Alternatives to the Automobile

Electric-Assisted Vehicles

These URLs are about electric assist for bikes: you'll find various drive systems, from the minimalist to the bike that's on the verge of becoming an electric moped. The electric assist can make bike commuting a practical alternative for the not-so-athletic among us (that's me!). We'll also cover some ultra-lightweight EVs, which are not primarily human-powered. These are electric minicars, skateboards, scooters, etc. in which the primary usage mode is passive: the electric motor carries you along without your pedalling, pushing, rowing or whatever. But they are not traditional electrified cars.

When we think about bike activists and racers, the image that comes to most people's mind is the whippet-lean, nervy, agile 20-something-year-old male: all testosterone and muscle mass, clad in fetching high-tech costumery and strangely technical shoes (and a fierce scowl). But let's face it: people aren't all twenty-something, nor are we all equally athletic or energetic -- nor should we all have to be. Not everyone can make it up all their local hills, or spend all their time training so that one day they can!

And as Ken Kifer points out

Well, a major part of the problem is that they run the roads straight up the hills. Grades for a bike route uphill should not exceed 4 percent. Originally, auto roads wound around as they climbed the hills, but with more powerful engines, we are now just ignoring the grade. That creates a major problem for low-powered electric vehicles as well as for bicycles. Basically, we build a road network suitable only for cars and then say that cars are a necessity!

Many people think that rules out bike transport as a practical alternative for "the rest of us", but electric assisted bikes can make biking a practical local transit method for folks who are older than, or not quite so buff as, your average bike racer/triathlete. Trust me on this -- I'm old and fat and it works for me!

An EAV is an ultralight (2, 3, or 4 wheels) vehicle which is powered sometimes by human effort, other times assisted or wholly powered by an electrical motor drawing on batteries. The percentage of power derived from pedalling vs from the battery varies not only with the design, but with the rider's habits. You can make short lazy trips with no pedalling, or longer trips with lots of pedalling. An ULEV, as I said on the main page, is an ultralight vehicle which is intended for passive transport, i.e. you don't pedal.

When I say "ultralight" I of course refer to the vehicle before the batteries are installed :-) Any EAV is going to be heavy, heavy, heavy compared to a high-performance road bike or MTB. If you're going to have to carry it up 2 flights of stairs, think about that.

Another thing to think about is battery care. Both lead-acid and NiCad batteries have their quirks. Lead-acid packs should not be left in a discharged condition, whereas NiCads should be fully discharged before recharging. The most common source of disappointment with electric vehicles and toys is not taking proper care of the battery pack. So if you decide to use an EAV regularly, figure out how your battery charging regimen is going to fit in with your vehicle use pattern. Can you charge it as soon as you get to work? Can you charge it outdoors? Do you need to put more miles a day on it than you have recharging hours to top it up? Figure all this out before you invest!

Electric Bikes (ebikes)
Take a regular bike and somehow splice a small electric motor onto it, with a small battery pack. That's an ebike. They range from DIY kits such as the Zap retrokit to the fully-packaged moped-like Lee Iacocca E-Bike (By the way, has more info about Zaps if you can't stand those irritating animations on the Zap homepage :-)) The ebike market is very, very hot right now with a lot of innovation, new models coming out all the time. Your first choice will be the degree of assistance you want, then "kit vs off-the-shelf," then drive mechanism (friction roller, auxiliary chain, hub motor), and somewhere in there, price and weight. You can expect to pay between $300 and $1500 for ebikes, depending on the features. Worthy of special mention is Mike's E-Bikes of Palo Alto; Mike retrofits Zap kits onto good recumbents and adds fairings and a unique "lycra body glove" for bike and rider to reduce wind resistance. Mike's high-performance ebikes are used for commuting by a fair number of (well-heeled) folks in the area. Because the Lee Iacocca Ebike is available here in town at the Subaru dealership and therefore of local interest, I've included here a Review of the Iacocca Ebike. There's a British bike page on electric bikes, including info about Euro-legislation which would make ebikes equivalent to motorcycles (road tax, licensing, and bureaucratic overhead -- a very regressive move imho).
Other Oddball tiny EAVs
Zap makes an electric-assist scooter called Zappy. It seems more toylike than practical, but you can check it out at their site. There are also electrified folding bikes (wow) such as the Bikit product.
Larger EAVs
The URL above is, where you can get look at a reasonable sample of light EAVs or EVs. Notable are an electric assisted Rhoades car, and the (not yet released) Slalom ULEV. Topping the "cool factor" list right now in the upscale market is the Swiss Twike, a real feat of design and engineering. Apparently there are a few of these in Seattle, and the user community in the US appears to be active. You can buy it in the US, but (sit down and take a deep breath) the price tag is $18K. A little cheaper but still not within the average person's budget is the Sparrow ULEV, at $13K.
Other Links
Electric Bikes, Scooters, and Motorcycles maintained by Darryl McMahon.
De Clarke