E-bikes are seen by many in the bicycle industry as new, innovative, and the “bicycle of the future”. Pedal bicycles, believe some, will wither and die as hill-hating humans start to favour high-tech pedelecs over “bicycles that haven’t changed for 120 years.”
Undoubtedly e-bikes are where the money is right now. They’re expensive to buy and – for now – highly profitable to make and sell. In the Netherlands and Germany, the sales of electric bikes are going gang-busters and saving the bacon of bike shops and bike manufacturers alike.
They might be highly lucrative, but e-bikes are not new. As I have discussed elsewhere, electric bicycles are almost as old as bicycles. John Kemp Starley, developer of the 1884 Safety bicycle which is the grandfather of most modern bicycles, created an electric tricycle in 1888. In 1904, Popular Mechanics magazine reported on an electric motor that could be retrofitted to a bicycle, and the same magazine reported the commercialisation of electric bikes in an issue from 1911. Sanyo demonstrated its first electric bike at the 1970 World Fair in Japan.
Because there’s a long history of fitting batteries and electric motors to bicycles there’s a long history of bicycle executives saying electric bikes will kill off pedal-powered bicycles, which are invariably described as "old tech".
The latest to do so is Will Butler-Adams, the managing director of Brompton, the iconic folding-bike manufacturer. In a talk he gave to Google employees back in July – but which has only now been placed on YouTube – Butler-Adams said the modern bicycle "basically hasn’t changed" since 1916 and had "gone nowhere." But, said Butler-Adams, "that is about to change because we’re putting technology into a bicycle."
Technology, remember, which has been around since 1888 (although, it must be admitted, the batteries and motors were somewhat larger back then).
In his 49-minute "Talk at Google" Butler-Adams – who joined Brompton in 2002, became a director in 2006 and took over as MD in 2008 – started with the fact that bicycles "make your life a little bit better", and discussed how Brompton’s success was down to word-of-mouth marketing, and most especially internet-powered word-of-mouth marketing.
He’s a passionate believer in the power of bicycles to tranform cities, but he’s also a passionate believer that it will be powered bicycles that offer the best hope for making such transformations.
“We’ve spent ten years on this project," he told the Google employees. "We spent two years farting around. Then we went to a motor company in Taiwan. We spent three years there before hitting a dead end. We couldn’t solve a problem to do with epicyclic gear trains."
Butler-Adams said Brompton persevered, though, because the market potential is so huge.
"The market [for electric bikes] has gone from pretty much nothing in ten years to 1.3 billion in Germany [Butler-Adams didn’t say which currency he meant]. The market [for e-bikes] is expected to be 24 billion globally by 2025 so you can kiss goodbye to a normal bicycle."
Pointing to a pedal-powered Brompton he said: "This is old tech what I’m showing you here."
Butler-Adams then went on to describe Brompton’s partnership with the Williams F1 race-car manufacturer which has been helping Brompton create a very small KERS motor, (this stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a motor that generates power when it brakes).
"We’ve spent the past three years developing an electric drive," Butler-Adams continued. "And we’re quite close to having something. Pretty cool."
He then claimed that bicycle technology hasn’t moved on.
"Look at the 1916 aeroplane – it’s made out of cotton and wood. [Look at the] 2016 aeroplane, [it ‘s] just an unbelievable killing machine, mach 2.5 and all sorts of whizz gizmos. Massive change. So then you go 1916 bicycle, two wheels, double A-frame. [The] 2016 bicycle [has] plenty of bullshit, lots of marketing, two wheels, double A-frame. Hardtail, softtail, fat tyres, thin tyres, but basically it hasn’t changed. I mean, it’s gone nowhere.
"But that is about to change because we’re putting technology into a bicycle. That means the average sale price in Germany is 2,500 Euros. That delivers more revenue for the industry, more opportunity to develop materials science. I think bikes are going to change."
Butler-Adams will not be the last bicycle executive to make these sort of "pedal-power is passé" analogies. But he’s definitely right about the changes that are coming – this is bottom-line arithmatic: e-bikes make money right now; pedal bicycles don’t. Well, not enough anyway. The e-bike market is in a growth phase so is highly profitable (it won’t always be like this; it never is).
It’s highly probable that the worlds of pedal bicycles and e-bikes will pull apart, just as happened with motorbikes and bicycles in the early 1900s. Back then many bicycle brands stopped making pedal-powered machines and moved into a more lucrative market. The same will happen with some of today’s bicycle brands, they will become e-bike brands.
It’s unlikely that Brompton will be one of them – the simplicity of a pedal-powered folding bike is hard to beat – but once the London company cracks the tech glitches that have prevented the launch of the e-Brompton it’s probable that shed-loads of them will be sold, justifying the ten years of development and bucket-loads of cash splashed on micro-motor R&D.