In April, electric bicycles (e-bikes) outsold other electric vehicles in the United States by a fair margin. While 608,000 electric cars were sold, there were 880,000 e-bikes imported, others were made in the U.S., and dealers were complaining that they could not fill demands. And estimates are that in Europe, e-bikes will be outselling all other vehicles within ten years, according to Bicycling (https://bit.ly/GET-ebikes-1).
An e-bike is not considered a motor vehicle, because it can be pedaled and has limited speed. Beyond that, however, e-bikes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. On the one hand, they can be purely recreational, but on the other, they are revolutionary for bike commuters. Electric cargo bikes are great for carrying groceries and children. Others are used by major retailers and delivery services for “last mile” deliveries. When the costs of operating e-bikes and delivery vans are compared, it is easy to see the e-bikes’ advantage.
VBike promotes e-bikes in Vermont. We asked Dave Cohen, its Founder and Director, to give us an update on the latest news for e-bikes. There is a lot to talk about.
There have been many technical improvements. They include some electronic systems we might not normally associate with bicycles, such as Wi-Fi, smart phone, and so on. There are some, however, that are very important improvements to the bicycles themselves. One area of change is more efficient motors. Motors come in more types, both for mounting and for operations.
New developments and improvements in geared hub motors have made them preferable over direct drive hub motors for most bike manufacturers. For example, a geared motor can be significantly smaller and lighter than a direct drive motor, but also have considerably more torque for climbing hills. However, one thing that a direct drive motor can do that a geared motor cannot is regenerative braking to charge the battery by recovering energy when the bike is going downhill or being braked.
While traditional e-bike motors were mounted on one of the wheel hubs, we now have motors available that can be mounted at the crank. Called ‘mid-drive’ motors, they can be more efficient than the older types. Mid-drive motors can also be operated with belt drives instead of chains.
Belt drives were introduced for e-bikes about fifteen years ago by Gates Corporation, which specializes in all sorts of belt drive systems. In the last few years, belt drives have become much more common on bikes, as they have some attractive advantages. They are quiet and require less maintenance than chains. They do not require oil and do not rust. They also tend to last longer.
New batteries have also come along. While they tend not to be much less expensive than the old ones, they do tend to hold more energy. The result is that new, efficient motors and new batteries can combine to provide much longer range. According to Cohen, mid-drive motors are especially good at this. It is realistic to think of 40-mile ranges for biking. Also, some e-bikes can have their batteries swapped out, doubling the range.
Increasing use of cargo bikes means that more people are relying on e-bikes to do their shopping or move kids around. In some cities, it also means deliveries are being made more often on bikes, and this reduces emissions in densely populated areas.
Of course, e-bikes are not inexpensive, though there are incentives. Prices start at a little below $1,000 and go up. But there are rebates, loans, and subsidies available, and these can come from states, municipalities, non-profit organizations, and electric utilities. Vermont is a leading state in such programs. Four Vermont utilities each offer $200 rebates (https://bit.ly/GET-ebikes-3). Also, VSECU has low-interest loans (https://bit.ly/GET-ebikes-4).
One thing that Dave Cohen brought up is worth thinking about. For most people, e-bikes can be operated at faster speeds than conventional bikes. That is important for safety. At the higher speeds, people driving motor vehicles have e-bikes in sight longer than conventional bikes, and that can make e-bikes safer.
Most people, regardless of where they are, can find resources for guidance. Some people in Vermont can try out an e-bike at e-bike lending libraries, which were pioneered in the state. Local Motion has information on these and other programs in Vermont (https://bit.ly/GET-ebikes-5). Employees and owners of stores that sell bikes often take deep interest in the products they sell. For example, Tom List of Hanover Adventure Tours & Hostel told us, “We have about fifty bikes, Magnums and Yamahas, that people can buy, rent, or test ride.”
Vermont, however, has another resource other states do not have as yet: Through Vbikes, Vermonters can get free consultations with experts on e-bikes for household or business use (https://bit.ly/GET-ebikes-6a).
The Vermont programs are groundbreaking, but they have been successful enough that they should be considered in other states. We suggest those who are interest contact their legislators.
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