Thursday, November 15, 2018

E-bikes and the illusion of something for nothing

A recent convert to the smokeless moped posted this graphic showing their growth in Europe.
It's from this article on a site called Explain That Stuff.

Electric bicycles entice the consumer with the lure of smokeless, relatively silent assistance when the going gets tough. When the flesh is weak, your personal assistant will kick in to carry you through.

A tandem weighs less and provides the chance for pleasant conversation. But a second person does weigh more than a battery pack, and doubles the chances of farts. And maybe the conversation grows wearisome.

An under-performing stoker and a dead battery both still weigh the same as their energized counterparts, but you can ditch the stoker at a coffee stop and try to recruit fresh talent. I suppose you could also scrounge up a fresh battery somewhere. As the smokeless moped expands to become a common appliance, facilities might offer battery swaps along popular routes. Maybe they do already. But with the rate of obsolescence in new technology, what are the odds that such a service could remain current -- so to speak -- with all the proliferating options? You may be stuck with the dead hulk of your 60-pound slug of a bike, even when you're left alone to do all the work.

I wonder if anyone has collected statistics on how many dead ebikes have already ended up chucked in canals.

The ebike relies on the illusion of something for nothing. But aside from the up front cost of purchase and the ongoing cost of charging, you face maintenance and repair of its electrical parts, and eventual decommissioning of the dead battery. You also have to horse the thing around when you're not riding it: transporting it to riding venues if you drive to ride, lugging it in and out of wherever you store it...

As you use your magic moped, you rapidly deplete its reserves of pixie dust. Energy has to go into the equation in the form of your pedaling and the all-important battery charging. Pedal-assist devotees point out that they can choose how much assistance to request, and extend their cruising range. It is still more finite than the muscle power of an acclimated rider. I don't say trained, because that carries connotations of athleticism and competition that many riders pride themselves on avoiding. But anyone who rides frequently is trained. Strength, power, and efficiency all improve with use.

The smokeless moped requires an extra type of training to learn how to interact with the power assistance. To get that go when you want it, you have to use a setting that produces a very noticeable result when you push hard on the pedals. The rider learns quickly how to feather the power to avoid wobbling -- or even getting thrown -- but it does take at least a minimal period of adaptation. My own experience comes from test riding a variety of specimens brought in for repair, and from observing new owners, or novice riders on borrowed equipment.

The bike shapes the rider. You learn how to get along with your equipment. Happy moped riders fall into the comfort zone of the machinery. I suppose someone, somewhere, has tried electric bikes and rejected them. And others push the limits of the medium and lead the charge for expanded capability. (see what I did there? I'm on fire today! Oh wait, that's just the battery overheating...).

Joking aside, compare the cost and benefit of a heavy bike dependent on outside power to make it functional versus your primitive old push bike powered by meat alone. My rationale for transportation cycling, from back in the late 1970s, still applies. I will be eating anyway. I do need physical activity to maintain my body's fitness and health. I will have a basic metabolism even at idle. The energy in my body already can be applied through the supremely efficient bicycle to move my individual self to a lot of places I need or want to go. The up front cost is the bicycle itself, and an evolved set of accessories. Most of those cost nothing to own after the initial purchase. Some are consumable at varying rates. Clothing wears out. Bike parts wear out. But by learning to use tools, and sticking to open source componentry I can maintain a bike almost indefinitely. Frames and parts can be combined in different ways to produce desired riding effects. Pump up the tires. Lube the chain. Go.

Your body is the battery. Your body is the engine. Your body is the beneficiary.

The smokeless moped does have a place in the transportation mix. As an urban commuter it offers partial exercise benefits to riders who can't get sweaty on their way to a job that might require them to look spiffy as soon as they hit the deck there. The energy required to charge them is certainly less than the amount consumed by a full-size car or truck transporting a single occupant. Electric assistance is also good for anyone weakened by age, injury, or illness. But stop calling it a bicycle with a motor when it is really more of a motor vehicle with pedals. The motorized aspect is so embedded in its nature that it can't be separated.

The motor of this specimen drives the chain from the pulling end. This avoids the problem of 20-pound wheels with a motor in the hub, and heavy electric lines that have to be detached every time you need to fix a flat, but it also gives the bike a complicated gear box and does little to reduce the chronic weight problem that afflicts all battery-powered vehicles.

Electric bikes have spawned a whole segment of componentry to meet their specific needs for tires and other parts that can stand up to their weight and the increased wear as a result of power assistance. This is better for the breed than early models that used standard bike components, but it increases yet again the number of products a shop needs to carry to be ready to serve all potential customer needs. Even if shops practice "on-time ordering" someone has to have the crap in stock.

Open source componentry means that a rider can live off the land more easily. The recent Ars Technica article cited in an earlier post sneered at rim brakes and praised disc brakes, but I can find a functional set of rim brake pads almost anywhere.  Even in a local setting, can your local service source get the parts you need for your specific vehicle? How long will it take? I'll be in and out of the shop with a set of brake pads or a chain, or a chainring, or a crank arm, or tires and tubes, or pretty much anything in about five minutes. Installation takes longer, but acquisition is a snap.

My commuting costs when I lived in a town were under $100 a year. They were probably well under $100 a year. And I didn't have to remember to plug my bike in. Even in a rural area, riding a minimum of about 30 miles commuting per day, I only had to keep up with tires, chains, and some chain lube. Because I chose to ride more than the basic distance, I used up consumable items more quickly. But the rate of consumption is still really low unless you're racing, with its risk of crash damage, or mountain biking, for the same reasons. The harder you ride, the faster you wear everything out, including yourself. Find a balance that suits your personality.

The smokeless moped rider will not notice paying much more on a day to day basis, but the up front cost tends to be higher, and the replacement cost will mount. Given the way electronic things go, replacement will also be more frequent. Batteries die of neglect just as much as from frequent recharging. The more complex the vehicle, the more delicate are its storage needs.

Something for nothing turns out to be more costly than you think.


Coline said...

I was tempted by the idea of a little help to haul groceries from a wider range of stores. I am happy to leave the van in the garage for weeks on end until a big shop of heavy or bulky supplies is needed, assistance could cut out the van for most trips or so I thought.

In my innocence I thought electric assistance could be brought on at a touch of a switch especially for the short sharp assents where the extra weight of the machine meant it really was needed. No such luck! The machine I chose to try had something of the clean lines of a conventional bike but because of the cost had electronic lock built in and I had to acquire a bluetooth enabled device to wake the darn thing up, then use a touch screen on the cross bar to change the settings. Touch needs eyes taken away from your route, young eyes which can read detail that close...

The thing could have got me to the stores I wanted and came with stronger well designed carriers than you will ever find for most bikes but worked through the battery far faster than advertised making me fear a slow hard slog home at some point. What really sent it back was a test to get me to the top of a local hill, gearing was rubbish and it failed at the first steep rise...

Perhaps when / if the industry settles down and works out how to make them without so much extra bolt on rubbish and metres of extra cables I may try again in my old age...

cafiend said...

That corresponds to a lot of my observations: e-bikes have been "in development" since the 1990s and you still have very little standardization. You can't turn something into a ubiquitous appliance if it doesn't perform reliably and has poor support.