Does assisted cycling have a future?


A weekend of driving cars and riding scooters is broken by a tryst with an electric cycle

If you can hark back far enough into the smoke-laden past of motoring, you will note that the first claimants to the crown of an automobile were in fact not powered by an internal combustion engine, the defining essence, if you may, of the modern automobile. There were other differences too – tricycle running gear seemed to be in vogue as was the afinity to driving exposed to the elements.

Wikipedia tells us that on 31 December 1895 Ogden Bolton Jr. was granted U.S. Patent 552,271 for a battery-powered bicycle with “6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current (DC) hub motor mounted in the rear wheel.” Isn’t it surprising that with all the news we have been getting about various car companies celebrating their centenary, the 100 years of the electric bike passed as silently as the vehicle itself does?

Of course, now the electric bike has taken on a new level of importance in the umwelt of transportation. The environment and the internal combustion engine’s effect on it is on the top of every nation’s agenda and there now exists a dedicated move to electric propulsion as a primary mover.

Another interesting fact about the electric bicycle may have also escaped you. Wikipedia again tells us – It is estimated that there were roughly 120 million “ebikes” on the road in China as of early 2010. The “Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports – 2010 Update” estimates that 1,000,000 electric bicycles will be sold in Europe in 2010. The same report estimates that sales in the USA will reach roughly 300,000 in 2010, doubling the number sold in 2009.

So where does that place the electric bike today? In the weekend we spent at a hideaway luxury hotel in Spain testing the new Peugeot RCZ, I got an opportunity to test the ‘mobility’ end of Peugeot’s business. Now, it isn’t as if the electric bicycle as proposed by Peugeot breaks any new grounds. This 25 kilogramme bicycle is driven by a hub motor on the rear wheel, which draws power from the clip-on Lithum Ion battery on the rear. In the truest form, it is electrically-assisted, since you have to pedal to engage the electric drive. No coasting and no regeneration from braking. This leads to a very simple system that can get you across a crowded european inner-city.

On the other hand, with a price tag of well over a 1000 euros, this bicycle is hardly going to capture any of the 120-million strong market of China.

Again, while battery technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, the core necessity for the advancement of the electric bicycle has got to be a way to cut recharge times. Human beings as a rule don’t plan ahead, that’s why we have a yellow light to tell us when the fuel tank is ‘nearly’ empty. It is no joy to remember to detach the battery, carry it to your office and plug in the recharger every single time you ride the bike. Plug and play has to move more towards the play aspect of the phrase!

The environmental aspect of sourcing the materials needed for the batteries and recycling them will feature in talk-shops around the globe. But then that’s not just for bicycles, that’s the way we are headed with all other forms of transport as well.

While Peugeot is proposing a positive influence on our lives and the environment by performing the mindshift to using bicycles and their electric variants, the journey ahead for all of us to take the lifestyle change onboard will be hard, almost as hard as the sensation of sitting on a bicycle seat for a short trip.

I can’t foresee the future for electric bicycles as a means of transport for the affluent. As for the needy masses, human ingenuity will rule as much as need will.

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