For the past two years, tech magazines and business pundits have been talking about Last Mile transportation. The idea evolving is that as cars transform into autonomous fleets owned not by individuals but corporations, and greater emphasis is placed on public transit (in Asia and Europe at least) there will be a growing need for humans and cargo to move from major transportation hubss such as roadside pickup areas and rail stations to their final destination.
This is the so-called Last Mile problem. Connecting people at homes and offices to the nearest rapid transport node a kilometer or two away.
Every major car manufacturer and most of the larger motorcycle brands are sinking serious capital into these new areas of personal mobility. Within industry, the very word mobility now has an aura of prestige normally associated with sexy new concepts, and is regularly trotted out by brands as a means of communicating their advanced thinking.
In the last 24 months, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Piaggio, TATA Motors, and other global transportation giants have issues press releases and unveiled quirky sketches and prototypes of radical new personal mobility devices that they hope will capture the imagination of the urban, megacity dwelling public. These range from science fiction inspired plastic pod cars to self-balancing motorcycles and unicycles.
Amongst all these amazing ideas, few have found as much traction and captured the imagination of the public like the electrified bicycle. The e-bike, based on the humble, Victorian era pedal bicycle, is quickly shaping up to be the only truly practical Last Mile solution.
It is hardly surprising. The story speaks for itself.
For over 150 years, bicycles have provided dignified, safe and incredibly cost effective transportation for billions of people. The bicycle has gone to war, and delivered workers to peacetime factories. Generations of 20th century children experienced their first taste of freedom on bicycles, while legions of bicycles have allowed villagers in developing countries to commute to regular paying jobs in towns unreachable on foot.
The bicycle remains one of the most elegant inventions in human history, but as we continue into the second quarter of the 21st century certain limitations are clear. The megacities and regional capitals of today are congested, densely packed and road space is limited. Time pressure, diet and a general reduction in physical activity by most urban populations means that riding a conventional bicycle to work, school or to the railway station is difficult, uncomfortable and tiring. Road conditions, and an increasing tension between car drivers and cyclists about the proper role and place of bicycles further adds to the pain.
Out of this confusion the electric assist bicycle has emerged as a potential saviour. With modest power but the light and easy handling of a bicycle, millions of people are discovering that riding every day from home or office can be a pleasant, efficient and refreshing alternative to standing around waiting for a bus, train or rideshare.
The e-bike phenomenon is truly global, encompassing every developed and many developing nations. The $15 billion industry is growing at a double digit pace at a time when auto makers have to discount to maintain marketshare.
The modern e-bike was invented in Japan in the early 1990's by leaders Yamaha Motor and Panasonic, but really kick started when in 1995 the Chinese government identified electric bikes as a major national project. From a few hundred thousand unit sales in 2000 to more than 40 million in 2017, the market has literally exploded.
Those early e-bikes were heavy, with limited power and range. Thanks to the abundance of powerful but inexpensive lithium batteries derived from power-hungry internet devices, today's e-bikes can climb steep hills with heavy loads across distances unimaginable a decade ago.
Of course, riding any bike exposes the rider to weather and offers no physical protection in the event of an accident. So many Last Mile concepts presented by auto and tech firms tend to focus on cocooning occupants using a variety of advanced materials, while electronic wizardry do all the work and balancing.
Attractive as these many concepts are, they add weight, complexity and great cost. More than that, they lean heavily on the automotive idea of personal mobility: a room in which you sit.
The bicycle, electric or otherwise, is not a passive vehicle. Even if the electric motor does all the work, balancing a two wheeler into a bend is a delightful experience, as is feeling the wind on your face. Everyone remembers the first time they mastered riding a bicycle, and for many it recalls feelings of joy.
Enclosed vehicles are required and necessary for fast or safe long distance travel. But as the world continues to urbanize and most live in dense vertical housing, the idea of spending more time inside an enclosed vehicle for short, local travel seems excessive.
E-bikes are fun, inexpensive, personal and carbon efficient. They allow individuals to make light work of routine daily trips without pain or fatigue but with the dignity that comes with being your own pilot.
The bicycle industry has a term it uses to describe the experience of a first time e-bike user. They call it The E-bike Grin.
Time and again I have seen it, and indeed remember the feeling myself when I first rode an electric bicycle. It roughly mirrors those feelings we experienced as beginner cyclists in childhood. It begins with wonder, turns to amazement, then settles in joy.
All the pleasure of bicycling but without the effort or discomfort. It is like riding downhill with the wind behind you at all times and conditions. Silent. Potent. A master of one's own destiny.
There are over 100 million e-bikes in active use in today's cities and the numbers continue to swell. Half the world lives in cities and they cannot all drive or be driven in enclosed auto-like vehicles. It makes no sense, given that the average road speed in major urban centers is under 10 km/h; when parking costs more per square meter than housing per month; and when the average city person only needs to travel an average 12 km per day.
The missing link is the electric bike. Multi-billion dollar companies like Uber, GM, Continental, Bosch and Yamaha agree, which is why they have invested so heavily in them over the past several years.
For the first mile, Last Mile, and many miles in between, there really is no alternative.