Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The future of (e)bicycles

Remember "Ginger"? A device that was supposed to be the solution to our everyday short-distance transportation? Yes, the same one that after much hype was finally presented in 2001 as Segway PT. Well, Segway did not become THE solution - it didn't really revolutionize anything. Partially, due to its cost, partially due to problems with classification in many countries (Should it be allowed on sidewalks or not?) and partially or perhaps mainly, due to a fact that there was already a much cheaper vehicle, available nearly anywhere and with a well-established infrastructure (paths, lanes, parkings) - a bicycle.

Yes, bicycle is an amazing vehicle: amazingly simple and amazingly power-efficient. However, there are still people who can't use it e.g. for medical reasons and there are situations where its use becomes questionable and impractical. For an average person a bicycle works best on short distances and in a relatively flat terrain. Once you start increasing the distance and start riding in very hilly areas you may quickly realize that a simple bicycle is just not enough. You may have to look at other solutions. Obviously there are cars, motorcycles and scooters. But in the recent years we can witness a rapid growth of one more class of vehicles - electrically-powered bikes.

Electric bikes are a wonderful invention but their design looks a bit too much like a rough hack job. Usually, an e-bike is based on a regular off-the-shelf bicycle with an electric motor added to one of the wheel hubs and a bulky battery tied to its frame. Surely, there are advantages of such a solution since a simple conversion kit can be installed on nearly any bike. But the complete package is not integrated at all and feels like randomly put together.
Electric bicycle (Source: Google Images)

Hopefully, we will see more interesting e-bikes showing up in the next years and hopefully, they will start being designed with a specific goal in mind - to be electric bikes. Some very rare examples exist today:

1. Specialized Turbo
Specialized Turbo (Source: Geir Anders Bysykling blog)

Earlier this year we heard about Specialized Turbo (Unfortunately, at this time for European market only), which proves that things are moving in the right direction. Even though the big hub motor is still there, the battery pack is nicely integrated with the frame and you can clearly tell that this bike was meant to be an e-bike from start and wasn't simply put together from one of the standard Specialized models and an aftermarket e-motor kit. The Turbo comes also with a nice set of components and essentially lacks only fenders and a rack to become a very nice daily commuting vehicle.

2. Faraday Porteur
Faraday Porteur (Source: Faraday Bicycles Inc)

For those of you who prefer bicycles with a retro look, the small West Coast company Faraday has prepared Porteur - a classic-looking e-bike. The most unique feature of Porteur is that it doesn't look like an e-bike at all - there is no bulky battery and the front wheel e-motor is quite small. The manufacturer claims that 250W of electric power will assist us for 10-15 miles. Other features are also well-designed, such as beautifully integrated lights in the frame and the front rack. Definitely, Porteur is a very stylish solution to run your daily errands.

3. Mando Footloose
Mando Footloose (Source: Mando & Mark Sanders)

Finally, there is Mando Footloose, which I noticed just yesterday on BicycleDesign blog. Footloose lets me see how the future of e-bikes may look like. The concept is simple and brilliant. It takes the best of the e-bicycle - mobility, speed, power and ability to be folded for storage and removes all that seems obsolete - a dirty chain and an ugly battery box.
Mando Footloose (Source: Mando & Mark Sanders)

Footloose is powered by an electric motor hidden in the rear hub that is connected to the frame-hidden battery and an alternator in the bottom bracket. Its rider is therefore not powering the rear wheel directly and his/her legs serve here as a device to recharge the main battery. While you may not like this idea since it does not follow a typical bicycle design and makes the whole vehicle feel more like a moped or an electric scooter, in the city commute it definitely makes sense - the more you pedal the further you go. Footloose seems also designed with simplicity of use and maintenance in mind. Its single-side suspended wheels allow for tire change without removing them from the frame. No chain means no lubrication needed and no dirty clothing. To be fully functional it just needs lights and a rack. I really hope this bikes makes it into production.

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