SURU aims to be a brand synonymous with trust. It seems like an obvious thing to say, after all what brand doesn't? But as the e-bike industry right now is still crawling out of infancy and many, of not most of the operators out there are not working on building trust.
In The Beginning...
The modern electric bicycle first came about in the early 1990's in Japan, when motorcycle industry giant Yamaha unveiled the PAS line. Aimed at very casual users, mostly suburban women, the PAS e-bikes were totally conventional bicycles with a mild 200w boost. Yamaha and later Panasonic enjoyed early success, but despite this the market never really expanded outside this niche.
In Europe another motorcycle manufacturer, Aprilia, tried to woo newcomers to motorbiking with the Enjoy electric assist bike. It was a spectacular failure. American pioneers like Currie Technologies found traction marketing kits for DIY e-bikes as well as fully assembled vehicle.
Most of these first wave e-bike manufacturers survived because they focused on making the best quality products the technology of the time allowed, because the market was small. Defects in both product and experience were likely to turn off repeat purchase and tarnish reputations at a time when the potential consumer pool was limited.
Fast foward to 2014 and suddenly the electric bicycle was ubiquitous. Mainstream media was awash with reports of explosive growth and disruptive new companies in the e-bike space. While the general public in North America and Europe had barely understood what electric bikes were only a year previous, they could now walk into any big box retailer and buy them for as little as $1000.
A vast tide of lithium-battery powered e-bikes washed over western markets, with sales growing every quarter by double digits. New brands and resellers appeared monthly. In urban centres across the US and Europe people were seen gliding up hills without pedalling (or pedalling without visible effort).
A Tarnished Reputation
But this second wave was not building trust or trading on anything other than novelty. By and large the second wave was driven by the irresistible combination of the e-bike smile at an astonishingly low price. Based on conventional bicycles, most of these off-brand e-bikes made use of low capacity, low voltage batteries with only rudimentary power electronics. They were assembled by the lowest bidder at one of the more than 2700 registered e-bike manufacturers in China.
Some were solid. Most were not. Quality control, particularly for controllers and batteries ranged from adequate to atrocious. Failed controllers were so common that a healthy after-market of replacement controllers popped up. More seriously, there were many incidents of batteries catching fire while charging, a disaster that cannot be understated as most western consumers charge batteries inside their homes.
The reputation of the generic e-bike in the US and Europe today is deeply compromised as a result. Trust in the very concept of the electric bike is so challenged that there are calls for the tight restriction or registration of e-bikes in some jurisdictions. Add to this the flagrant disregard that most importers and resellers have for legal power and speed limits and the public's trust of the e-bike is further maligned.
This is a shame. E-bikes are widely recognized as a safe, clean, fun and economical means of personal transport and clearly a significant portion of consumers want them. Sales continue to explode across all regions of the world, both developed and developing. However, public trust, particularly in large western cities, needs to be won back.
Winning Back Hearts and Minds
Manufacturers have to do their part by designing and shipping e-bikes that are not only legal to the letter of the law but in the spirit of the law as well. Designing to compliance is vital. National and regional e-bike laws are becoming clearer every year, but the abuses of existing standards furthers distrust of e-bikes, particularly amongst lawmakers and police, ruining the experience for everyone.
Marketing high wattage motorbikes with speed capabilities in excess of 45 km/h as street legal L1 compliant e-bikes that don't require a licence or insurance is wrong. Just because an e-bike has operable pedals and some "off-road only" power switch for road use does not help, because it abdicates responsibility to the general public and each individual's awareness of e-bike law.
E-bikes are still relatively new and conceptually vague to many regular consumers. It is industry that must help consumers do the right thing and create trustworthy products that operate safely within the regulatory framework that exists, until the market matures. Trust builds loyalty, and opens the doors of opportunity for everyone.
Until then, it really is anarchy out there.