Friday, July 07, 2023

E-bikes aren't bikes

 What has two wheels, handlebars, a crankset with pedals, and weighs fifty pounds? The answer could have been one of the first "safety bicycles," but these days it's a smokeless moped, aka an electric bicycle.

The first e-bikes we saw in our shop had throttles. I don't recall that they had pedal assist. Pedal assist required more sophisticated electronics than anyone had been bothered to design. Just as with a gas powered moped, the pedals were a technicality, and largely decorative. On the original moped, you needed them to spin up the engine to start it. On the smokeless version, you didn't even need to do that. Theoretically, a rider might pedal the hefty beast on the flats and down hill, using the throttle for quick acceleration and hill climbing. In reality, the pedals were used as foot rests as the riders buzzed around on battery power alone. 

The machine evolved. Now all of the classes have pedal assist, and the lowest category has no throttle override.

The first e-bikes we saw did not look like conventional bikes. The designers made no attempt to mask its difference. Later, Tidal Force came out with a line that was much more based on standard bike configuration, using a lot of available parts. If nothing else, it proved that most of those parts were completely inadequate on a vehicle that weighed about twice as much as a meat-powered bike. Brakes and suspension forks in particular flexed alarmingly. Engineers learn through failure. Tidal Force soon sank.

Motorized bicycles have a place in the transportation mix. But for bike shops they represent a trap. A big shop, perhaps controlled by a big company, can support that company's offerings as well as the parent corporation is willing to provide, but that is only a tiny fraction of the wide selection seeking to attract consumers. The different brands use a lot of parts in common, but a bike shop will need to gear up with a complete electrical department to be able to service them. In the meantime, all of the different shapes and sizes of e-bike demand a huge investment and vast floor space to present them to potential customers. 

Two smokeless mopeds I worked on yesterday had stickers from Electric Bikes of New England on them. I have not been there, but I've known about them for years. Places like that represent the best retail channel for consumers who want to buy in person, rather than roll the dice to buy online and have the bike shipped to them. These things arrive now almost fully assembled, along with instructions that have the words "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters on the cover. Well, maybe not those exact words, but written to coax the reader through the remaining simple processes to put their vehicle on the road. We get to assemble a lot of those for people who still could not be convinced to take up the tools provided and follow the steps in the manual or the assembly video that a QR code links to.

We work on just about anything vaguely resembling a bike that someone brings us. This has included pedal-powered outboard motors, scooters, and actual bikes covering a span of more than 70 years. But we can no longer sell a decent representation of everything that falls under the general heading of bicycles. The categorization of purely pedal powered bikes already exceeded the capacity of any small shop. E-bikes represent another whole division, not just a category. They have to be designed around their motorized nature, not just modified from the roughly 150-year-old pattern of the evolved bike frame. All that remains is the basic premise of a two-wheeled vehicle straddled by a rider. The parts are connected in the same orientation as on a conventional bicycle, but the frame they're hung on is more of a fuselage. The form has evolved to the needs of the actual vehicle.