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Your New 2nd Car Could Be an E-Bike

By Peter Suciu
Sep 14, 2012 5:00 AM PT

There will be no shortage of two-wheeled vehicles at next week's Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. The largest bicycle trade show in North America remains very much about pedal power, but in addition to the high-end Tour de France-worthy road bikes, go-over-anything mountain bikes, and hipster- and messenger-friendly fixed gear bicycles, there are those that are juiced up with electric motors and batteries.

Your New 2nd Car Could Be an E-Bike

It might seem counterintuitive that electric bicycles would be at a show built around health and fitness, but the idea here is that bicycles that are still pedal powered while offering a motor assist would be ideal for commuters. In this regard the electric bicycle is being aimed at consumers as an alternative form of transportation -- one that is far more affordable than a car and offers greater flexibility than mass transportation.

"E-bikes are a great around-town vehicle," said Pete Prebus, editor of the Electric Bike Report, a site that reviews various electric bicycles, known as "e-bikes" in industry jargon. "The electric car bikes are great for that."

This is especially true in dense urban areas where auto traffic often grinds to a halt during rush hour, but bicycles can zoom by in bike lanes.

"For shorter commutes, the bicycle and electric bicycle are already a great time saver," said Edward Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association. "I remember sitting in a traffic jam somewhere in the Los Angeles area and watching in envy as cyclists swept past us and into a university campus on the bike path next to the road."

But could these single person vehicles replaces cars?

"Maybe it would be better to think of electric bikes and scooters as supplementing metros, trains, buses and ... cars," Benjamin added.

Better Battery Means Better E-Bike

If the e-bikes are so good for getting around, the question can be asked why these are only taking off now. The answer comes down to a number of improvements, with the biggest actually being the battery and the electrics that allow for the pedal assist to do its job.

eflow electric bike

"It is really the integration of the electronics to build a higher performance oriented product than what was available in the past," said Larry Pizzi, president of Currie, which makes the eFlow brand of electric bicycles. "It has been a gradual and slow progression, sort of like pedaling uphill."

Exactly how slow this innovation has been in coming is notable in that electric bikes have been around almost as long as the bicycle itself. In fact, the motorcycle -- the big sibling of the bicycle -- came out of developments to put a motor on a bike.

What wasn't around back then was the modern rechargeable battery, a true game changer for those looking to get some help when pedaling. The size of the battery has gotten smaller, making it a far more viable technology for riders.

"Electric bicycles were invented more than a hundred years ago, but modern lithium ion battery technology has made them at least 20 pounds lighter," said Beth Black of Pedego Electric Bikes.

"When we started a few years ago, the battery packs still weighed 30 pounds. Today, a battery weighs six pounds and lasts 10 times longer. Recent investments in improving battery technology for other applications, such as cars, are helping to develop even better batteries for electric bikes," she explained.

Get Your Motor Rolling

Thus the biggest single improvement truly is that development of lithium ion battery technology, which has seen a remarkable improvement to make e-bikes more viable as a transportation option compared to lead acid batteries.

"They are lighter, smaller, and they have a longer life cycle," Prebus told TechNewsWorld. "Continued improvements in battery tech will make a big impact on e-bikes -- less expensive, lighter weight, and longer life cycles. Hopefully, demand for improvements for battery tech from the car industry will trickle down to e-bikes and make a big improvement."

While this is beginning to have its own trickle-down effect on the American market, much of the innovation is actually coming out of China and Europe -- two locations that have long seen the bicycle's potential as a commuter and transportation alternative to the automobile.

"The industry has also grown, and overall e-bikes are becoming more reliable with higher-quality components," added Prebus. "China and Europe have driven the demand for economical light electric vehicles -- including e-bikes -- because of their congested cities and the high expense of owning and operating a car."

Green but Electric

One issue that remains dominant when considering electric bicycles is that they still require power, and whether this in turn makes them "less green" than a conventional bicycle. Detractors suggest that if power is used, then mass transportation might be the better option.

But those supporting the growth of e-bikes see that there are green ways to juice up a bike, while the power used is still far less than that of a car or motorcycle.

"E-bikes use a very small amount of energy compared to many other e-vehicles," Prebus added. "A conventional bicycle is one of the most efficient forms of transportation, and adding electric assist that is powered by solar power is a real possibility today. Using solar power to charge an e-bike is something that a lot of people could do today."

Even the end of life is considered in the industry -- notably of those lithium ion batteries.

"Battery recycling is one overall concern when considering the 'green" aspect of e-bikes, but I believe that battery recycling programs are in the works," said Prebus.

Better Infrastructure

The other part of the equation with electric bicycles is that most roads today are still designed for those riding in vehicles with four wheels. As e-bikes aren't capable of the speed required to use many highways or urban freeways, this puts riders on surface streets, which can still be somewhat hazardous.

However, cycling initiatives in the United States, including those from various advocacy groups, are helping make bike lanes and bike paths a reality. And this further is spurring the growth and development of the electric bicycle. Many urban centers, including New York, Chicago and even car-friendly Los Angeles, are becoming just as bicycle-friendly as cities such as Minneapolis and Portland.

"Many cities are investing in improving, updating and developing their infrastructure to make it safer for all types of riders, including commuters," Black told TechNewsWorld. "A large number of cities, such as Irvine, Calif., home of Pedego Electric Bikes, already have great bike paths and designated bike lanes crisscrossing their urban landscape."

The industry is also getting into the spin of things, and with high gasoline prices likely to be the new normal, the e-bike truly could become the second car.

"It is on the cusp of becoming a mainstream product," said Pizzi. "This has changed dramatically in the last three years, and now every major bicycle brand is starting to look at offering an electric bike."

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.

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