The Street: The Digital Skeptic: Best Battery-Powered Car May Be a Bike

The Digital Skeptic: Best Battery-Powered Car May Be a Bike

BY Jonathan Blum

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — George Bliss has something, uh, shocking to say to all those fanatics of troubled electric sports car maker Tesla Motors.

“We’re backing the wrong battery-assisted vehicle,” Bliss told me as he assembled handlebars in front of his West Village bike shop, Hudson Urban Bicycles. “When you get people riding around upright, not looking like some angry street racer, batteries that help you ride easily make a difference.”

Bliss had assembled for me as critical a future as any in the world of alternative vehicles: The elBoda Boda electric pedal-assisted cargo bike, made by five-person, Petaluma, Calif.- based Yuba Bicycles (models start at $2,797).

I am as stunned as you are, but even in these fat-butt United States of America, the emerging generation of smart electric bicycles such as the elBoda Boda will be the critical driver in the battery-induced transport market, which includes trendy-with-investor electric vehicles including the Tesla, Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf.

“There were 31 million electric bikes sold in 2012, mostly in China. That’s a $5 billion worldwide market in batteries,” Frank Jamerson explained to me. Jamerson is publisher of Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, a Harbor Springs, Mich.-based eBike analyst firm. “Compare that market to pure EV vehicle types. There only 60,000 of those sold last year. That’s $630 million in total battery sales.”

Jamison is no eBike front runner. He first rode one back in the 1990s as part of his 35-year General Motors engineering career. He headed the electrochemistry research department, where he became the assistant program manager for GM’s doomed electric vehicle, the EV1.

“I’m a futures guy. I tried out an electric bike in Europe. I figured it would get folks to buy the EV1,” Jamerson said. “I even tried to import them. It was a disaster. But I know a lot about electric bikes.”

Jamerson says that the electric bicycles market is so massive that it moves the commodities market. The otherwise bike-obsessed mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, is expected to ban the things due to overpopularity.

“It’s basically the messengers,” Bliss explained to me. “They ride like maniacs and you can get going really fast. It pissed everyone off.”

If my month riding the elBoda Boda around town and out near my home in suburban Harrison is any indication, it’s easy to easy see why The Man is cracking down. Battery-assisted bikes are the crack cocaine of new-age transportation.

Use one once and you will never want to use anything else again.

Not battery powered. Battery “assisted”

If you’re smart enough to get a ride on a smart bike such as an elBoda Boda, you’ll realize instantly there is no throttle. Instead, this normal, seven-speed, external-geared bicycle carries a hard-drive sized battery that impels an internal hub-mounted motor that helps only as you pedal.

It all takes a bit of tinkering. But once I got comfortable with the handlebar-mounted control system, I found I could zip up all the way from the West Village to The Garden when the Knicks sparred with the Pacers, then head back down to the Lower East Side five miles away for a light Vietnamese dinner and some serious wine. Then back here to the West Village, all in my dress clothes, without breaking much of a sweat.

Or having a designated driver.

“It’s an incredible tool for threading the needle of moving around with a car,” Benjamin Sarrazin, owner of Yuba Bicycles, told me. “For local transport, they perform like cars, but without the weather protection.”

When it rained, I did get wet. And the battery, the bike and the stuff I carried are not light. They easily can add up to more than 200 pounds, which is manageable in traffic with the battery-assist. But it all takes practice. Plus the battery charges lasted just 25 miles or so and takes a full four hours to recharge, so it sucks when the battery is dead. Planning is needed. And then there is the cost — $2,700 is not cheap, even though a legit argument exists that the elBoda is a car replacement for certain users.

Bottom line: Smart folks will demo a smart bike carefully before buying one.

The smart bet on eBikesĀ 

Now let’s make some money with eBikes: Electric bicycles will absolutely, positively not be a big U.S. product anytime soon. Jamerson said it will be big news when even 750,000 are sold in a year here. It’s the 40 million that will move around the globe in 2014 that matter. And battery makers doing that business will be Samsung, Panasonic, Sony (SNE_), Lishen in China andLG Chem.

Far more intriguing is how traditional carmakers are testing eBikes. Daimler and BMW are offering models. German parts maker Bosch (BOSCHLTD) is selling an eBike drive system to other bike makers.There’s even a sexy little start-up here: Canadian firm BionX, which made the elegant battery-assist unit for my test elBoda.

Jamerson thinks this car market interest will be the bellwether for eBikes.

“If the auto guys get in,’ he says, “The whole industry will change.”

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