The electric bike technology advances that have changed your ride
The pace of evolution in the electric bike market has been substantial in the past decade
But the rate of change is not too dissimilar from another product that we will all be familiar with. Remember the first handheld mobile telephones? Yes, the phrasing was deliberate, to take you back to a place in time when you may as well have been holding a home phone. The difference between the early days of mobile phones and today’s devices is vast. The batteries used to be heavy, and large and the tech within was not at all sophisticated compared to today’s multiple cameras, high definition OLED screened devices.
Similarly, only ten to fifteen years ago electric bikes were unsightly, essential running from a lead acid battery that would be better suited to a car. The weight made their handling prohibitively bad, as did the technology. You’d not get far assisted before the battery would run dry and you’d be left with a hunk of metal that was no fun to ride.
Fast forward to today, we largely have lithium ion and sometimes other battery types, which have revolutionised the electric bike experience, working alongside modern microchips, sensors and motor evolutions that have steadily helped bike designers create vehicles that ride just like a bike.
So, what were the main technological evolutions that changed the game?
Motoring on! Assistance comes in ever-smaller packages
The size, weight and shape of motors is a quite crucial considerations for bike designers. Once upon a time, it was harder to place the weight of the systems in the exact place frame designers desired to ensure the bike remained well balanced. It is generally desired that any component that carries weight is placed low down on the bike in order to give a low centre of gravity and create a more planted feel for the rider. Have you ever ridden with a dog in a basket on the handlebar? That’s a good example of why it’s no fun to have weight in the wrong place; it can unsettle the ride feel. Thankfully, modern electric bikes have engineered most motors into either the frame, often at the centre of the crankset, or into either of the wheels at the hub where there is no undue rotational weight causing the wobble.
That’s a bit on the shell of the motor, but what’s going on inside is arguably more interesting. Through the introduction of sensors, the motors have become incredibly efficient at knowing when to deliver power and how much torque to offer seamlessly alongside the rider’s cadence. This adds up to saved battery over the course of a ride.
More recently still, some motor systems have begun to build in anti-theft features such as immobilisers, or app-controlled functionality that can fine-tune output, or remotely lock. With a connection to a mobile phone, over-the-air updates to the software that can further enhance performance without you lifting a finger have become a reality. What’s more, that connectivity means you can fine-tune your assistance preferences and even pre-set new modes.
Charged up! Battery tech never stops evolving
First a stunning fact about the electric bike; around 200 times fewer rare earth metals are used in a modern electric bike battery than that of a typical EV car (and very often they carry the same single-person load). From a resource point of view, the e-bike delivers a massive return for the rider.
Lithium-ion batteries make up most of what’s sold in the marketplace, although there is a rush by some companies addressing the fleet market to create cells without the elements that can be flammable if damaged, modified or poorly cared for.
As such, you may find some bikes now have lithium iron phosphate cells that contain no toxic materials such as Cobalt and these can offer an impressive range. The same can be said for the emergence of Sodium-ion batteries that may prove an avenue to a sharp reduction in future costs because of the abundant nature of the raw materials. Ultimately, the electric vehicle market may move in this direction as the race for rare earth metals faces the familiar issue of a finite resource.
As with motor technology, battery technology has been the subject of a multi-billion dollar investment by the world’s key players. The bike industry has joined a queue for such cells, but now, thanks increasingly to collaboration, has been able to leverage its position to access better supply and thus pricing. Batteries do however remain the electric bike’s most expensive component in most cases, many thanks to the demand for lithium-ion cells.
Key technological developments have delivered some notable improvements in user experience, from faster charging to boosted capacity. In the future we may come to a point where solid-state batteries come into wide usage; the difference being that at present liquid electrolytes currently ship charge around a battery, while in future that is expected to be replaced by ceramics and other solid materials, thus making a more stable and reliable cell. The net result should be yet shorter charge times and improvements in safety.
A final trend that may or may not develop in the battery world is the concept of swapping. Made popular by some far eastern EV car makers, the idea of renting a battery and swapping is not so dissimilar to visiting a petrol garage to top up, except you would simply swap a battery and be on your way. This may be less viable in the electric bike world, but what is increasingly common is the use either of range extenders or the carriage of a spare battery. Brands like Camelbak even now do electric bike packs with a special sleeve for carrying a battery.
For the uninitiated, range extenders very often sit in a bottle cage, or bolt where you’d find one, offering a secondary battery that is accessed once the main source of power runs dry. These are not typically cheap upgrades, but if you hope to be out all weekend without a care in the world about power loss on full turbo, then they may be your new best friend.
Power to the people: Bikes may ride smarter than you can…
Where there’s a power source there’s scope for a whole lot of intelligent features. We are now in the era of the ‘smart bike’ and while at one time that simply meant integrating lighting and having each feed off the battery so you didn’t have to remember to charge those too, nowadays it can mean artificial intelligence setting up your suspension based on real-time trail feedback. Suspension systems exist that can detect when you are airborne, softening the suspension ready for landing and stiffening if you are approaching a climb.
As technology in other vehicles has evolved, the bike industry has mimicked and innovated its own useful features. One that is particularly useful is the integration of GPS, which opens up a whole host of benefits ranging from ride planning and tracking, right through to automatic locking systems that know when you are away from your electric bike and thus the security system activates. On some systems, you could remotely unlock a bike in order to let a friend or colleague use your bike. We are now promised by one Spanish business working under the Niche Mobility banner a ‘digital’ motor and transmission system. We are led to believe this will come to market as a fully automatic system, meshing gearing and pedal assistance.
Not all are related to electronics, for example, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) now feature on some electric bikes, which should prevent you from ever going over the bars or skidding on the gravel. At the present time, these come clad to specific high-end models, but you can expect this safety feature to trickle down to mid-price points in the future.
What can we expect in the future?
An interesting development for the electric bike world is the interest the automotive world has shown in two-wheeled products. Porsche’s investment arm has bought and is now rebranding a well-known electric bike motor company and has likewise bought its own electric bike brand too.
They are far from alone and while the automotive world has almost always partnered with bike industry manufacturers to put its logo on novelty products for car showrooms, nowadays they are actively investing and producing products too. There remains some scepticism around how far the trend can go. Traditionally bikes made by automotive businesses have had some wacky ideas and unusual geometries, but that was before substantial investments were made directly into traditional cycling industry brands.
The future, then, could look very familiar in the sense that we see household brand names and very recognisable automotive technologies start to adorn our bikes. It has to be said though, nobody makes a bike like the cycling industry and that’s why when buying a Corratec you can be certain of a bike designed by riders for bike riders.