E-bikes are often referred to as the future of cycling, or even of transport, but what about the future of e-bikes? We are currently in a situation where, as technology advances, e-bikes become cheaper. As they become cheaper, more people buy them, and as more people buy them, manufacturers are more willing to push the boundaries of what could previously be done with e-bikes. This can be seen as a highly virtuous cycle, to use a lame pun.
One of the main brands to encapsulate this point is Gocycle. Founded and run by the former F1 car designer, Richard Thorpe, the company has brought lightweight technologies to the world of folding e-bikes, as well as the idea of using injection-moulded magnesium alloy. This has allowed his company to create a space-age lightweight and comfortable chassis for consumers; not only is the frame made from this material but so are the revolutionary Pitstop wheels that the bikes come with.
In order to create the chassis and wheels, they use a system called Thixomolding. The best thing about this technology is that it is an environmentally friendly way in which to manufacture bike parts. The process also helps to increase the density of the material used, making the bike’s frame as strong as it can possibly be, whilst also keeping the weight down. The lighter a folding e-bike is, the higher the prospect of people wanting to use one and having it become part of their daily life.
However, for a long time, one of the biggest barriers to people owning a high-end, technologically advanced e-bike was the cost (the Gocycle G3 retails at £3499). The reason for this cost is down to two major elements: the scale of production and the cost of lithium ion batteries, a form of battery that the majority of electric bikes rely upon. On both fronts, things are changing.
Many of the top e-bike manufacturers have a very extensive product range, releasing upwards of 50 different forms of e-bikes a year. This does mean that consumers have a lot of choice, however it also means that the cost of manufacturing a single bike is quite high. Gocycle, however, with the launch of the Gocycle GS, backed by an incredibly successful Kickstarter project, is starting to change this, scaling up their manufacturing of a single type of bike to reduce the cost of production, a saving they look likely to pass on to the consumer when the Gocycle GS comes to the market in the UK. If they do, the GS is set to revolutionise the folding e-bike market.
The second biggest area of development for e-bikes is around battery design. Currently, e-bike batteries are basically very similar to laptop batteries. The four main battery cell manufacturers, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and LG, used to make battery cells that could be linked together in a cylinder so as to provide power for IT goods such as laptops. Now, laptops and newcomers to the IT industry, such as smartphones, use flat batteries. Cell manufacturers have since concentrated on advancing flat cells, meaning that an e-bike battery was constructed in an old-school manner. They also did not see enough of a market in e-bikes to push forward with newer and better technology for cylindrical cell batteries.
It seems that many people with motor trade experience are bringing their ideas to the e-bike world. As well as Richard Thorpe, Tesla is pushing what can be done with a battery. The idea of an Elon Musk-backed e-bike system must get many people worked up. Unfortunately, at this minute, companies are just pushing the process of battery design, which is having a knock-on effect in the world of e-bikes.
So how does Tesla fit in? You may have noticed that Tesla sell electric cars and the world has gone slightly crazy for them, selling almost 80,000 units last year. This has caused the battery manufacturers to sit up and take notice. The biggest boon for e-bikes was that Tesla needed a smaller, lighter battery but with a much bigger range. To go with this, it also needed the battery to be cheap. In order for this goal to be hit, manufacturers had to go back to the drawing board.
They began to fine-tune the 18,650 cell batteries that were already in existence, taking them from 2.2Ah to 3.5Ah, allowing users to cover more distance on a single charge. This was pushed to the sidelines when BMZ
announced a new 21,700 cell battery. These batteries are touted to last longer, have a bigger capacity, and let you cover more pedal-assisted ground when fitted. This all happened because Tesla wanted to create a budget version of their electric cars, helping to push technology to the benefit of cycling.
When will you see a 21,700-cell battery on an e-bike? They look highly likely to be a part of many brand’s models for the 2018 season. The battery will be slightly bigger than the current 18,650 but the improvements will more than make up for that. The 18,650 battery is 18mm in diameter and 65mm long, while the new 21,700 will be 21mm in diameter and 70mm long. It is not a huge increase in size, but the output is. The current 18,650 batteries are managing 3.5Ah and the new 21,700 will manage 4.8Ah. The life of the battery is also hugely increased and part of this is due to the increased output. This means that you should not need to charge your battery as often, this prolongs its life and you should see this rise from 500 recharging cycles to between 1,500 and 2,000 cycles.
The other major advance is sodium ion battery technology. Lithium ion batteries require lithium in order to be made, a volatile material that is expensive to transport and work with. As a result, any application of lithium is expensive. Scientists in Sheffield have, however, started to develop sodium ion batteries. These are a direct replacement for lithium ion batteries, allowing current li-ion battery manufacturers to use existing equipment to construct batteries using next-generation materials. Sodium ion is cheaper, more abundant and greener. The team have already have created a sodium ion-powered e-bike but the timeline on the mass adoption of the technology is as yet unknown.
If we pull all this together, we can see that there is a lot coming from the world of e-bikes and to bring us back to motor manufacturers, Ford believes that the folding e-bike is the future of an integrated transport system. Allowing people to jump between cars, trains, buses, and ferries with ease and no hassle, also means that those for whom a conventional bike is of no use can still benefit from cycling. As such, Ford are currently in an experimental phase with where they would like to take e-bike design, but with their budget, it can only be safe to expect big things from one of the top five car manufacturers in the world.
Written by Nick Rushton, Fully Charged,
London’s Leading Electric Bike Retailer (www.fullycharged.com)