Before cars, there were horses, and many of us have heard the near-cliche “If Henry Ford had given people what they wanted, he would have made faster horses.” But he didn’t, and now we have traffic jams. Something important to realize though is that when Ford combined mobility with an engine, he didn’t rely on the design of a horse – he didn’t make a mechanical four-legged machine that mimicked a horse at all. Instead, he looked at the motor, and understood the underlying need (mobility), and designed the car around the new technologies at his disposal. Think about that for a second.
Over at Eurobike this year, I saw a lot of ugly bikes. And they were all electric. This is not to say that all electric bikes were ugly, but rather to make a point of something that struck me squarely between the eyes as I browsed around Eurobike: Electric bikes are evolving, but as they come into mainstream, they do not yet have an established design. We (the bike universe) simply don’t yet know what electric bikes are going to be, or even look like.
At the outset, I should draw an important distinction between North America and a healthy-sized swath of the rest of the industrial world. In Europe, and even more so in Asia, e-bikes are nothing new. They’ve been around for years, and the mindset of the bicycle as “transportation” made the transition to e-bikes very, very easy for people to understand and accept. But unlike the cheap electric bike swarms in Taipei intersections, the trekking or transport bikes in Europe are a hugely lucrative category. Average price (depending on who you ask) seems to be around 1,500 to 2,000 Euro, and one brand manager confided to me that their european e-bike sales last year were $50M.
Meanwhile, over here in North America, bicycles are recreation. An electric bike strikes some as about as sensible as an electric tennis racket, to make it electric defeats its entire purpose. It’s supposed to be exercise, complete with sweat and the promise that you’ll “lose 5 pounds in just one week, guaranteed or your money back!”. Maybe, some might concede, e-bikes could be good for the elderly or the obese. This is a dangerous conclusion to reach, as the electric bike is not likely an answer to questions that either of these demographics are asking.
It’s not that e-bikes are new; they’re not. What’s new is the number of new brands getting into the mix, from new upstarts to established bigger players. And with these new players and bigger guys come a unique new promise to e-bikes: more of the cycling industry’s top talent focused on it, and wider global distribution. These are the real changes to e-bikes.
For e-bikes to be commercially viable in an expanding market, it logically follows that the current customer base should show potential for expansion. To expand the customer base, we’ll need new customer segments, or new geographies, or both. This is where things got very murky at Eurobike this year: e-bikes for freeriding with dual crown forks? Carbon fiber XC racing models with motors? And who can forget the Cancellara debacle? In trying to expand into new segments and geographies, e-Bikes represent an interesting congruence between chasing trends and rapid prototyping: in a short time, we’ve seen the introduction of lots and lots of new models, and everyone is simultaneously trying different things pretty quickly to see what might work. I’m reminded of the first full suspension mountain bikes, and how the first models were all vastly different, and the visual design was mostly a residual by-product of the engineering behind it. I love prototypes – they’re an awesome and essential part of the design process. But they’re rarely great sellers.
I’m excited by the idea of electric bikes, and I am even more excited about their potential. But as the market expands, I’m concerned about three big things: First, if the world is introduced to electric bikes with such blockish, frankensteinish designs, we’ll miss an important opportunity to get people excited about them. if the first iPods resembled a homemade bomb with a battery bolted to a logic board, connected by exposed wires, they’d hardly have gained a solid footing with the fashionable crowd. These bikes have every opportunity to look f@#king cool, to be a fashionable and hip addition to an urban lifestyle, a non-douchey and practical alternative to the fixie. I’m thinking here about Vespa, about electric motorbikes like the zero, and about matching helmets and bags accented by a Burberry tartan scarf. But with few exceptions, the e-bikes I saw resembled at best an unremarkable cheap bike, and at worst, the something tantamount to fashion suicide, right up there with recumbents.
Second, I don’t think we’re clear about how many different customer segments these new e-bikes might appeal to, nor are we clear who we’re targeting with these new options. When mountain bikes got started, they were just mountain bikes. Now there are dozens of categories of mountain bikes, from DH race bikes to lightweight XC race bikes to singlespeeds. At Eurobike, I didn’t see much evidence of people trying to clearly identify who they were designing their bikes for, and I think that’s largely because collectively, I don’t think we’re very sure about the potential customer segments that might exist.
Third, an e-bike renaissance in North America would ask bike shops to hire and/or train electronics-savvy mechanics – it’s one thing to fix a flat, quite another to identify a faulty capacitor or a blown power supply. Bike shops that are quick to embrace this new revenue could gain a valuable position as an entrenched expert in the e-bike domain, and become the go-to shop for a region that’s far wider than the current customer radius. But somewhere, that training has to happen. Those shops need to be retrofitted to deal with problems. And we don’t know in advance what those problems will be.
All of these concerns are opportunities: the first is to design an e-bike that people get excited about, in the exact way Tesla did for electric cars in the sports car demographic. The second is for manufacturers to understand who they’re designing it for, and why, so that the story gets told in the right way, to the right people. The third is the retail support structure that will make it possible for this category to do well. When Henry Ford started selling the model T, the first car customers couldn’t take the car to see the same vet that they took their horse to when it got sick. But that’s not to say that some veterinarians didn’t see a more lucrative opportunity in opening a car repair shop.
Many of the e-bikes I saw were, essentially, motorized horses: previous bike designs, with motors and batteries bolted to them in rather haphazard ways. This is not design, it is panic. It’s my hope that e-bikes evolve into bikes that don’t look much like the bikes I saw. Some of the options available now might have the right function, but the form seems questionable at best. To settle for nothing more than retrofit design doesn’t seem appropriate for a category that offers this much potential. There were very few I saw that seemed to approach this as an entirely new category that might not need to be limited by the classic frame design, or handlebar design, or drive system, or anything else. Even fewer seemed to have a clear message of who they were built for.