The Enigma of Electric Assist #2


The Enigma of Electric Assist

 By Alan Scholz, Co-founder/Designer of Bike Friday & Burley Design

 The main mystery of Electric Assist for bicycles. Why is it not more popular in the US?

It is wildly popular other places. What do they know that we don’t? It seems like it should have so much going for it. It is a tremendous and super economical solution for a lot of folks. And did I mention fun? More than 32 million of them were sold in the Asian Pacific countries alone last year. More than 23 million just in China. (200 million in use in China!) The Europeans put another 1 & a half million into use last year.

In North America? A rounding error amount of around 150 thousand! That is less than 1 in about 6000 people!! Compare that to the over 7 million cars sold in the US in 2016. (That’s 2 out of every 100 people bought a car.)

My experience these last 3 years has motivated me to find out why such a fun, healthy, inexpensive, uplifting and effective transportation is not catching on in a big way here.

Before my epiphany. ( I didn’t get it)

I have watched bicycle assist systems be innovated since the 1970s. Back then they were little wheel drive gasoline motors. Noisy, dirty and to me, as a cyclist, not at all attractive. They did not do well and it is easy for us cyclists to see why. A couple of years ago customers started talking to me about their interest in an electric assist. I have been watching the development of dc motors & battery systems for bicycles for about 20 years now. The ones I had seen or tried were still lacking, to my sense of matching a bicycle’s quiet elegance and filling needs that I understood. (I think I might have been a strong cyclist snob too!)

But then 5 years ago I started designing a cargo bike system optimized for women and families to complement and improve on my many years of kid trailer design work. (I invented the Burley Bike Trailers for my own kids. I should have understood the need for the assist!) Near the same time, several customers finally were able to make me understand that there were all these other potential values in having an electric boost.

One ride changed everything. (The light goes on)

And then I rode one that was quiet and smooth and made my heavy cargo ride like I was super fit! On the lowest setting, it stilled seemed like it was all me on a good day and on a lighter bike. In the second setting, I felt like I was having one of those great days. On the next setting, my ride to anywhere was quite predictable as my higher capable speed made it clear that I could reach wherever I was going without over-working. The high setting was enough to ride even if I was not feeling motivated because it did more than enough to cover my reticence. I found I do not ride less or at a lower effort. If anything, I ride more and exercise harder because I feel better! I still go on bike rides with the club and tours without the assist. But on a daily basis, I use the assist to have predictable transportation. Sometimes with quite a load. If I was riding with others that were faster I would definitely want the assist to add the extra bit to keep up with them. That is not cheating. (Mechanical doping, yes!)

Why aren’t others in North America taking to this in millions?

The challenge I have found is that the field of electric assist is darn confusing! In 2013 I started my education. What I learned was the electric assist was quite a viable addition to lots of our individual needs and also could give a great experience. I found this as a really pleasant surprise to me. Many folks in North America are in a similar place to me about electric assist. Interested, to very interested, but not sure of the best way to proceed for a positive result in both the cost and the experience. And with those low, low sales numbers it means most of us have not even had a test ride. And even with test rides, I know they are not all alike or all good. So here is my venture to become capable of understanding this wide, exhilarating confusion of electric assist innovation going on. I hope it will help you understand how it could make you feel more powerful and be part of the climate change solution while making the concept of home economy significantly better.

Don’t call it Doping!

You may have heard about European professional cyclists in the last year or so showing up in the news “mechanical doping” in pro races. Maybe even for years since 1998! That my friends mean the electric assist has come of age when it can be stealth into the echelon. Wow! We need to get some of this for ourselves. I know I want some. Small, quiet, light. This is not drugs or cheating for us. For the pros yes. For us, it is an enhancement that will give you better exercise, a smaller footprint, and a new perspective. I would like to show you why.

Serializing how my education & expertise developed with battery boosting:
Study at night and ride by day

Human Assist or Electric Assist? Who is helping who?
Viral Ephemeralization – things have changed, better motivation gives better exercise
Cost Rationalization – It feels good to fool yourself
Dope like a Pro- Keeping up is great, its the right thing to do, climb with the best
Getting Older & Faster is Real – Better motivation gives better exercise
Improving your Outgoing Reputation and Positive Outlook! 
Climate Change Fighters – Climate change heroes are healthy and good looking!
Your Grand Kids Will Love You & your kids still need a good example set
Solarizing your Ride – the sun is not just for vitamin D

And some world firsts and specials for the Bike Friday community:

Now You Can Take it With You – flying with an electric assist bicycle battery that can fly legally
Electrify your Bike Friday – I can show you how
Better than an Electric Car – a 150% solution at a 95% discount, Dare you not to Grin!

For you, we study at night & ride by day.

What is the intended scope for our research into the enigma of electric assist?

A. Main reason for this project is for making a rather complex thing simpler, to make the experience more predictable, and to make it cheaper for all by sharing so as to not require the individual to try by hit or miss. A big piece for me is sharing a huge potential I found that I did not expect or value. As I was dispelling the enigma for myself, I got schooled! I used to say it was useful for the right person and the right situation. Kind of smug of me as it turned out. I believe now it could be useful for most people in different situations most people have in their lives. Somebody should do something to make it less mysterious! Here we go! (Green Gear R&D)

1. We are testing the components that make electric assist systems, We are doing that by having many people here at the shop use them so that we can have their candid comments on their use.

2. The testing will be interspersed with my comments based on the subjects I listed above. Some are quite surprising, some are really hidden gems that for the right folks will make their life a bunch better, and some are great gossip topics that I think we will all enjoy. That Little wheels Fly will not be your only secret!

3. I am eliciting stories from Bike Friday Community members with electric assist experience. Please share with us all and help us forward in this research. Please do send in your experiences electrifying your bikes as we would all love to hear them. Some that were shared with me finally convinced me to look into this enigma. And I am so glad they did. There is a huge amount of value to it. My first ride on a good one was eye-opening. My first 2 or 3 electric bike tests, not so good, the next was wow!

4. My goal will be to make an easy way to choose what is right for your situation & to have a great experience with your first assist set up. ( I didn’t get one to work for me until the third try! Time, money, and frustration.) I want to make also predictable useful kits available for the community that will work well for the different Bike Friday models.

B. What will we test? Here is the main list. The technical side yes but much more will be our human experience of it.

1. Motors – We will be testing a total of about 15 motor systems. We have already done 6 that are in use or rejected. It is very clear not one best system or the best way. We will be doing at least 6 front hub motors, 3 mid motors, and 5 rear hub motors.

2. Batteries – We are testing 24-volt, 36-volts, 48-volts, and 52-volt systems. Small and large capacity ones. Yes, confusing. These include the newest most advanced Lithium batteries. (most contain the same cells that drive Tesla cars.) We will include a world first, a travel legal battery by air for electric bikes! Just came out. We have videos now showing travel with it on our new super light compact “The pakiT.” Plus all the best practices for charging, expectations for longevity, and real-time experience caring for a high capacity lightweight battery.

3. We will be testing systems with different power assist levels. With our emphasis on legal limits and speeds. 250, 350, 500 watt systems, & the legal limit in the US 750 watts. ( a full horsepower! Who is helping who?) We will talk about human power and flying the English channel with a 300 watt human. This subject is a huge part of the confusion about electric assist. There seems to be a fair number of hot rodders in the US that are not cyclists as we view it. Do you really need a 3000-watt system? (4 horsepower! You could fly with that) I make the case that they are not electric assisted. Also, we will cover an overview of laws covering ebikes. Links to good resources we find too.

4. We will be comparing hill climbing ability, speed, and range. Here you will see the huge difference between a pedal assist and an electric assist. Yes, weight really does still mater and a light bike that fits go further and faster. Just like it does with our 100 to 300 watts of personal bike power. Will also have a discussion on regenerative braking. A pleasant and surprising win for tandems especially.

5. We will compare system weights and how ‘bike like’ the systems is and how easy to ride when the assist is not being used.

6. We will try the different control methods. There are at least 5 or 6 different power control methods and I already think this is one you must know about before you get your assist. It was the most confusing for me and it has the most difference in making the assist recede into the background while you and your cycling skills lead. Also large cost differences and system complication.

7. We will use several different instrumentations from very simple to ones that require some skill to integrate into your cycling skills.

8. We will always be looking at the systems for optimization of use for different needs and uses. Plus we will look for optimization for simplicity of use, maintenance, and cost.

9. What systems do we think is best for each of the Bike Friday models. Produce a buying guide with the project results.

10 Responses

  1. I have been touring on an electrified Tikit since 2012. I use front hub motors, a throttle (not pedelec) and 36v batteries with a capacity of about 14aH. The number of batteries and the type of motor I use varies according to the intended tour.
    For instance, for the west of Scotland I took 2 batteries and used a slow but high torque motor (top speed only 18km hour) which had no trouble dragging the Tikit and suitcase trailer up the hills.
    For a more recent trip through some of the river valleys of central Europe I used only 1 battery and a faster (but less powerful) motor (top speed about 30km hour) (panniers without trailer this time)

    1. I started to experiment with electric assist about 4 years ago with an old mountain bike, and ended up loving the concept. So over the past 4 years I have converted 4 of my bikes to electric assist, including my Air Friday. I use the same motor on all four, a 250 Watt front wheel motor with throttle control and a 12Ah 36V battery. The best thing about the motor I use, a Golden Motor 902, is that it is a geared motor and has a one-way clutch. This means the motored wheel offers no resistance to rotation when the spring-loaded throttle is off, so the bike pedals exactly the same as it did without the motor.
      The system adds about 18 lb to the weight of the bike, but this doesn’t matter much except on hills, so I use the motor only on hills. The electric assist turns a hilly ride into a flat ride, and enables me to still gets lots of exercise and fully participate in and enjoy all my club rides. I am 83 years old and can now keep up with the best of them.

  2. An important topic! Thanks for digging in.

    I have one concern: The growing use of electric pedal assist bicycles on our public lands, where ‘motorized recreation’ is not allowed. Growing numbers of cyclists are adding power to their machines and riding ‘under the RADAR’, ignoring the intent of the restrictions on motorized recreation.

  3. Riding my Silk in the Portland Bridge Pedal two years ago. Passing a grandfather with grandson on a narrow bridge he commented “at least I am not using an electric motor!”. Neither was I but this shows many Americans still fail to see the value electric motors can bring to aging legs going up hills (and bridges). We need to get over our prejudice in many areas.

    I look forward to the results of your study Alan. Thank you for investigating this topic.

  4. I got back into biking after retirement with an electric bike, then moved on to my Bike Friday once I had enough skill and strength. Now I just opted in on Kickstarter for the Urbanx wheel (20″ available) to be able to swap out my front wheel in those instances I want to do some major climbing (bad knee) or keep up with my adult son. The battery is airline legal, it has throttle and pedal assist. Will be interesting to see when I get it what kind of range it has in reality. Weight including wheel and tire is 15 pounds, not bad, not great. I’d love to see BF come up with a quickly removed system around 8-10 pounds that doesn’t cost as much as a new bike =).

  5. I really enjoyed biking for 4 days in Austria last fall on pedal-assisted bikes. All my taller friends got awesome Bosch batteries with real TURBO assist! My small bike had much less “assist” by comparison. I had to pedal like crazy, muscling to get the heavy bike, battery and motor up the same hills my friends were cruising up. Nonetheless we did a lovely 20 miles a day with lots of stops for exploring and had lots of energy left in the evening. I’m intrigued by the idea of adding an assist to my nearly vintage Pocket Lama!

  6. Those who oppose electric assist need to get educated. In the US, most cities max speed at 20mph which any reasonably fit millennial can sustain on a bike. Many of the systems only go 15 mph, which I can do at 67 years of age without assist. But, I like many others, cannot climb hills due to a bad knee so in those instances where my route requires hill climbing, it’s either pedal assist or driving a car. What’s better….another car on the road or a bike with electric assist? The whole issue of off-road e bikes and speeds is an entirely different matter – and there needs to be some sort of controls or regulations for off road as a 28mph+ e bike is more like a dirt bike than a bicycle.

  7. I started talking with Bike Friday a year ago about electrifying our Tikits, my wife and mine. I was asking for a recommendation of an after market product that could provide an electric assist. I was told to wait if I could, Bike Friday was thinking of electrifying.
    Conversations continued until in September 2016, I ordered two e-assists for our Tikits. We were told it would take a while as they were still considering vendors.
    In November 2016, we left out Tikits with Bike Friday and began our wait. In time, we were told they would be ready next year, early 2017. In April 2017, we picked up the e-Tikits.
    We have been riding them since and they are great. We use them as an assist, over hills, into the wind and to catch up. We use the lowest setting so we have no idea how long they will run on a charge.
    Reception by other bikers has been very positive. It goes like, what are those little bikes, what no chain, a belt and a hub, amazing. Then, are they electric? Wow!
    Finally, we are 77 and 76 years old and if all goes right, getting older. We see our e-Tikits as a way to gracefully ride into our future.

  8. I am also very interested in electric assist for my wife NWT so I am waiting for BF to do something about.The battery must be something that you can carry on a plane

    1. Glad to hear you are interested, a solution to this is already in the works. If you want to call in to our offices and let one of our design consultants know what you’re thinking so you can be first in line when it is available!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *