Is the US Poised for an E-Bike Revolution?

Despite America's ongoing love affair with automobiles, a rapidly growing number of commuters across the country are turning to their two-wheeled transports for both health and economic reasons. This renewed affection has not, however, been extended to their battery-packing cousins, the pedelectric e-bike.

This makes no sense. I mean, we're talking about America here. We're so lazy that we invented an alternative to walking, so why wouldn't we be all over a means separating bike riding from all that nasty sweating and physical exertion? The reasons may surprise you. Here's what it will take to make battery-powered bikes more mainstream.

Now, we're not talking about mopeds or electric motorbikes mind you, but rather an electric bicycle as defined by the The federal Consumer Product Safety Act:

For the purpose of this section, the term "low-speed electric bicycle" means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.

There are plenty of variations to this basic template, of course, depending on how the pedals and secondary motor are geared into the drivetrain, as well as how the battery is powered (whether by an outlet or the turning of the pedals), but they all must meet the above requirements to be considered an electric bicycle.

The State of the the Industry

Worldwide, e-bikes actually outsell e-cars like the Nissan Leaf by quite a large margin. In 2013, 96,000 electric cars were sold the world over. Over 30 million electric bikes were sold over the same period, totalling $80 million—28 million of them going to China, the world's biggest electric bike market. Sales in both Europe and India also far outpace the paltry 159,000 sold in the US.

Indeed, e-bikes are practically mainstream everywhere but the US. In China, they're employed extensively for commuting. In the UK, they've entered the world of semi-professional motorsports with the Electric Bike World Championship.

Yet, even though the number of Americans who commute to work aboard a bicycle has grown steadily since 2000 (47 percent on average but by as much as 80 percent in bicycle friendly cities like NYC and San Francisco), the number of electric bikes remains just a tiny fraction of the total. This could, of course, suddenly change should some drastic market change occur—like, say, gas prices continuing to push into the $5 range—but there are a number of more basic issues in the minds of consumers that continue to hinder their adoption.

E-Bikes Stuck in Low Gear

"They're Heavy": All the bits and pieces that enable your electric bike to do its thing can add as much as 60 pounds to your frame weight. This isn't an issue when the battery's full, but if the battery runs out of juice midway through your commute, you'll be walking your ride up the rest of the hills. This leads to a secondary issue: just as with electric cars, electric bike owners can suffer from range anxiety.

As energy storage technologies continues to advance—and we've already seen this in the move from e-bikes powered by lead-acid cells to li-ion—the weight of these components will continue to drop. These weight savings will reduce the need for heavier, steel frames to support them, which should further reduce the weight of the bike. The same is true for the drive motors which have already shrunk from the bulky, chain-driven external motors from the 1990's to fit within a standard wheel hub today. With lighter bikes housing lighter components, running out of juice mid-ride becomes less of a deal breaker.

"They're Not Really Green": Though many e-bike manufacturers can accurately tout themselves as greener alternatives to gas-powered cars and trucks, the electricity that they derive from the utility grid has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is, unfortunately, normally a coal-fired power plant which emits more greenhouse gas than the cars that these bikes were supposed to remove from the roads. This isn't an issue with the bikes themselves but a more fundamental issue with America's energy infrastructure.

"They're Expensive": You're damn right they are. While you can buy a no-name, off-brand e-bike from Amazon for as little as $1000, decent quality e-bikes are likely to run at least double that (around $2500 on average—about what a high-end road bike will run) and up to five times as much if you want one as fancy as the LAPD's.

Part of this added expense is due to the lack of distribution resources for e-bike manufacturers, according to a 2012 study by Pike Research.

"E-bicycle manufacturers and importers in North America and Latin America continue to struggle with a weak distribution network and modest demand," reports senior analyst Dave Hurst. "As a result, the e-bicycle market is experiencing an accelerated rate of acquisitions and business failures. Nevertheless, sales are expected to grow rapidly, with a CAGR of nearly 22% in North America from 2012 to 2018."

"You Look Silly Not Pedaling": For a generally overweight nation that's just starting to break free of its four wheel addiction, cruising around town with a helmet in super-tight spandex is enough to put most Americans off the idea of biking in general, much less ride one that pedals for you. Even within the bike-riding community, e-bikes are widely scoffed at as a form of "cheating" as if one's biking credentials are paid in sweat.

This may be the most difficult cultural obstacle to overcome. Bike riding in general has been portrayed as an activity for children and nerds in popular American culture for more than 100 years—save for a few films like Breaking Away and PeeWee's Big Adventure—and likely won't change until a far larger proportion of people begin commuting regularly on two wheels.

Still, America's Baby Boomer population isn't getting any younger, our cities are only getting more crowded, and gas isn't getting any cheaper. This is opening a huge market fro those who need an alternative to cars that doesn't (directly) require fossil fuel or sweat equity and that's exactly what e-bikes provide. So the question isn't if America will see an e-bike boom, but rather, how soon. [Wiki - Smithsonian Mag - Yale - EcoWatch - LA Times - Cleantechnica]

top image: aerogondo2