• S R Vivek

Technology is Innovating the Wheel

Rise of the e-bike market & why it might just work this time


The role of technology is to solve problems. The evolution of technology takes it up a notch, it has been making our lives fun yet couchy.

Letters took too much time to reach. The pre-electric era came to an end with the inception of the telegram in 1792, after fiddling with it for 100 yrs, mankind got introduced to a landline telephone. It was not until 1981 that the first mobile phone came into operation.

Yes, it has been less than 40 years since the mobile phone first came up and we are looking at virtual reality communication devices to become commonplace in the next 5 years. You might mostly be telecommunicating with your friends on another planet in the next 10 years.


Although, the wheel has been the only constant since it was invented in 3000 B.C.


Why did e-bikes fail before?


The e-Bike market dates back to the 1800s. I bet you didn’t know that the famous American billionaire Howard Hughes built an electric bike at the age of 12 for himself. Companies like Panasonic, Bosch, Hercules, EV Global etc had taken an unfruitful shot at e-bikes in the 90s.

It was as not as bad as General Electric rolling out its electric car EV1 in 1996 on a lease only model, only to take them all back despite popular demand, request and protest to not do so. Here’s the hysterical part, after everything, G.E called the electric cars program commercially unsuccessful.

Although, why did electric bikes fail well until the late 2000s?


a. Battery (Product Innovation)

The crucial part of an e-bike is the battery and most of the e-bikes of the 90s were powered by lead-acid batteries. The energy density, range and durability of lead-acid batteries were poor compared to lithium-ion.

The emergence of the lithium-ion battery changed the way we use electronics today ranging from mobile phones, laptops to electric cars.

b. Perception + Positioning Problem (Between Bikes & Scooters)

  1. Speed The e-bikes are an alternative to bicycles but how are they different from scooters(electric or otherwise)? Speed Unlike scooters, Government regulations have imposed speed restrictions of 25–30 kph on e-bikes. Why would you ride something which has a range, cannot go beyond a certain speed limit and costs more than a scooter? Wouldn’t you rather ride an electric scooter instead? The motivation to ride to switch from bike to e-bike was not driving enough. Reasons like traffic congestion, climate change etc didn’t do much to change public opinion in early 2000.

  2. Bulk The perception of a bicycle is simple, sleek and elegant. Scooters, on the other hand, are a bit bulkier and sturdier. As we move towards motorbikes, they are giants in front of bicycles. The e-bikes of the late 90’s possessed the same technology they operate on today: Electric Pedal Assist and Detachable Chargeable Battery. The difference ~ bulk. The bulk created a positioning issue for e-bikes to be displayed as alternatives to bikes, even if they are much more fun to ride with the electric pedal assist.

Why is e-bike not the Solution?

In all honesty, e-bikes are not going to solve the problem of traffic congestion or climate change. Why?

  1. Road Congestion: The roads we travel today were created for cars, bicycles would end up creating more congestion than relief. The bike lane, pedestrian lane and now e-bike lane where the current roads in many countries are not big enough for more than two cars to pass together.

  2. Safety: An average commute time to work is 30 min. It is justified to say that cars are the safest mode of transportation on the road, given how it shields us in a shell. Bikes don’t do well in bike lanes themselves, I cannot say much about inner-city roads.

  3. Infrastructure: Planned cities like Amsterdam were built bicycle-friendly since the 1990s. The goal was to preserve the city’s heritage homes and streets while solving the problem of road congestion caused due to the increasing number of cars.

  4. Adapting: e-bikes as a replacement for bikes would do more harm than good in terms of carbon footprint. The goal would be to build infrastructure and provide e-bikes as a replacement for cars.


Headed towards the end of Mechanical Bikes?

Yamaha claims they released the world’s first electrically power-assisted bicycles. According to its shareholder report of 2017, revenue totalling $3 billion (¥30 billion) and robots to e-bike manufacturing lines to $56 billion (¥60 billion). Vanmoof, a Netherland based startup is approaching its projected revenue of $100 million in 2020, a jump of 20% from the past year.


Why do these numbers matter?

In 2011, it was predicted that “electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle”. The blog further adds to say that bicycles will become will remain as historical items hanging on the wall. According to market statistics, 40% of all bicycle sales in the Netherlands in 2018 were e-bikes. In the last 3 years, e-bike companies have entered a hypergrowth phase. The window of opportunity for e-bikes opened in 2016 (the launch year of Super 73). Although if you plan on doing something now, discover and build a niche e-bike product.

E-bikes are expected to make mechanical bikes obsolete as a form of transportation. Although, I believe mechanical bikes have only served the purpose of fitness enthusiasts and delivery services at very short distances for the past decade now.

Electric bikes without a doubt are changing short distance commute and electrify delivery services too. Moreover, electric bikes have only one selling factor over mechanical bikes: easy and fun.

Steve Jobs once said, “computers are the bicycles of the mind”.

“What a computer is to me is, it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” - Steve Jobs

Possibility of A Future with electric bikes as a mainstream transportation COVID19 changed the way we think about life on earth in 2020. Numerous businesses shut down forcing companies to move towards work from home model. The complete cut off of travelling to work has made many realize the amount of time commute takes out of our lives and how the saved time could benefit elsewhere.

The transportation of the future is fast, easy and effortless. Eg. Hyperloop, Self-driving cars etc. That being said, I would still put my money on rental and serviced based transportation to be wildly successful in the future.

In Sacramento, United States, Jump(acquired by Uber) has shown 6% more booking than Uber in a month. Jump is a dockless e-bike sharing company.

E-bikes surely are fun to ride because it makes us feel superhuman. The pedal assist helps in profoundly amplifying every pedal effort and builds torque for the ride. The current features have been able to grasp the attention of tech enthusiasts, vloggers and millennials as the passionate fans for the niche.

Although, establishing infrastructure seems like the primary requirement towards the widespread success of e-bikes and democratizing access.


Conclusion

The e-bike market is majorly divided into two categories: Urban and Mountain. Furthermore, the e-bikes are classified into foot scooters for very short rides, bikes(like Vanmoof) for commutes and motorbikes(like Super 73) for all-terrain commutes.

The regulation and government policies are on one end of the spectrum, whereas another end is how brands are going to sustain the long term game. The unsatisfying infrastructure for bikes and feasibility based on appropriate weather conditions makes e-bike a passionate sell rather than a necessity, for now.

The difference between the electric car market and e-bikes is the degree of government policies required to stabilize the niche.

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