In this first in our new series of monthly surveys of key themes in the world of e-bikes, we take a look at e-bike batteries, AI in e-bikes, and speculate on the viability of a new category, the “all-rounder” plus a whole lot more.
An e-bike’s battery is arguably the most important component of an e-bike.
Yes, we’ve said elsewhere that the controller is almost the most crucial component. Well, every part of the modern e-bike is crucial.
But the battery is a powerful and potentially deadly piece of kit that needs to be well manufactured and even better maintained—the rising incidence of property destruction and deaths due to battery fires is an accelerating trend.
This article Are e-bike batteries safe? What’s the difference between a safe battery and a fire risk? looks at the crucial issues.
In 2022, 0.01 of 1 percent of e-bike or scooter batteries caught on fire. Not much in terms of percentages which indicate that the risk is exceedingly low.
But the absolute number is the story of lives lost and property destroyed and is increasing every year.
A very brief battery primer: the key battery components are the
1. Cells that store energy
2. Battery Management System.
These components are key. Other components, which include the sled and packing material holding the cells, their connectors and the outer casing, act in a supporting role to these foundational components.
Note that there can be big differences between batteries used or manufactured by the bigger brands who in turn rely on OEM electronics specialists to actually build the units, and “other” battery manufacturers.
What bike shops and consumers need to avoid is white label manufacturers, the sort you’ll find on Amazon for example. You need to ascertain exactly who manufactured a battery to be confident that a battery is unlikely to become a fire hazard.
DIY assembly is ok, again, as long as the components are from accredited electronics manufacturing sources.
Batteries catch fire for one of five reasons:
1 . Bad quality Battery Management System (BMS) which often leads to
2. Over discharging or
3. Under discharging.
4. Physical damage—they need to be robust enough to absorb the punishment an eMTB (for example) gets hit with on the trail.
5. The thermal runway which acts to ‘vent’ a battery where one or more of the above conditions apply preventing the battery from exploding.
The thermal runway begins with a problem in one cell which causes the temperature of the cell to increase. Adjacent cells are in turn affected in a positive feedback chain reaction of temperature increase.
The reaction can be rapid, or slowly build over time. Either way, it certainly pays to pay attention to reducing the possibility that any of those 5 conditions will occur so as to avoid the fiery, disastrous consequence.
The ability to recycle batteries is surely one of the most pressing issues in the e-bike revolution, yet little is being done to develop techniques to recycle battery units. (The Taipei Cycle d&i awards this year featured a potentially ground-breaking innovation in this area).
NEU Battery Materials, a Singapore-based lithium-ion battery recycling startup, raised $3.7 million in July for their patented “electrochemical redox targeting” process to reclaim lithium so it can be reused in new batteries.
Existing processes use pyrometallurgy and hydro metallurgy which are polluting and inefficient. NEU claims that their modular system uses electricity as the only consumable. Modularity enables them to scale battery processing according to a particular need.
Battery recycling has barely started and given the urgent need for solutions, we will see more initiatives like this in the future and perhaps even a scaling of this particular technology through licensing.
AI in E-bikes
The IoT integration of e-bikes into online networks is slowly taking place and integration with AI is the natural add-on—it probably qualifies as the ultimate add-on—to connected bikes.
Urtopia showcased the first instance of AI interactivity on an e-bike at this year’s Eurobike in the form of ChatGPT. Being able to get the answer to any bike-related questions (or anything else of course) including how to deal with mechanical problems is certainly an advantage.
A cellphone can do the same job, of course. And provide a legible, written print out to the screen. Urtopia’s dot matrix screen does not provide a quality print out, to say the least, so you’ll have to listen to the response and take notes perhaps.
Will AI connectivity of this type is likely to become standard fairly quickly? It depends on how much of an advantage a rider gains by having instant access to AI-generated answers.
A key problem is that AI answers need fact checking and until a reliable way for AI to check AI is devised then it’s probably best avoided.
Human fact-checking of AI, otherwise, is the only way. And that’s impractical . . . may as well search for a topic on Google, then cast a critical eye over a couple of sources to arrive at an informed conclusion as to whether the information is factually correct.
In the absence of an 100% guarantee of veracity, the dictum ‘trust but verify’ must prevail, which makes AI quite inconvenient to use and defeats the purpose.
Trade shows put current trends on display as well as presenting clues as to future trends. Here are some clues from this year’s Eurobike.
All Wheel Drive
The Ellio combines a mid-drive motor that powers the rear wheel with a front hub motor. A hefty 1,150 Wh battery gives the bike a long range on the one charge.
The hydraulic disc brakes, automatic electric shifting, stem suspension, and optional seat post suspension turn this into a high end machine—with a high-end price to match.
While the Ellio is not the only AWD e-bike out there, it’s certainly at the cutting edge of this particular e-bike niche. Here is the story of its development.
The AWD concept has been adopted from the car industry where it was designed to increase wheel traction in rough or slippery terrain.
The thing is that any cyclist likely to be in such terrain would be on an eMTB the same way as you would be in a fit-to-purpose AWD vehicle, rather than an “AWD” bike.
A notable trend that shows no sign of slowing down is the production of e-bikes by long-established car and motorbike brands.
Peugeot is an exception in that they have been producing bicycles for decades. Now their new line of e-bikes is about to hit the market and a key feature is advanced connectivity.
The brand will introduce a range of models for 2024 that incorporate adaptive electric assistance, an anti-theft system, an alarm, bike geolocation, real-time navigation, weather forecasts at destination, and route statistics to name a few.
The details are sketchy right now but what is of great interest is a comment from a reader of that article which gets right at the central logic of connecting bikes to a network and making available such advanced functionality.
The gist of the argument is that connected bikes simply make a bike more expensive since the technical additions are not truly useful. The commentator doesn’t use the word “gimmick”, although that’s what they mean.
“Gps is not necessary if you pay attention to where you are going”, he notes, which has an element of truth. But even in a city you know, navigating your way to a business via Google maps becomes 10x easier with GPS.
The commentator dismisses the tracking and alarm system as providing a false sense of security arguing tha the public are hesitant to get involved should they see activities that might appear to be a bicycle theft in process.
And then if you actually do track down your bike, are you going to confront the thieves? This is what can happen . . .
The police are often overwhelmed by more important issues so you will have to face the villains on your own which is potentially dangerous, perhaps life-threatening.
They finish with the suggestion to “put the money into top motors and components and forget the electronic tech.”
If it’s either or, putting all resources into making motors and components as good as they can be (a never-ending process) is the way to go.
Otherwise, it is true that some electronic functions are less useful than others—some may indeed be complete gimmicks.
Yet, connecting e-bikes to networks is a strong trend since at the very least manufacturers at the very least obtain valuable data that can help iterate component functionality and quality more quickly. Plus many functions are actually useful, particularly GPS.
In the increasingly competitive e-bike environment, integrating genuinely useful connected functions into bikes via connected systems adds value to the cycling experience.
“All-round” E-bikes — A new category?
The recent appearance on Indiegogo of the ADO Air 28 at first glance also appears to be the launch of a new category.
It depends what we mean by “all rounder” in the urban space which is, by definition already clearly limited as to its possibilities—built up areas with pavement. The other type of urban e-bike is the cargo bike of course, which is also extremely versatile.
As a technically advanced e-bike, it’s a little puzzling why they decided to characterize it as an “all-round” bike.
The 30,000km range on the carbon belt, G-drive 5.0, up to 100km range per charge, and proprietary APP for “smart navigation” set it apart, certainly. The adjustable suspension fork is the component most relevant to an all-rounder tag, however. If, as an urban e-biker, you had the urge to get into rough terrain, it would help. But not much else about the bike speaks to its off-road credentials.
Anyhow, it will be interesting to keep a look out for further developments and see whether “all rounder” e-bikes turn out to be a thing.
Let’s finish up this survey with two questions that are relevant for some people, the second a lot more than the first.
1. Should You Own an E-bike at All?
Given the exponentially increasing number of stories in the news about e-bike battery fire disasters, the question certainly does arise, although it’s not totally why this commentator is posing the question.
A habitual bike rider since he was a child, he proposes several reasons which stem from his declaration that e-bikes are the SUVs of the bike world.
The expense: unlike an ‘acoustic’ bike (non e-bike) which an owner can often learn to fix and adjust, an e-bike requires technical expertise quite apart from the up front expense. This includes the battery which will need replacing in 10 years.
The weight: an e-bike owner living in an apartment only accessible by stairs will be mostly compelled to lug it up and down.
The reality is that the massive uptake of e-bikes is by people who have never owned bikes or hardly ride, especially not to where an e-bike might become a main form of commuting or even replace the family car (cargo bikes).
Although the fire hazard problem is a valid point, understanding e-bike batteries is the way to avoid it. Otherwise . . .
2. Should Kids Have E-bikes?
Standard bikes are dangerous as it is—what could be the arguments in favor of giving kids powered personal transport (where it is actually legal to do so)?
They are fun. But so are inflatable rafts in storm water channels during intense thunderstorms along with a thousand and one other fun but deadly activities kids love (or would love) to do.
A key point in this article is that kids spend too much time in front of screens, especially video game consoles and that an e-bike does deliver a healthy dose of exercise given the fun factor and that pedal assist encourages the rider to ride further and for longer!
That kids need way more exercise than they are currently getting (obesity amongst children continues to increase) is beyond argument and an e-bike might just be the thing.
That wraps up this month’s survey of notable developments in the world of e-bikes.
Check back next month when we’ll have more on what’s new and trending in the electrical ecosystem.