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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Quality Trumps Quantity as American Manufacturers Roll Out E-Bikes

By Randy Salzman

Almost all e-bikes are built in the Far East generally costing in the $1,500 range but the most expensive—and hand-built—are from the U.S. The E+ Tidalforce, which comes in a folding model for $5,000, is constructed in the shadow of Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport. Putting the NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) battery in the front wheel, the E+ motor is almost silent and, with the weight packed around the hubs, very stable. Optibike, with models ranging from $6,000-$13,000, is pushing the envelope from Boulder, Colo., one of the nation’s best bicycling cities.

Colorado's Optibike produces high-end e-bikes that can reach

45 mph with modifications.

Limited, as all are, by the fact that less pedaling equals less battery range, the Optibike has one prime benefit. If the buyer changes sprockets after purchase, the drive train can be geared to allow a rider to reach  45 mph on a level surface, greatly increasing its viability as a commuter vehicle while illustrating new sales possibilities. E+ Tidal Force also makes a police version and sells an e-bike designed for EMTs to weave in and out of concert crowds.

Noting that the Optibike is “made for rich people,” bicycle blogger Shear Gunter flatly calls it the world’s best e-bike model. “It is a high-test piece of technical wizardry that will allow you to rethink getting back into the car.”

Generally, lighter and farther—not faster—are e-bike watchwords because in many areas, the rider needs a license when powered speed goes over 20 mph. Though some run on lead-acid or NiMH batteries, lithium-ion, borrowed from cell phone technology, is today the most popular. Li-ion batteries trickle-charge over an afternoon for 3 to 5 cents per charge, are recyclable, and have been labeled by the EPA as “non-hazardous” although they are less stable than NiMH. If both li-ion batteries are operated from economy mode, Giant’s Twist Freedom, for example, ranges 70 miles on flat ground and about 50 in the hills. Unlike electric cars, when the batteries do run out, e-bikes are still bicycles—albeit heavy ones—and can be pedaled home.

Giant and Currie were the first in the American market in the post-Iacocca era (see main story), but Schwinn, Ultramotor, WaveCrest, eZee and Pedego were right on their tails. Trek is teaming with BionX for a new, high-efficiency product, and KLD Energy Technologies has introduced an electric three-wheeler which can reach speeds comparable to gasoline-driven engines. Sanyo introduced its Eneloop last winter, marketing it toward buyers of high-end electronics. One of the key challenges in marketing the electric bicycle market is that American infrastructure is designed for the car, said David Hurst, an industry analyst at Pike Research.

“You won’t generally see behavior changes in commuters until gas gets above $4.50 a gallon, and in America we’ve got quite a bit to go, whether that’s in gasoline taxes or in the price of oil,” he said.

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