Robotic Drivers Will Make Streets Safer for Bicyclists and Pedestrians
NPR had an interesting article this morning about robot-driven cars. Apparently Google has had several of these vehicles on the road for years. Up until now they have taken a “don’t ask permission and apologize afterwards” approach. But recently Google hired a lobbyist who is promoting the idea that these vehicles should be allowed to have driver’s licenses. The idea is that while the robot is in training it will have a bright red license plate so that people know it is a “student driver”. And after it proves itself it will have a bright green license plate.
Many people may balk at the idea of robots on the road. My perspective as a bicyclist is this: the sooner the better. Nothing could be worse than human drivers. Here are a few reasons we should welcome the robots:
Today’s topic strays from my usual focus on electric cargo bikes, but it relates to my broader interest in finding transportation options that are practical for my family and sustainable for the planet. With these criteria in mind, where does the all-electric Nissan Leaf fit in? To answer that, we recently traded our Toyota Prius for a new Leaf. Since then, I’ve received many questions from friends and family about this car, and I’m hoping to address some of these in this article.
About five months ago, I wrote an article called Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution. At the time, the title seemed like a pretty big leap. I was extrapolating a new market and mode of transportation based on two barely-available cargo bikes with electric motor options.
If I was worried I was out on a limb last May, in retrospect I was just uncovering the tip of the iceberg. In the past few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by numerous electric cargo bike designs. I wish I could cover all of them in as much detail as my recent review of the Urban Arrow, but it takes a lot of time and energy to write reviews like that, and this is not a full-time job for me.
Onya Cycles is a San Francisco-based company with three different electric cargo bikes in the works. They are the brainchildren of inventor Saul Griffith, who won the MacArthur “Genius” award for a variety of projects he has initiated. Saul owned several cargo bikes and wanted to try his hand at correcting deficiencies he saw in each. His innovations range from the somewhat incremental to the fairly radical – definitely worth a mention here.
Onya’s bikes could fit under my “third generation” criteria (bikes designed with electric assistance as a central feature), but in contrast to the Urban Arrow, they will be available without the motor for people with flatter commutes or Lance Armstrong legs. The current BMC motor/battery option is the same for all three bikes and adds around $1300 to the price of each. The motor is rated at 600W (2000W peak) – these people have to face some of the steepest urban hills in the country, and they are serious about them! The battery provides 10 amp-hours at 48V - enough to provide assistance for about 20 miles. Onya bikes ride on 20″ wheels to increase torque and lower the center of gravity. They also have 160mm disc brakes on every wheel (did I mention these guys think about hills?)
Onya’s “Mule” cycle won’t surprise regular readers of my blog. Like most of the bikes I’ve reviewed during the past year, it’s a longtail. However, it is the first assisted longtail available prebuilt from a manufacturer that adheres to the Xtracycle standard, which opens the door for Xtracycle-compatible accessories (rather than locking into accessories provided by the bike’s manufacturer). There are arguments on both sides whether Xtracycle standardization is a good thing, but it makes a lot of sense for a smaller company like Onya to leverage the standard. The target price of around $3000 (powered) is high compared to the competition, but if you’ve got hills, the heavy-duty brakes and motor might justify the premium price.
The “E.T.” cargo bike is an interesting new shape (at least, new for the U.S.) for transporting lighter loads (less than 50 pounds) with a more compact bike. With a normal-length wheel base, this might fit on standard bike racks if the front bucket doesn’t get in the way. Target release for both the Mule and the E.T. is early in 2012.
Onya Front End Loader
I saved the most interesting for last. The “Front End Loader” is the first serious electric tricycle that I know of. Besides the hill-hungry motor and three disc brakes, the suspension is very interesting. It allows you to lean the bike during turns, reducing the risk of lifting a wheel (or worse). The company is quite proud of the custom computer code they had to write to model and optimize the tilting mechanism. You can meet the inventor and watch the bike climbing hills and tilting through turns in this video:
The Front End Loader is closer to release than the other two bikes. Onya has already sold 10 beta test Loaders for $4200 each. They realize that price is high, and hope to reduce it as they increase production volume.
The videos show the bike climbing significant hills with little or no pedaling. I watched that with a mixture of excitement, dread, and even a bit of skepticism. I’m excited because this was almost exactly my wish when I daydreamed about a perfect bike for my friends and neighbors last May. I asserted that people of all ages and abilities needed to be able to ride up a hill at a decent pace in order to make cargo bikes practical for a broad audience. Maybe that day is close at hand. A tricycle addresses concerns about balance at low speeds. However, I’m concerned that first-time bikers may hop on bikes with this kind of power and exceed their skill levels. A few unfortunate accidents could give the nascent market a black eye, and it might even produce legislation that could curtail the use of these bikes. I’ll have more to say on that later.
Finally, I’m a little skeptical because riding a bike up a hill at the claimed speed requires enormous amounts of power. I have questions about the battery’s ability to sustain that, and the motor’s ability to handle the heat that is generated. I’m hoping these are issues that a MacArthur genius can solve.
Regardless of how these bikes turn out, Onya Cycles is interesting in another respect. Like Urban Arrow, this is a company whose sole products are cargo bikes (and primarily electric). These companies represent a bold bet that the electric cargo biking market is here to stay. Unlike Trek and Kona, they don’t have traditional bikes to fall back on if interest in cargo biking stumbles.
I am further encouraged that these companies are not making a bunch of “me too” products. At this point, each of the bikes I’ve mentioned in this blog might address a fairly small niche. But taken together, they cover a pretty broad range of riders and uses. We’re not growing a mono-culture crop here. Just as biodiversity indicates a healthy ecosystem, a variety of cargo biking designs bodes well for the health of this kind of transportation.
Once again, I’m looking at developments I didn’t expect to see so soon. However, I know what cargo biking will look like when it enters the mainstream, and I bet you do, too. We’ll see stores like Wal-mart and Costco selling electric cargo bikes for about half the price of today’s models. They will be made in China, and probably designed there as well. When that day comes, I won’t know whether to cheer or cry…
Advanced Vehicle Design
Speaking of different designs, a German company (formerly British) named Advanced Vehicle Design produces quadricycles for business with a couple of motor choices. Another first: electric-assisted recumbents! While these might be expensive for individuals, they provide an impressive way for businesses to burnish their eco-friendly credentials. And they look cool:
But where can you drive them? I’ve been trying to figure out how they fit into the vehicle code of my state. There are regulations pertaining to medium-speed electric vehicles (speed limited to 45 mph), and there are rules for electric bicycles. But I’m left scratching my head: where could I legally drive a quadricycle? In the bike lane? Probably won’t fit. On the road with car traffic? That would be an annoying obstacle for drivers on some of our faster roads, even with electric assistance. Perhaps these vehicles are really only useful in big cities, although there are plenty of opportunities there.
After our year of living in Copenhagen, it’s easy to see how far the physical infrastructure in most American cities needs to evolve to support lower-speed and lower-energy transportation choices. The legal infrastructure pertaining to electric bikes also needs to evolve – that became increasingly clear as I perused the Washington State Vehicle Code. Different statutes from state to state and country to country impede progress. On the other hand, I fear that regulations developed in the absence of a real understanding of these vehicles will go overboard and unreasonably restrict them.
For example, I have a friend who does a good job of tracking biking trails on his blog and trail network website. He alerted me to a recent ruling that restricts use of electric bikes on a trail near Aspen, Colorado. The bewildering varieties and capabilities of different bikes and motors stumped officials until they made it easy: no electric assistance allowed, period. Although that regulation may be revisited, similar motions will be considered in many town councils and state legislatures. To maintain our freedom of mobility, we need to play a part in these discussions.
The situation that concerns me most is transport of children. That is a uniquely emotional issue that biking critics will use to restrict cargo bikes on the grounds of safety. If I weren’t allowed to transport my kids by bike, at least half my bike trips would be eliminated, and it would then be difficult to justify the cost of my “car replacement bike.” Cargo bikes will eventually reach a critical mass, and there will be a significant outcry if their use is unreasonably curtailed. But at this point, I feel the industry is vulnerable to restrictions that might appear as reasonable compromises to non-bikers.
To avoid any sort of legal backlash, I believe we need to help the public understand the benefits and the realities of cargo biking. Sometimes advocates of a greener life style get a little too enthusiastic and the public gets over-hyped impressions of cargo bikes. For example, in the following video, a helmetless rider carries two kids (at least they have helmets) on a bike that the motor propels at “up to 30 mph” (well over the federal legal limit). Can you blame people for becoming alarmed when they see that?
Although I may be alone in this, I also think cargo biking will receive long-term benefits if we are careful to follow traffic laws – even the ones that don’t seem to take electric cargo bikes into account (read BikeForth.org’s counterargument here). If we flaunt the laws we don’t like and annoy 99.9% of the people with whom we share the road, we will have few friends to defend us when laws begin to restrict what/where/how we ride. I realize this advice goes against a cargo biker’s natural inclinations towards non-conformity, but if I can help my community embrace a slower-speed, greener, more sociable lifestyle, living within the rules is a small price to pay.
Today I was sitting in my mini-van, waiting in a pretty long line of cars for a left-turn signal to change. As I waited, I was excited to see an electric bicycle pass me. It wasn’t a cargo bike, but sightings of electric bikes are still rare enough to catch my eye. I watched as the cyclist moved to the front of the left turn line, and I was a little surprised. When I ride my bike to that same intersection, I take my place in the line just like any car would.
My surprise quickly turned to dismay. The rider slowed as he approached the intersection, looked both ways, and then made the turn while the light was still red!
I know that cyclists sometimes bend the rules a bit, and I can understand the temptation. Coming to a full stop at an intersection requires a lot of gear shifting and loss of precious momentum. Our leg muscles pay so much more for that momentum than cars do. But electric motors ameliorate that. I often execute a full stop/start without shifting at all, because my motor is powerful enough to get me going again in a high gear.
To paraphrase Spiderman (how long have I waited for this opportunity?) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” I honestly feel this when I’m riding my electric bike. I take extra care to obey traffic laws, because my life and well-being depends on others obeying those laws.
If the driver of a car flaunted the law so flagrantly, I would be tempted to whip out my iPhone and take a photo of his license plate. I don’t know what I would do next, but I feel like there might be some recourse. However, electric bikes exist in this gray area where you can travel almost as fast as a car on residential streets, but you don’t need a license. As a result, there is no recourse for someone who is annoyed with your behavior. They might be tempted to yell at you or crowd you with their car. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for peaceful coexistence on our streets.
Perhaps legal regulations will change as electric bikes become more popular. Not that I want additional barriers to electric bike adoption, but it may be inevitable. In the meantime, I want to demonstrate that electric bikers can be good citizens on our shared roadways, and that we deserve respect and consideration from drivers. As newcomers to streets that have been ruled by automobiles for decades, I think we have to earn it.
My family and I have been back in the U.S. for a little over a year now, after living in Copenhagen for a year. As I’ve mentioned previously, we didn’t have a car in Copenhagen – all our travel was accomplished by bike or occasionally, by bus or subway. When I saw this nicely-produced video of Danes on their bikes in all seasons, it reminded me how much I miss the bike-centric lifestyle there.
I’m not sure the video will have the same impact for anyone who hasn’t lived or visited there, but if you haven’t seen the rush hour in Copenhagen, it may surprise you.
If you want more, check out the other videos in this post from the Copenhagenize blog. Although it’s a little long, the travelogue showing Copenhagen in 1937 shows that the bike culture has roots going back at least three-quarters of a century. No helmets, lots of fancy clothes – both videos look quite different from biking in America.
Occasionally I spend some time online looking at what others are doing with cargo bikes. The spike in American interest that accompanied the gasoline price shocks of 2008 seems to have subsided somewhat. The forecast is for moderate gas prices through the summer, so I’m not expecting any huge change in cargo bike usage in the U.S. for the near future.
The story is different in Europe, of course, where gas is roughly twice the price and the infrastructure and culture are more accommodating. However, the European cargo bike market is more developed and possibly even saturated, so there aren’t many major developments. At least, I’m surprised that the marriage of cargo bike and electric motor hasn’t become more common.
Sometimes when I start to feel a little lonely in this pursuit, I go to http://www.cargobikegallery.com to look at all the weird and wonderful bikes that people are riding. It’s definitely inspiring, but only four of the 120 bikes shown there have electric assistance (mine is number 112 on the list). Now I feel lonely and wimpy to boot!
Perhaps you can imagine my excitement to discover a blog by an Australian dad who uses his electric cargo bike much like I use mine (http://keller74.wordpress.com). He carries his two kids — and occasionally his wife! – on the back of a Yuba Mundo assisted by an eLation motor:
Electric assisted Yuba Mundo bike
If you’re interested in a different approach to similar transportation challenges, I encourage you to check out his blog. After decades spent writing computer software, I can only fantasize about being mechanically talented enough to do what this blogger has done. I love the craftsmanship and the flashy color of his bike, in contrast to the more utilitarian appearance of mine. But the admiration goes both ways: he likes the power and silence of my BionX motor, which exceeds the legal power limit in his country. His experiences make me appreciate the relatively problem-free operation of my bike.
So, are we the leading edge of a global movement of electric-powered cargo bikes, or are we just a couple of eccentrics indulging a hobby that will have a miniscule impact on the environment and the economy?
I’m sorry to say that my friend’s blog is a little more optimistic regarding this question than I am. Even though my bike generates lots of interest wherever I go, I see no indications that Americans would be willing to give my bike a try unless the cost of a gallon of gas doubles or triples. Ironically, the world’s financial woes seem to be restraining oil prices.
In the meantime, battery-motor-bike technology will progress, but maybe not so quickly without the pull of a big market or the push of a major manufacturer. The main focus of research and development efforts will be on cars, whether they be hybrid, plug-in electric, or hydrogen powered. Bicycles will continue to face a daunting chicken-and-egg problem: not enough riders to spur investment in bike lanes and Copenhagen-style infrastructure, and not enough infrastructure to encourage people to try biking.
One thing that would help is a big company that helps develop the market for powered bikes. Volkswagen appears to be ready to make the leap (http://www.gizmag.com/volkswagen-folding-bike-concept/14949), but with something more like a scooter than a bike with pedals. This particular product may confuse things for a while – can it be ridden in a bike lane? Does it help or hurt the case for bicycle infrastructure?
When I ponder these questions in front of my computer or laying in my bed, the answers seem discouraging if not overwhelming. But when I’m on my bike, everything seems clearer. The fresh air and exercise are invigorating, the pace is relaxing, my neighbors are waving and smiling, and my kids are calling to their friends from the back of the bike. Maybe I don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems today. At least I can point my path in a good direction.
One thing that is becoming more apparent to me, is that I need to do more to prepare for peak oil and big bucks for gasoline. To be honest, though, I’m a little intimidated when you say you’ve spent almost $5K on your bike.
I wonder if you’ve done a spreadsheet of any type with gas at various prices to determine what the payback time is for a bike. That is my next exercise, to look at the $$ we spend on gas now for a pick-up and a mini-van and determine what the trade-offs for a bike, hybrid, electric, or other would be.
I don’t think Tim’s concerns are unusual. The cost and the technology are still barriers for a lot of people. I’ve done a lot of web searches that show interest in cargo bikes peaked about a year ago, when $3 gas was still somewhat shocking. Now that the price has backed off a bit and we’ve become accustomed to that price, the interest in cargo bikes seems to have waned as well. Most of the blogs I’ve found have a flurry of comments in 2008, somewhat less in 2009, and almost nothing in the first half of 2010.
If you approach this from a standpoint of pure economics, it’s not easy to compete with infrastructure and culture that is so optimized for cars (in the U.S., at least). This is partly because gasoline is incredibly cheap for the amount of energy it delivers. A gallon of gas weighs about the same as my bike’s battery, but it delivers 100 times more power. Of course, gas wouldn’t be such a good deal if we factored in the costs to our environment (air pollution, carbon emissions, and oil spills) as well as national security.
But let’s play with the numbers we have. I’m currently riding about 1000 miles per year on this bike. As I’ve said before, those are tough miles for a bike or a car — mostly short trips up and down steep hills. At this pace, I have to charge my battery about 3 times per week. It holds 355 Wh of electricity. At about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s roughly 3 cents per charge — less than a dime per week.
To do the same errands in our mini-van would take about 60 gallons of gas for the year. That’s only $200 worth of gas at today’s prices, so I’m not going to recoup the $5000 cost of the bike and motor any time soon from savings at the pump.
However, I’ve saved money other places. The bike has allowed us to avoid buying a second car. Obviously, the savings are significant compared to the price of a used car, taxes, insurance, maintenance, and repairs.
But the main beneficiary is my conscience. Showing my kids that there is a better way to transport ourselves without burning their natural resources at an unsustainable rate — that feels good. I also see my neighbors more often, and I’ve had more opportunities to talk to people without the tinted windshield between us. Most surprising, the bike saves time when traffic gets snarled around our neighborhood during school pick-up and drop-off hours.
The popularity of alternatives like this bike will increase as battery technology improves. It makes so much sense to move just what you need, rather than pushing a ton of extra metal around when it isn’t necessary much of the time. As it becomes easier, cheaper, and more reliable, this kind of personal transportation will become more common.
In the meantime, I’m peeking into the future and enjoying the ride.