The rise in popularity of ebikes has been as large, if not larger than that of EVs. Thanks to the pandemic, lots of people have wanted to explore forms of commuting that were less likely to place them in enclosed spaces with other, potentially infectious human beings. But there’s a huge range in prices between basic ebikes and premium options. I talked to US ebike manufacturer Bird’s Chief Vehicle Officer Scott Rushforth about how his company differentiated its ebikes with sophisticated battery management, inspired by electric cars, giving them extra gadget appeal.
Quite a bit of the variation in ebike pricing will be down to conventional bicycle-related differences, such as better braking systems, higher quality gears, lighter materials used in construction, and (with mountain bikes) more sophisticated suspension setups. But the electrified portion may vary a lot too. Although ebikes look like simple devices, they have potential for enhancement with connected technology in a related way to passenger cars. Bird is focusing its developments on this area.
My conversation with Rushforth was timed to coincide with Bird’s arrival in the UK, which in itself shows how the market is maturing. The event took place in the London Transport Museum, with Paul Scully MP as a special guest. Rushforth explained that his company was applying technology derived from the automotive industry to ebikes. A key inspiration was the battery technology in EVs. Whereas most ebikes have extremely passive battery management, Bird actively monitors the cells in its packs to rebalance them during charging and discharging, for optimum power delivery and lifespan. This technology continues to evolve and enables the Bird 2 and 3 to have a three-year pack lifespan, but Rushforth claims the Bird 4 will offer five years – much longer than the average mobile phone.
Bird also claims its batteries’ active thermal management and heat sinks means they can cope with differences in ambient temperature better than other brands. So there will be less variability in performance in cold winter and hot summer conditions. The company doesn’t make its own batteries, but does have its own testing team and laboratory, to ensure that its technology is as optimized as possible.
Bird’s ebikes also use regeneration, so they can reclaim energy via electric motor-based braking. This can add 5-10% to the range of the ebike, according to Rushforth, and will be particularly beneficial if your route goes downhill. A lot of ebikes don’t offer regenerative braking, but Bird claims it only costs a $5-7 to add so this is money well spent.
Bird bikes are connected vehicles with a built-in GPS, which can help track them if stolen, but is also essential if the bikes are used via a commercial sharing service. The u-blox positioning system is employed, which can provide locations down to 10cm accuracy. Bird has been integrating connectivity since 2017. The ebikes effectively act as “Internet of Things” devices sending information back for optimization and analysis. This includes monitoring the batteries 50 times a second across parameters including temperature, voltage, total power output and input, and even humidity.
According to Rushforth, Bird bikes don’t just share information with a centralized server, but other Bird bikes nearby. The data is sent with “end to end encryption” like messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram, however, so there shouldn’t be any concerns that malicious parties can hack into the stream. From the user perspective, this enables Bird owners to monitor their ebikes remotely via a smartphone app – another similarity to the latest cars.
Although an EV car is essentially a replacement for a fossil fuel car, performing basically the same job, an ebike isn’t quite the such as a straightline alternative. If you’re already happily cycling to the shops, work, and other regular destinations, an ebike is probably not for you. You are already keeping fit, saving the planet, and hopefully having some sports-related fun in the process.
An ebike is for people who don’t feel comfortable with a non-electrified bike because they are worried that they will get too tired out, too sweaty, or even unable to complete a journey entirely due to steep hills. Of course, cycling enthusiasts can enjoy ebikes too, but their most significant role is enabling more people to feel they can cycle instead of taking other forms of transport, such as a car or even a bus or train.
But adding connected features to an ebike adds another dimension as well. There is already a certain type of rider who enjoys their bicycle as a gadget, particularly when it comes to the customization of individual components. The connected ebike taps into that by enabling the ability to add software features, in the same way that connected cars now have smartphone-style appeal. It’s yet another reason to get out on two wheels and ride.