on the bans cropping up in various communities like Oakland and Phoenix.
He first noted that in China, bicycles are provided with street-wide lanes that parallel the main thoroughfares and on which cars and trucks are not permitted (though it didn't stop the taxi drivers I rode with in Beijing). His sense is that part of the problem in North America is that there are no large bicycle makers with serious political clout like that enjoyed by Panasonic and Giant in Japan. So far American makers like Schwinn and Trek have ignored electric bicycles, in part because in this country we view bicycles more as recreational toys than serious means of transportation.
Jamerson sees federal programs to encourage communities to build bicycle trails and paths as an import tool in encouraging the wider adaptation in this country of bicycles in general and electric-assist, in particular.
He pointed out to me a recent study done by Monash University in Australia that compared the health effects of pedaling a conventional bike, an electric-assist bike and riding in a car. The report noted that the ideal cardiovascular heart rate for exercise was between 65-85 percent of a person's maximum heart rate. A fit person using a conventional bike will spend 48 percent of the time above this ideal zone, while an electric bike rider will spend 93 percent of the time in this ideal heart rate zone.
"From the standpoint of health effects, it turns out an electric bike is good for your heart", Jamerson said.
I asked the former GM engineer what he thought were the three most interesting innovations he'd seen since he began publishin his report. He cited WaveCrest's adaptive motor, which powers its TidalForce bikes and is likely to see wider application in larger vehicle platforms. Next he is impressed by Jean Yves Dube's EPS pedalic bike in Canada because of its integrated design approach.
But in terms of overall engineering sophistication, he believes Panasonic -- known in Japan as the National Bicycle Company -- is the industry leader. It has increased the range of its Vivi model from 27km to 62km while cutting the bike's weight by better than 30 percent, all while reducing the price of the bike from nearly $1,300US in 1995 to $636US (70,000 Yen) in 2003.
And when will fuel cells hit the LEV marketplace?
"That all depends on what the customer will be willing to pay for that product," Jamerson said, adding that he had just spoken to Larry Burns, the head of GM R&D who told him that General Motors is still a factor of ten away from having a commercially affordable fuel cell.
"I don't know what the price point would have to be for an electric bike, but it clearly would probably be higher on a per kilowatt basis than it would be in a car... I say it's still three years away, however there are companies working on pure hydrogen, but also direct methanol fuel cells, so the activity is starting to intensify and I talk about that in my report."
As a special favor to EV World [Premium] subscribers, Dr. Jamerson is offering a very generous $100 discount off the $350 price of the report. To qualify for this discount, CLICK HERE.