Who’s Got the Keys to the Ebike? Data Security, Podbikes (and more)

In this month’s survey of what’s new or interesting in the world of e-bikes we look at the dilemma underlying data security—who should ultimately hold the key to your bike? We also take a look at 4 wheel e-bikes, the possible return of an obsession with weight, urban e-bikes and e-trekking comfort.

The Future is Here, Now!

So let’s get a little philosophical.

“The future is already here. It’s just not equally distributed.” William Gibson, author of the scifi classic, Neuromancer, is reputed to have made this remark. (Gibson gave us the term “cyberspace” along with other imaginings prefiguring the internet and virtual reality to name a few.)

An undistributed future is one in which a certain technology is only known to a small group of enthusiasts—or maybe only one—and is kept exclusively in the domain of the visionary/ies or technologist/s developing it.

One definition of the modern entrepreneur is discovering and mainstreaming future-shaping technology eg. Apple’s technology genius Steve Wozniak helped by Jobs in a supporting role in the early days.

If this is true (again, it’s just a philosophical talking point), then to find out where things are headed, you just have to pay closer attention to technological developments. The clues can be found at trade shows—if you know what you’re looking for. And there’s the rub. Breakthrough products annouce their claim on the future by dint of viral ‘breakthrough’ via influencers or other media revelation. Still, keeping an eye on patent registrations and frequenting shows like Taipei Cycle and Taichung Bike Week, for example, are ways to find clues to the undistributed future.

How to Ensure the Security of Brand & Customer Data?

The collapse of the high-flying VanMoof e-bike brand in mid-2023 precipitated a thankfully short lived crisis for the brand’s customers.

The owner of a VM e-bike unlocks it using a unique signature via an app. With the collapse it was not clear whether customers would continue to have access to the authorization data stored on the company’s servers making unlocking a bike possible. Another e-bike brand was quick to step up and build an app thus ensuring perpetual access for those customers (and perhaps a whole lot of new customers for that brand, of course). 

The simple solution to this is for a brand to outsource the storage and maintenance of data to an independent specialist.

Zektor Power Technology is a small Taichung based e-bike designer and manufacture which also provides IoT systems for the mainly fleet e-bike projects they work on. ZPT’s customers will never have the problem of either themselves or their customers losing access to data and bikes. Their app which users install on a phone operates via NFC field activated by a swipe of a phone across the bike sensor.

The “e-locker” app is managed by a third party, Microprogram Information Co. Should ZPT’s customer close down or even ZPT themselves go out of business, customer access to bikes will continue since neither brand nor manufacturer controls that access.

Still, what happens if Microprogram goes belly up? That’s unlikely. But we are nevertheless faced with a problem of infinite regress where ultimate responsibility of access to a database has to reside with someone somewhere down the line.

Blockchain secured by Secure Hashing Algorithms does not appear to be the solution either—a central entity ultimately decides what happens in relation to network databases which are often privately owned within companies’ walled gardens.

The bitcoin network (ignoring the financial dimension and focusing on the cryptography) is still probably the only truly decentralized network where if you lose your key, however, that’s it. Out of reach for eternity (the fate of some 4 or 5 million bitcoin up to now for example).

An outfit like Microprogram together with a backup plan (multisig?) shapes up as the most practical way to go.

Podbikes — Micromobility & EVs

Or rather we should declare them pod”bikes” since these EVs are not “bi”cycles strictly speaking.

Embedded from Cyclingelectric.com

If you are a regular reader of this ongoing series of articles focusing on the evolution of e-bikes (EVolution?) you’ll be familiar with our viewpoint that “micromobility” is the organizing principle behind the increasing dominance of all e-bike forms.

Nobody wants to own an e-bike. An e-bike owner purchases one because they are looking for convenience. People pay for convenience. They pay to get access to a tool or a service that reduces points of friction in their lives: they gain more time and/or save money (“a penny saved is a penny earned”).

We live in a world where getting from A to B over short distances dominates our transportation needs. Micromobility in other words. And the greater the degree of convenience a product or service brings to those movements, the more successful it will be.

Podbikes provide one of the greatest conveniences by protecting their users from the elements, particularly rain and snow. Yet, the development of this promising variety of EV micromobility solution is slow.

The podbike Frikar® project took a lot of preorders anticipating mass production but have had to scale back to a limited production release, still pending at the time of writing. It turns out that EU laws limiting a vehicle to 350 watts and 15mph make it impractical there. That leaves the main market in the USA where the laws prohibit 4-wheel e-bikes and would not allow these EVs on bike paths.

Another project, Podride (mypodride.com), was going full steam prior to the Covid pandemic, but has since gone quiet. The DryCycle made it into production though.

The Quadvelo is one of the latest versions in this trend and is certainly one of the most technically advanced: 9-speed gear shift, solar panels, four-wheel suspension, extra battery for increased range, mirrors, lights, and indicators which make it road legal.

One of the drawbacks, one which explains why these projects are so hard to get going, is the price—consumers are paying as much as they would for a small car, which is what a 4-wheel e-bike is in essence.

Four-wheeled Cargo E-bike

And, in essence, a cargo e-bike with four wheels is a variety of podbike, but functioning as a cargo bike puts it into a different category.

An proposed update to the law in the USA—namely New York—will allow enclosed cargo bikes to replace delivery trucks which reduces the size of delivery vehicles just as it increases the average size of the cargo bikes that will form the delivery fleets if the law is passed.

One of the biggest selling points for an EV/Cargobike/Podbike is the economy, as long as the upfront cost is not too outrageous of course.

The Fuel Bill! — $0.002 per 10 miles 

Here is some hard data collected by a commuter who swapped her Camry for an e-bike:11,000 miles cycles at a total cost in electricity of $30. She came out in front even after taking the cost of the e-bike into account. Not taken into account is the intangible health benefit of reducing time spent sitting down and massively increasing the time spent cycling.

Nevertheless, four wheels or two, as the cost of living continues to put pressure on all but the very wealthy, the guaranteed substantial saving on monthly fuel bills, the economic argument is beyond dispute. 

Blurring Genres

EVs blur genres.
Or rather, encapsulate and re-imagine existing categories.

The makers of Jeep are bringing the Lynx to the market via their QuietKat brand that they situate, categorically, between an e-bike and a cafe racer.

Electric motorbikes to which cranks have been added lack the geometry that make them comfortable ride—they are motorbikes first and bikes second. The seat is too close to the crank which stresses the knees. Thus QuietKat have raised the seat to give legs room to rotate around the lower axis.

So you get a powerful e-bike that doesn’t disguise its desire to be more like a motorbike for those in the market for a fat bike that is unlike any other.

A niche product, certainly. But as the e-bike sector moves into its mature phase, the riches will be absolutely in the niches with hyper specialization the way to gain an edge.

Is Weight returning as a USP?

With the shift to carbon frames in the 2000s, weight became a key USP in what quickly became a red ocean market. Brands shaving a few grams off here and there on new products or updated versions of older models, claimed superiority over “the rest” on the basis that theirs was lighter!

With eMTBs breaking through around a decade later where 18kg was wholly acceptable, the weight issue disappeared for a while, as well it should have: the freedom of powering up the slope for another run down the hill made weight irrelevant.

If you were waiting for it to return as an issue, then you were right on the money. The Italian brand, 3T have introduced their 12kg “Ultra Boost” lightweight e-gravel bike to the market. 12kg, despite the increase in battery size from 256 Wh to 350 Wh over the original RaceMax Boost. The carbon frame is the key here, naturally, with punters paying a premium for the privilege as you would expect.

What category of trend are we perhaps looking at then? Performance gravel bikes with their all-rounder appeal, increasing range and decreasing weight. The gravel category is already a winner. Making it lighter targets those in the niche for whom lighter is better. Perhaps it’s just more about the “g” than the “e”?

Urban E-bikes & Increasing Comfort on Trekking

As a category, urban contrasts well with gravel and seems to be a powerful organizing principle for cyclists just getting into—or returning to—cycling on account of the electrification. If you want to get about town, you’ll aim for urban; for out of town, gravel will be the go.

Yamaha have been in the e-bike space for decades as if they knew that by just waiting, the e-bike’s time would come. To keep an edge in the red ocean, you have to define a USP, a territory to claim and defend in order to stay in the game. Lighter, as we’ve seen, is the obvious territory on which to stand and fight. Yamaha’s new PWseries C2 is an urban system that improves on their PW-CE range with increased torque. And it’s lighter, of course. Four assist settings and a walk mode add convenience. Not a major advance but certainly an incremental move towards overall maturity in this increasingly popular sector of the market.

Long range comfort trekking e-bikes are maturing as a category with one winning an award at the 2023 Taipei Cycle IF d&i awards, the RouteOhlala.

The category’s defining elements are 
1. comfort over long distances 
2. extra powerful battery or two batteries (central to the RouteOhlala design) 
3. cargo racks, with puts them in a cross over with many cargo bikes

Gazelle’s launch of their new Eclipse raises the bar in the category as a trekking bike by offering a lot of value at a reasonable price—they may well have charged more.

The Eclipse packs Bosch’s most powerful mid-drive with 85 Nm of torque for tackling steep grades. There is 75mm of fork travel and 60mm tires that will ride well on tarmac and on rougher roads making for a more comfortable ride in concert with the forks. An adjustable stem allows setting the handlebars at exactly the right height for the riding conditions. The geometry encourages a relaxed, upright posture. But the ability to adjust handlebar height together with seat post height means being able to cater to a greater range of cyclists.

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