The Blog

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Survey of Electric Bicycles based on Hearsay and Personal Experience

As a non-expert trying to understand the electric bicycle world from the point of view of coming up with durable electric bicycles, I have learned quite a bit from people involved in this fledgling industry.  My brother Michael has been spearheading The Green Riders’ efforts to get good bicycles together so some of my editorial comments and knowledge come from his experience over the last 3 years.

First two interesting numbers.  20 million electric bicycles are sold in China every year.   20 thousand are sold in the US every year.  That should give you a clue about where the bikes are being built.   The Chinese customer has a lot less money than the potential American customer so by necessity, the Chinese electric bikes are cheap.  Unfortunately, this translates into quality problems that have damaged the reputation of electric bicycles in the fledgling  American marketplace. 

In America, there are a few boutique electric bicycle companies that are building expensive and high quality products.  Unfortunately,  the market for these 5K + rigs is limited.  On the other hand, the under 1K electric bikes suffer from quality issues and don’t  offer the kind of riding experience that really shows off the advantages of electric bicycles.

Another way to go electric is to buy a conversion kit.  This generally consists of  a front or rear wheel with a hub motor built in, a motor controller and all the wires etc. to make the thing work.  Batteries can either come with the kits or can be ordered separately.  (Most battery packs have to be shipped as hazardous materials which makes the shipping expensive.  About $100 per battery pack!)  Again, the conversion kits are coming out of China and many of them are “junk”.  Unfortunately, we have run across people who ordered lots of these kits and are trying to unload them over the internet.  The good news is that quality is slowly improving and distributors on this end are demanding improved quality.

So, now I’m going to talk about the rigs that The Green Riders are putting together.  Somewhere along our planning road, we agreed that recumbents are the most comfortable and potentially the most efficient way to go.  We also decided to go with the “mid-drive” system which has the motor mounted on the frame.  In this system, the motor power runs with the chain and gearing system of the bicycle.  The theory is that by  keeping the motor in its ‘happy’ rpm range, the motor will run much more efficiently and consequently deliver better performance.  In practice, this seems to be partially true but we haven’t noticed a huge difference in miles per amps (essentially, how many miles travelled on a battery charge) between the mid drive system and the hub motors.

Aside from the increased comfort of the recumbents, their design allows for lots of low center of gravity battery storage.  This makes them handle really nicely!

The other two bikes we are bringing for our “guest riders” (and for test riders), have hub motors.  One of these bikes is being put together from a kit and the frame we are using is a cargo bike frame that demonstrates the added value of being able to haul lots of cargo without turning into a sweating, slow, grimacing unhappy rider.  Motors on cargo bike dramatically improve the functionality of the bicycle and we are really excited about sharing this configuration with people.  We can put Mom’s with kids on the back and be almost guaranteed that they’ll come back from a test ride with huge grins on their faces.  (Brother Michael is working with a restaurant that wants to go to the Farmer’s Markets to pick up their produce on an electric bicycle.  It’s great advertising for both the sustainability message of the restaurant and for electric cargo bikes!)

The 4th bike is a ready to go rig that anyone with about $2,500 to spend can buy.  Not only does this bike work really well, but it is a total head turner!  We are completely thrilled that the bike is being loaned to us by the manufacturer!!  If you are in a situation where a bicycle could replace your need for a car, the Pi Cycle would be something to look at.

No registration, no insurance, no gas and very little  electricity.

Bottom line.

As the quality improves and as fossil fuel transportation becomes increasingly expensive, electric bicycles will, in my opinion, become commonplace within a few short years.


  1. Are you looking for other riders? Are you going to have a support vehicle? What do you mean by "Event" on your calendar?

  2. Our rider spots are pretty much full but if you don't want our support and can provide your own support, we would love for you to join us. We have a support vehicle and trailer for the bikes and we are able to accommodate 5 to 6 people.
    We are currently looking for a driver/videographer who could commit to at least the first 5 weeks of the trip. All expenses would be paid for the driver.
    As far as events to, we have changed the wording, (but not yet in the calendar) to visits. Some of the visits will be focuesed on electric bicycles where we plan to let people try a couple of our bikes and the other visits are focused on the many other aspects of sustainability that we want to learn about and share with our internet followers.
    I see you are with Pedego. Not a problem for us if you want to put together a Pedego group to ride with us. Just bring a lot of batteries!!

  3. Following are a number of links documenting my experience with an electric bike I have been riding since 2005: (ultimate with most hits) (afterburner) (trailer going uphill)