The E-bike: A 21st Century Icon

06.10.2020

The e-bike has been one of the most significant innovations of the 21st century. Over the last 15 years at least 160 million have been sold. The idea of adding a rechargeable battery, a motor and a control system to an invention of the 19th century has transformed the industry. A simple idea that surprised the world with the elegance, flexibility and delight it has created.

The evolution of the electric motor

The electric motor was invented in the 1800s. Early motors were large and expensive. They were designed to replace a steam engine which itself replaced a water wheel and would supply power to an entire factory through a set of belts and overhead power shafts.

It took many decades for factories to switch to electric power and swap out the steam plant. All the machine tools and all the looms and printing presses, and all the stamping or forging in a plant was powered by one large motor typically the size of a small car.

This architecture was changed again when it became possible to build a smaller motor. This would be the size of a watermelon and it could be placed inside each industrial machine. This allowed for a higher efficiency and a far more precise tool. These smaller machine tools allowed the work process to be improved and production itself went through a revolution. By insertion of motors in individual smaller machines in a factory, it allowed a motor to be cost justified in a medium level task. By the 1940s machine tools were all individually powered by electric motors.

The next revolution happened when the motors were shrunk again to the size of a grapefruit and put inside consumer products such as washing machines, refrigerators, food processors, sewing machines. These were far less powerful but far more conformable to the jobs that needed to be done in homes. At the start of the 20th century there were zero motors per household in the US. By the late 20th century there were over 20.

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By 2018 there were 12 billion electric motors shipped in consumer products every year. There are now over 40 electric motors in each car! All that had to happen was that the motor had to improve steadily and, importantly, to shrink in size. Smaller often means more popular, more adaptive and certainly more economical.

A parallel process was taking place for batteries, first invented in the 1800s. Over time new chemistries were developed which allowed batteries to be rechargeable, become smaller and more powerful. Alkaline then Nickel Cadmium then the Lithium Ion battery. Lithium Ion was first commercialized by Sony in the late 1990s for use in camcorders and gradually it became the power source for almost all laptops and later tens of billions of phones and tablets in use today. Apple alone has shipped over 2.5 billion mobile devices powered by Lithium Ion batteries.

The e-bike revolution is just beginning

The small battery coupled to the small motor enabled vehicles too. Electric cars of course but also drones, skateboards, hoverboards, e-bikes and e-scooters.

Powering what used to be human-powered vehicles like bicycles and kick scooters has meant having spare power to also enable GPS for location and cellular communications. This allowed free-floating e-bike sharing which is where Bond Mobility became a pioneer.

The e-bike revolution is just beginning. In Europe sales are growing at a compound rate of about 20%, more than doubling every 4 to 5 years. In China almost all two-wheeled vehicles are electric and the same will likely happen in India. These markets alone will add up to over 70 million units per year. The US is just starting to adopt e-bikes.

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Analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Fund are projecting the e-bike install base at 600 million by 2040. Micromobility will scale like the smartphone and the e-bike segment will be a majority of this base as it will serve the widest trip distances in demand world-wide.

Unlike other transportation shifts happening like electric cars and ride hailing, e-bikes and micromobility are moving much more quickly. Even with the Covid crisis—in fact because of it-adoption is accelerating. E-bikes are an order of magnitude more efficient, cheaper to own and cheaper to use, more flexible, less capital intensive and have a carbon-beneficial impact on the environment. They will even help keep people healthy.

Quite an achievement for something so humble as a bike, an electric motor and a battery, three 19th century technologies which have evolved individually and have now come together make for a revolutionary sustainable technology and business model.

Horace Dediu

Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at BOND Mobility