The British Electric Bicycle Assocation had a splendid little meeting at the Houses of Parliament in London 10 May, demonstrating twenty or so ebikes with pedals in Black Rod's tiny garden. Some were made in Finland and Germany and some were said to be designed and made in the UK but that seemed to involve choice of mix of Chinese components to screw together, not genuine design in many cases.
All had lithium batteries in contrast to most e-bikes in China, the country that has about 95% of the world's ebikes. That penetration is because China makes almost all the ones bought there, so no 6% import duty, 20% European VAT, cost of shipment around the world or Western level markups are applied. Chinese people have to get to factories to work and these are invariably within a bike ride on very congested roads. Most other countries are not like that. China is also remarkably tolerant of a sea of ebikes seeping everywhere including into ongoing traffic and onto sidewalks. You can go to jail in Europe for that sort of accident.
The excellent vehicles on display illustrated the more demanding, less price sensitive nature of the perceived European potential market with retail prices typically from £750 to £2000 vs the average retail price of the more grotty bikes in China of around £200. "Perceived European market" because, European sales are only now approaching one million a year, less than one twentieth of those in China. There are few sales in hilly UK with its near-American levels of obesity and therefore aversion to even looking at pedals, contrasting most of Continental Europe. BEBA sees this as a healthcare opportunity but it had little to offer on how to persuade spherical people, who often smoke, to change their ways.
The expensive lithium batteries are smaller, lighter and have more range, up to 60 miles being claimed in some cases. As with electric cars, lithium manganese cathodes with wet electrolytes are popular as is "lithium polymer" ie gel/solid polymer electrolyte with other cathodes.
The afternoon event took place in one of the delightful Victorian rooms in the parliament building. It consisted of Lord Laird, who has a particular interest in the subject, chairing several presentations and a group discussion. Various speakers had gripes. Lord Laird repeatedly expressed bewilderment at why he and his colleagues are never contacted by those in the industry seeking to influence government spending and legislation on the subject.
Highlights included Police Sargeant Antony Wolfson of the City of London Bike Squad explaining how they are now sold on electric bicycles for patrolling. Others noted such gems as Sydney becoming car free by 2020 and New Zealand giving 2000 postmen ebikes in the next two years. Apparently that keeps them active in the job for a valuable extra five years. 28% of purchasers in the UK cite health or getting old as a reason for using ebikes (one display vehicle was a tricycle and there are an increasing number of crossover vehicles between ebikes and mobility vehicles for the disabled).
Hilliness was found to be a big deterrent to cycling in the UK. BEBA saw this as a reason for people to buy ebikes and gave actual examples but surely some other potential customers in hilly areas will shun anything with pedals so you must offer a different form of ebike as well?
A pedelec is defined as a conventional bike with automatic motor assist, that term not usually including provision of a throttle. However, most of the ebikes on display had a throttle and one speaker bemoaned how the EC is denying special tax etc treatment to pedelecs that are not pedelecs.
We learnt that it is wrong to claim that, whereas the success in China is almost entirely based on vehicles that get you to work, in Europe it is all about leisure. One reported study found only 14% recreational use of ebikes in the UK, the rest being utility trips, mainly to supermarkets etc.
It is a shame that so many trade associations slice and dice their mission until it attracts few organisations and then they complain of having too few members. The BEBA debated how it needed to concentrate on the health benefits of pedalling. However, most people do not want to pedal: indeed many of those Chinese ebike sales that BEBA members wish to emulate are actually scooters meaning that your feet are on a platform and there are no pedals. In India and China they still call these ebikes. Even pedal ebikes in China are tending to have the pedals little used, if at all, and the bikes at this event similarly had plenty of all-electric range.
Let us hope that BEBA loosens up a little and we see plenty of escooters, electric motorcycles, including the fearsome record-breaking ones that race in the all electric TT in the UK and quadricycles and even mobility vehicles for the disabled next time. Despite their name, the latter are mainly bought by those who are not registered disabled, including the elderly or obese. Just the customers that BEBA targets, amongst others.
Indeed mobility vehicles use very similar components and are similarly priced to ebikes. They are also mainly made in Taiwan and China. Mobility vehicles are sold alongside ebikes in UK garden centres, shops and elsewhere - 1.3 million worldwide this year and the UK amongst the leading adopters. Mobility vehicles often attract government grants and freedom from value added tax and the UK population is rapidly greying yet rich enough to impulse buy these things; all driving greater success with mobility vehicles in the UK than with electric bicycles. Broaden the name and mission of BEBA or it could disappear into itself.
For more attend Electric Vehicles - Land Sea Air Europe 2011
This name reflects its unique coverage of the whole subject. Two wheelers will be covered by presentations from ekolo.cz, IDTechEx and CRP Group and many companies making their components and charging stations plus a visit to the E-Mobility Centre in Stuttgart for rides and demos.