Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ebikes And Discontents

An Email Interview with Electric Cycle Aficionado Ed Benjamin
by Samuel Manila
March 2003


Why and when did you first get interested in
electric bicycles?
In 1993, Ted Kutrombos (ex-Cannondale USA) stopped by my bicycle shop in Ft. Myers Florida and demonstrated an electric bike to me (it was not very good) that
got me to thinking about the whole idea of such human/electric hybrids. I was fascinated and felt sure this would be the bicycle drive train of the future. Then I met my mentor to be -- Frank Jamerson PHD who lived a few miles from my Naples store. His information and encouragement helped me to develop my interest and business.
Considering that bicycle, battery, and electric motor technologies have been around since the 19th century, were there any early attempts at making electric bicycles back then?
The first electric bicycle patent in the USA was in (the late 19th Century). There have been significant attempts to commercialize such vehicles in the 1960's and 80's but the convergence of technology (sufficient battery capacity, light efficient motors, motor control circuits, chargers) that was needed for practical electric bikes has only existed in the last 8 years or so. The current "era" started with Yamaha's introduction of the PAS bikes in Japan in 1994. Hannes Neuperts book "Powerbike" has an excellent look at the European history of such vehicles.
In 2002, I had purchased a Chinese-made foldable electric bike with a 280 W motor, 24 V lead-acid battery, and 16" wheels. The name "Star and Moon" is stickered on the down tube, fork, and battery case. Do you have any insight on this particular e-bike or some other significant information concerning it? The only information I get off the internet is pretty confusing to say the least.
With a photo of the bike, I may be able to identify it. There are about 300 different assemblers in China -- but most of them use the same or similar components. The "brand name" is not familiar to me, and is probably not the same as the Chinese
maker's name.
You had once mentioned in an article of a monthly battery service offered to Shanghai commuters that extends the number of cycles (one discharge and recharge=one cycle) they can get from their batteries. Are there any plans to have services such as these offered here in the U.S. if there aren't any already? If not, what are some tips you can specifically give to electric bicycle owners in countries without such services to help prolong their e-bikes battery life?
Jean Chen's EVS&S is a success in Shanghai. The concept of battery conditioning is not unique to him. But so far as I know, no such similar service is offered on electric bike batteries outside of Shanghai.

Batteries should be carefully attended to. The owner should read their owners manual and diligently follow the recommendations.

In general -- the cooler the place the battery is stored the better.

Shallow discharge (do not completely drain the battery is better) and only the charger that was supplied with the bike should be used. Most types of batteries need to be charged regularly to have the best battery life -- lead acid can deteriorate significantly if left discharged for weeks or months.
You've visited China many times I'm sure. From your observations, do the Chinese use their electric bicycles for work, play, or both?
Electric bikes are transportation tools in China. They allow the user to live farther from work (maybe in a better or less expensive location), and they reduce fatigue and commute time.

Recreational use is pretty limited.
In your opinion, does US Foreign Trade Policy with China have any bearing on why the Chinese haven't succeeded in the US electric bicycle market or is there some other issue involved as to why Chinese bikes are not widely offered in the US?
The Chinese made electric bike has a great future in the USA. There are design and quality issues that need to be resolved -- but with the passage of HR 727 the Chinese made electric bike is legal on US roads.
Besides riding, what can someone do to help advocate the electric bike industry on a local level?
An issue in local communities is going to be what regulations are adopted locally. The new federal definition of an electric bike (750 watt motor, top speed of 20 mph and functional pedals) is subject to local interpretation and or restriction. A city, for example, could decide to not allow electric bikes in a local park.
Most people I encounter on any given ride are quite friendly and curious about how the bike is being propelled. However, I have verbally been accused of "cheating" by a small number of bicyclists. It seems as though these purists are viewing e-bikes from a negative perspective. They are of course entitled to their opinion.

If you had the opportunity, what would you say to them to help broaden their view of the electric bicycle?
My experience has been that any time there is a new idea, there are critics. The human power bigots (usually wearing lycra) are a tiny minority in the USA. Most of us are very appreciative of a way to cruise on our bikes with less discomfort and less sweat. (Do you hear that chorus of sneers coming from the lycra crowd?

In my youth I was a category 2 bicycle racer. I found that the steady increase in gravity over the last 30 years has made electric bikes very attractive to me -- especially on hills. I am not alone in this discovery.)
Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of lycra myself. But I am a fan of folding bicycles. Not only are they suprisingly comfortable, they are as reliable as any other non-folding bike I've had and are great space savers as well, perfect for campers and travelers, school and work commuters, weekend clowns, and people who live in small living quarters. I have noticed a few small wheel (12" - 20") folding electric bikes in the American market right now. Currie, Panasonic, and eBike are some of the more well-known brands. Do you know of any other reputable foldable bicycle companies planning to manufacture an electric version?

I keep hearing of Dahon producing one, but this appears to be more rumor than truth as of this writing. Personally, I would love to see a Brompton foldable with an electric motor.
It is possible to create an electric bike out of almost any bicycle by using a Heinzmann motor and battery kit. This installs the motor in the front or rear wheel and usually a folding bike will fold just as it would normally. Production folding electric bikes include models from Panasonic, EV Global, TH!NK, Honda, several Chinese versions and others.
What I am looking forward to see in the coming years is how advances in battery, controller, and motor technology might alter the current forms in electric bicycle design. The LAFree, eBike, and TH!NK Bike are (were) all well-designed machines.
However, because of the electric motor, there is less of a need to pedal so in some sense, the electric bicycle functions more like a moped than bicycle, hence the creation of an e-bike lke the eGo, a pedal-free cycle. In light of this, can you provide some insight in how electric bicycles might look like in the future?
That is a very interesting question. The eGo and Veloci are well received designs -- but are in truth an electric motor scooter.

It may be that this is the future of small electric vehicles. For today, there is a balance of cost, range, performance and weight that every vehicle maker struggles with. The choke point is the energy source. Batteries have enough energy to work -- but not as much as users would like to have. And the batteries that work the best are quite expensive. Fuel cells are too expensive at present and gasoline electric hybrids do not seem to be a solution for small two wheelers. (Although Yamaha has been showing a concept vehicle that is a gasoline electric hybrid bicycle.) Ultimately, the shape and features of the vehicle will be determined by the energy source and the task the vehicle performs.
30+ year bicycling veteran Ed Benjamin is President of
CycleElectric, an international consulting group focusing on light
electric vehicles. Operating since 1996, CycleElectric has
provided invaluable services and needs to the electric bicycle
and scooter industry. They are based in Ft. Myers, Florida. For
more information, visit their website at


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