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Paradigm Shift: Electric Bicycles In the USA

By Ed Benjamin

Schwinn, Huffy, Murray, Roadmaster: old, established American brands that are no longer. Now there are new players: companies once thought too small and inconsequential: Trek, Specialized, GT. The lesson? Change happens and e-bikes are coming, America, writes LEVA founder and chairman Ed Benjamin.

Much of life’s experience consists of adapting to changes.

Yet, humans are remarkably resistant to change. Maybe Americans resist more than most. (Yet, historically, we were among the most adaptable…)

Most of my professional life has been in the USA bicycle industry. When I started, bicycles were regarded as toys, for children only. Adults who needed transportation used cars.

An adult on a bicycle in 1970 was regarded as wrong, or maybe mentally deficient.

At that time, bicycle racing in the USA was a tiny, tiny sport. There were no Americans racing internationally, and the last time any American bicycle racer had been important was decades earlier.

But by 1972, the oil crisis caused millions of Americans to buy bicycles to back up or supplement their cars for transportation.

And then put them in the back of the garage to gather dust as gas prices came back down. (Many of those old Schwinn Varsities were dusted off and fixed up with new tires in 2008, as gas prices soared.)

Not long after that, we saw the introduction of new uses of bicycles. BMX racing, originated as a way for motorcycle enthusiasts to introduce their kids to MX racing, became a competitive sport that millions participated in.

A few stunt riders caused a new product – freestyle bicycles – to become a hot seller in the 80’s. For millions of bicycles built for stunts and trick riding to sell to the youth of American was amazing.

Some crackpots in California fixed up old Schwinn cruisers with gears, and started riding them in the mountains. Soon they were calling these “mountain bikes”.

They created a generation of completely new customers and ideas about how to use bicycles.

Later, cruisers, a reincarnation of balloon tired bikes invented in the 1930’s for use on gravel roads, returned as an important market in the USA. Despite being much harder to pedal, and no longer needed on the hard surfaced roads of today – and rarely, despite their name, ridden on the beach.

Perhaps most startling was the emergence of USA riders as winners of the Tour De France and other major international events. This was unthinkable in the early days of my career.

The reader should know that each of these changes was resisted by the USA bicycle industry. In every case, there were statements that such bicycles contradicted the proper design and use of bicycles.

(And a curious quirk of the bicycle business: The UCI, governing body of bicycle racing, has pretty much frozen much of bicycle design thinking at a late 1940’s paradigm by restricting many advancements in cycling technology from being used in competition.)

Established USA brands such as Schwinn, Huffy, Murray, Roadmaster, and others made changes very slowly and poorly. Their lack of adaptability and lack of sincere interest in the changes in the use of the bicycle led to emergence of other, new, and initially tiny companies that are powers today. Trek, Specialized, Electra, GT, Mongoose, were all brands that were regarded by the major bike builders of the 60’s, 70’s, and even the 80’s as too small and too trivial to pay attention to.

But the changes happened anyway. Those formerly small and unimportant brands are now the major brands. The major brands of history are mostly gone, or only exist as marketing labels owned by holding companies.

Today we can see a similar change occurring in the USA market as electric bikes enter the market – regardless of the scorn or lack of understanding of the major, conventional bicycle brands.

And, as before, small companies that are paying close attention to the market are building their brand and business under the nose of the major bicycle brands.

(This applies to dealers as well. I can remember being a bicycle retailer who was skeptical of “ATBs” in the 80’s. And wary of buying from companies that I had never heard of – because my major suppliers had lame, or no, mountain bikes.)

This does seem to be the natural way of humans. We do not welcome change, and we will fight to keep things just-as-they-are if we believe that the status quo is to our benefit. (And often the ones resisting the change are the ones with the most money, and thus they do slow things down through political, and other means.)

Regardless of resistance, change happens.

Change is happening now. At a time when the largest customer demographic for bicycles in USA history is aging - and thus appreciative of some help. And when young working Americans are moving to dense urban environments where owning (and parking) a car is less practical. As well as ever more interest in reducing personal carbon footprint and reducing pollution by governments – the electric bike is clearly part of the solution.

For the aging baby boomer, electric bikes are the easiest to pedal bikes in history. And these bikes can overcome the hills, the headwinds, and fatigue to make for enjoyable riding every time.

For the millennial living in the big city, an electric bike can be parked in the apartment, or by the desk at work. And the ebike can carry the rider to work without sweating.

An electric bike is a step towards reducing personal carbon footprint that can be taken by anyone. And it reduces transportation cost while offering opportunities to exercise.

Growth in electric bike sales in the USA is still small. Estimates that 2014 will exceed 250,000 units mean that the market is still only 1 ebike in every 60 manual bicycles sold.

This compares to one in two in China. 1 in 3-4 in Holland, 1 in 6 in Germany, 1 in 8 in Switzerland.

Sales doubled between 2012 and 2013. This makes for an impressive and important future.

Even inside the electric bicycle business, paradigms are changing.

For most of the 200 million electric bike users around the world, an electric bike is transportation. Most ebike makers still think of them as transport. Not sport, not fitness, not recreation.

Until recently, electric bikes simply did not have the capability of being used off the roadways, or in the mountains. And frankly they were a dull ride in most cases.

But changes in technology, plus the combination of human and electric power in what the industry terms a “pedelec” (A bike which the rider must pedal for the motor to run.) have created bikes that open up sporting and recreational uses for electric bikes that were not foreseen.

And while the industry has focused on issues such as speed pedelecs that can go a little bit faster, or batteries that can go a little bit farther, or maybe climb a bit better – others are opening completely new doors in product ideas. The user experience and the user interaction with their machine will become the most important feature.

A change that is almost here is mostly about communication. Vehicle to cloud communication that updates the maker of the bike on the current performance and condition of the bike, and updates the user of the bike on needed maintenance or other issues.

Vehicle to vehicle communication that will, we hope, substantially reduce accidents. With every vehicle on the highway knowing where it is (GPS) and where the other vehicles around it is (Vehicle to Vehicle communication) an impending accident or collision has a good chance of being avoided.

Vehicle to Social Networks will soon be a user enhancement allowing a rider to know where their cycling friends may be.

Vehicle user health apps will help the rider with fitness and caloric consumption issues. And maybe report to the rider’s doctor (or family) when there are cardiac issues.

Accident sensing may mean that an ambulance is dispatched to an accident scene before the rider or onlookers can gather their wits and find their phones.

Vehicle malfunctions or flat tires may have be known to the vehicle and a support vehicle summoned before the rider knows there is a problem. Imagine having a flat tire and finding the bike shop van rounding the corner to rescue you.

All of these are changes that we can expect some in the industry to resist. “Too costly”, or “distracting”, or “no electric bikes should be allowed on trails” or “cheating” will be some of the complaints.

There will be other changes, as user interface becomes an interaction between phones, riders, bikes, social networks, and the vehicle.

The value of a bike, and the enjoyment of the user will become more a function of the user interface than the chassis, battery, motor, or appearance of the bike.

And, as in the past, the changes will occur, regardless of the opinion and resistance of some in the industry.

Times Article Viewed: 9181
Originally published: 30 Nov 2014

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