Electric Bikes

The general public can see the potential benefits of electric bikes even if many 'proper' cyclists look away. Electric bike sales in Europe have sky-rocketed in recent years and the trend shows no signs of abating. The technology has finally caught up with the promise: electric bikes are here to stay.

The idea of attaching a motor of some kind to a pedal powered machine is not a new one. Pedal-cycles had not long been invented before some creative speed-demon wanted to go faster and the earliest motor-bikes really were no more than regular bicycles with engines bolted into the frame. Many manufacturers, including Schwinn, Triumph, Rudge, Raleigh and BSA were known for their production of motorcycles as well as cycles.

Steam and electric motors were experimented with in the early days but the world of motorised-bicycles and automotive-carriages has long been dominated by the fossil-fuel powered internal combustion engine. Unlike mopeds (small-capacity motorbikes with pedal-power assist) whose motors are their main means of propulsion, electric bikes are fitted with a small motor to augment the rider's energy. The idea is not to make a very much faster, more powerful vehicle, but simply to flatten the hills and shorten the miles. The end product is essentially a fairly conventional bike, but one that lends a hand when required.

Over the years the internal combustion engine has been refined and tuned to a very high level of development at vast expense whilst the electric motor has been largely ignored, stuck in an evolutionary dead-end of low-performance golf-carts and milk trolleys. Now that the end of the oil age is in sight people are starting to look again at the alternatives. The idea of an electric bike has been around for a very long time but until very recently the technology simply wasn't mature enough. Early electric bikes were prone to cutting out when they encountered too high a load. In the real world this meant that they stopped working whilst ascending hills leaving the poor rider to drag the now useless weight of battery and motor to the top under their own steam. It has taken the involvement of some forward-thinking companies such as Panasonic and Giant Bicycles and some really big technological leaps for electric bikes to start to realise their full potential. Heavy lead-acid batteries have been replaced by lighter NiCad (nickel-cadmium) batteries and then, thanks to ongoing developments in mobile (cell) phone technology, NiMH (nickel metal hydride) and now lithium-ion giving better power to weight ratios and improved reliability.

Driven by the rapidly expanding Japanese and Chinese electric-bike markets, economies of scale have driven prices down year on year and the continual evolution of on-board electronic control systems and drive motors has greatly improved efficiency and sheer useability. Although there may be some way to go in getting electric bikes accepted by many in the cycling community who still consider electric cyclists to be cheating, they put smiles on the faces of all who try them. Some say they make you feel as if you have a permanent tailwind, some like you are forever whooshing downhill. Perhaps the best way of looking at them is not as a ‘cheating' bicycle but as an inexpensive alternative to the car.

If we want to see fewer car journeys and less congestion on the roads of our towns and cities, electric bikes with their promise of inexpensive, fast and efficient personal transport may be the elusive 'carrot' which entices folk out of their automotive carriages.