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What Are E-bikes Anyway?

What Are E-bikes Anyway?

Is SURU an electric bicycle, an e-bike, or an electric moped? The answer is all three.

Since beginning this adventure, the SURU team recognized that the lines between bicycle, moped and road vehicle are blurring in this age of electric mobility. Bicycles, motorized and purely muscle-powered, have been with us for nearly a century and a half.


In The Beginning...

The world's first motor vehicle was a bicycle (the 1867 steam-powed Velocipede), and innovations like the pneumatic tire and roller chain, inventions without which the modern transportation would not be possible, were developed specifically for bicycles.

Bicycles with motors were the dominant force in personal mobility worldwide. With small capacity gasoline motors, typically 50cc or less, these small vehicles were essentially reinforced bicycle-type frames with a hybrid mix of bicycle and lightweight motorcycle parts and often sold in bicycle shops.

They were referred to as mopeds because they were motorized, but could also be pedal-operated. Cheap, frugal on gas and simple to use and maintain, the moped was for often the first motor vehicle used by many generations of people in the developed world. Many of the most famous auto brands in the world, including names like Peugeot, Piaggio, Ducati, AUDI (as NSU), Bajaj, and Honda got their start and owe their existence to making mopeds.


Shifting gears

The 1980s saw the rise of cleaner and more comfortable motor scooters. Led by iconic designs like the Vespa and Honda C50, the scooter replaced the moped entirely, offering large flat footboards to rest your feet, cargo storage space, deeply cushioned seating for two and with automatic transmission (CVT or servo-clutch), the easy-on, easy-off, no fuss scooter made perfect sense for urban mobility.

The advent of ultra-lightweight 50cc class of modern, “large-wheel” scooters like the Aprilia Scarabeo and Honda SH Scoopy, the traditional moped was finished. Consumers wanted style, range, versatility and comfort at affordable prices. In their height in 1999, the 50cc scooter was the lifeblood of many motorcycle companies and represented almost 50% of the motorcycle market.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the invention and sudden mania for mountain bikes, American victories in the Tour de France with Greg LeMond, and demographic changes in the US, the bicycle shifted from something that was previously seen as primarily transportation to a sporting good, or lifestyle accessory. Simple, practical bicycles were viewed undesirably, beginning the premium consumer's love affair with luxury performance cycling, a fetish that dominates the bicycle industry to this day.

Cast aside by motorcycle and bicycle minded consumers, the humble moped began it's precipitous decline in the early 1990s and never recovered. Too plain and unsophisticated to match either a European 50cc scooter or a carbon fibre bicycle, the concept seemed doomed.


The wheel turns

The era of motorcycle and bicycle excess is upon us, with consumers enjoying never before seen choice, technology and performance from both extremes of the two wheeled spectrum. Bicycles today are paragons of lightness, weighting a quarter of what they did 50 years ago while enjoying stiffness, performance and convenience features unimaginable a generation earlier. Meanwhile, small entry-level motorcycles can out-perform top of the line machines from the 1980's and scooters can cruise at European highway speeds all day in total comfort.

The down side of all these wonders is price and practicality. Of course you can still buy inexpensive scooters and bicycles, but their usefulness is limited by the extreme polarities in which they exist. The basic bicycle is still fragile in heavy use conditions and requires the operator to supply all the work; the basic scooter is cumbersome and requires special training and expensive licenses and insurance.

Into this scenario comes the electric power-assisted bicycle, or PAB, often called e-bike. Created as a by-product of newly inexpensive and powerful lithium-ion battery technology, the e-bike fills the void left by the departing gasoline moped, offering a similar combination of muscle and motorized power. The e-bike is simple, affordable, easy to use and requires no external licenses or insurance. It provides motive power for hauling heavy loads or challenging terrain.

Starting in the 1990's and pioneered by Yamaha Motor Corporation, the electric pedal-assist bicycle was intended to attract traditional Japanese housewives who baulked at the idea of a scooter, but wanted some help coming and going from markets and preschools. The market took off quickly in Japan with Yamaha and Panasonic growing substantial business in that area.

In 1995 China enacted a new Five Year Plan that included electrifying the entire 50cc moped fleet to reduce the smog-induced pollution and associated health-care penalties. This wide reaching government policy did more than anything to kick start the e-bike industry we recognize today. World e-bike sales went from a few hundred thousand in 2000 to ten million by 2005.

The invention of lithium-ion batteries the e-bike saw performance increase by an order of magnitude. With half the weight and four times the energy, small, lightweight and inexpensive electric bicycles and mopeds exploded into the marketplace, propelling world sales past 40 million units in ten years. European and American inventors and opportunists saw the potential and began to tinker, kicking off a new industry for high performance, hybrid electric-bicycles the likes of which had never been seen before.


The last mile

Today, the e-bike is still seen as a novelty by most mainstream consumers in America, but in Europe the e-bike has surpassed the conventional bicycle in sales. Recognized there for what it is, the e-bike supplants the bus pass, train schedule or car in congested cities as the ideal tool for commuting. Like the moped did for a century, the e-bike delivers pain free personal mobility over short to medium distances.

In North America the e-bike is still confronted by many of the same prejudices that afflicted the moped before it. It is often seen as a gimmick or poor person's conveyance by motorists, and as a cheat or crutch by cyclists too pure in ideology to accept them. However, as designs begin to distance themselves from merely adapted bicycles and e-bikes assert themselves with their own design identity, they encounter another, also familiar mainstream response.


Like the Vespa and Honda Super Cub did in the 1960's, well designed and original looking e-bikes garner smiles from onlookers and users alike. Motorists and cyclists who scowl at electrified gas scooters show no malice towards lean sized e-bikes that can match downtown traffic in speed and cut a bold figure. For these e-bike riders, the pleasure of silent and dignified electric mobility is hard to disguise, which in turn garners smiles from others. It is hard to hold grudges against happy people.

For bold and original e-bikes like SURU that are entering the marketplace, the sky appears to be the limit. Legislation surrounding them is settling down into standardized norms, the general public is widely accepting of them when used appropriately, and users love their newfound fun and easy transportation system.

Most importantly, with North America's cities designed around the car, the vast suburbs present perhaps the most fertile ground for good e-bike design. A commuter in Austin or Toronto may still take an express bus or subway into the downtown core, but they still need to get from their front door on a leafy suburban street to the nearest station. The e-bike allows that first/last mile to be pleasant, stress and pain free while affording them freedom from timetables.

We can't change our cities overnight, but we can vastly improve the air quality and congestion in them immediately. And new generation e-bikes like SURU helps do just that.