Posts Tagged: Yuba elMundo


2
Jan 2011
by don

New Year status report: Year 2

An eventful year has passed since my first New Year status report. A lot has happened in my life and the cargo biking scene that would have strained my imagination last January. And a few things didn’t happen that I confidently anticipated.  I would be thrilled to repeat last year’s progress in 2011, but I’ll try to avoid making any bold and probably inaccurate predictions and instead focus on recent events.

Manufacturer hibernation

After a flurry of announcements in early fall, there has been little news from cargo bike manufacturers during the past couple of months.  Perhaps they think that most Americans aren’t looking for new bikes when so many states are buried in snow.  While that seems like a reasonable assumption, my blog has seen no seasonal decrease in interest.  On the contrary, every month of 2010 saw significant increases in readership, with literally thousands of unique visitors in December alone.  And that was despite the fact that I posted no new articles in December and only two short articles early in November!

But perhaps those statistics deserve closer scrutiny.  For example, the top search keyword for my blog (at about 15%) was “fixie”, due to an article I wrote last September.  In that post, I predicted that non-electric bikes would someday be viewed like the fixie bikes of today: idealogically pure, but not practical for the average commuter (at least if you live anywhere with moderate hills or wind or traffic intersections).  Imagine the horror of someone looking for information on fixies and landing on a blog dedicated to electric cargo bikes – about as polar opposite as you can get in the biking world!  And I’m probably skewing future results by mentioning fixies again in this article.  Sigh…

On the bright side, 2010 saw the release of two electric cargo bikes (the Ute and elMundo) and the announcement of three more (the Transport+, several models from Onya cycles, and Urban Arrow).  Waiting for availability of these latter bikes has required considerable patience.  Despite my frequent criticism, Trek’s web site still claims the Transport+ will be available in late fall (they don’t mention which year!).  Hey, Trek, is there anyone awake over there?

Some features and prices have evolved since my earlier reviews of the Ute, elMundo, and Transport+.  All of these bikes now sell for about $2600, so they must now be evaluated on features (and availability) rather than price.  I am pleased to see continued evolution of the elMundo, both in the bike’s features (like the rear disc brake) and the increasing accuracy of the specs published on their web site.  For example, I complained in an earlier article that the power rating of their motor seemed inflated, and now it’s fixed.  Thanks, Yuba!

I don’t have any news on the Urban Arrow, but I received some interesting feedback from Todd at Clever Cycles regarding my article about it:

Our wariness about the high-speed braking characteristics of bikes in this format [front loader] is why we never pushed the assist concept with them. It’s not just the brakes per se, but the lightly loaded front wheel without a big load, and the relatively small amount of rubber on the road relative to the total kinetic energy of the vehicle. The crashes didn’t happen from not being able to stop the wheels, but when the wheels did in fact stop and the tires lost purchase. Large footprint lower-pressure Big Apple tires, modest motor power with a sensible speed limit, relatively low vehicle mass: these are more reasons to be optimistic that Urban Arrow might be “the one.”

This is a point that I hadn’t considered before.  In the past, I’ve worried about braking performance of loaded cargo bikes, and I found that increased load seems to also increase the braking performance of the tires (at least, on dry pavement).  The performance of an unloaded tire is therefore of some concern, especially for people riding on steep hills.  I’m optimistic that the Urban Arrow will be a good bike for relatively flat terrain; I will be quite interested to see how it performs in our neighborhood.

My bike

My Hammer Truck continues to work beautifully.  But ironically, it’s not getting much use right now.  I used to have a great biking circuit: I would bike with the kids to school, then bike to the Y for a workout, pick up groceries on the way home, and bike back to school to pick the kids up in the afternoon.  However, my daughter now rides the bus to her new school, and my son likes to walk with his friends to school.  My wife joined the Y, and now we drive there together at 5:00 in the morning.  My son joined a gymnastics club which is a 30-minute commute by car, so I pick up groceries on the way home from taking him.

With these changes to our family schedule, I have to invent opportunities to ride the bike, and there isn’t much incentive to do that in the wet winter weather of the Pacific Northwest.  When I do get the chance, it feels quite luxurious, and increases my nostalgia for the lifestyle we had in Copenhagen.  Some days I spend 2 or 3 hours in the car – a nightmare!  We bought a used Prius to increase our gas mileage while we await the arrival of our electric Leaf (perhaps as much as 5 months from now), but I’m discouraged that the layout of our city and the demands of our busy lives make it so difficult to pursue bike-centered transportation.

Kids on board

Speaking of transporting kids, I was recently introduced to a wonderful blog focused on carrying children on bikes: http://totcycle.com.  The blog includes a great survey of the options, and it’s broader in scope than anything I’ve written on this subject because it includes non-electric alternatives.  If you have young ones, check it out.  The photos of kids napping on various bicycle configurations is heartwarming.  I only wish I had started biking when my kids were younger.

Looking forward

I recently read an interview with an oil industry analyst who thinks we will see $5/gallon gas in the U.S. by 2012.  He thinks this is possible not because of any near-term shortage of oil, but due to fear of shortages as the world’s economies recover.

If this turns out to be true, the timing isn’t great.  Expensive fuel will either inhibit the long-awaited economic recovery, or it will spur inflation if our economy manages to power through it.

If there’s a bright side to this prediction, the price of gas is probably the most significant factor in determining how many bicyclists there are on U.S. streets.  However, I would rather see people choose bikes for all their benefits rather than because they have a financial gun to their heads.  But no matter how it happens, bicycles will play an increasing role in our transportation options.  For solo riders with relatively short commutes, a bicycle just makes too much sense from the standpoint of energy expended per mile traveled.  And because electric assistance extends the range and lowers the effort for a broader section of our community, it really is possible to see bikes in numbers we’ve never seen in modern America.

I said I wouldn’t make predictions, but if 2011 isn’t the year of the electric bike, no one will be more surprised than I.


23
Aug 2010
by don

Electric Ute official debut, Trek coming

Finally! It has been months – even years – since rumors of an electrically-assisted Ute cargo bike first surfaced on the web.  Kona recently posted its 2011 catalog online, and there it was: the Electric Ute in all its beauty.  At $2599, Kona has allowed the Yuba elMundo to keep its low-price crown ($2297 including tax and shipping).  However, the Ute and the elMundo are such different bikes, price should be among the last factors to consider if you’re choosing between them.  There have also been changes in the elMundo since I last wrote about it, so there are good reasons to take another look at both these bikes.

Kona Electric Ute

Kona Electric Ute - Click for larger image

Despite its workman-like name, the Ute gets my nomination for most beautiful cargo bike.  Kona has paid attention to the details, and the electronics are nicely integrated.  The Ute approaches my ideal of a bike and motor that were designed together.  Unfortunately, Kona’s marketing is a little coy about what their design target really is.  For example, the website introduces the Ute with this sentence: “The Electric Ute is a battery-assisted version of our very popular Ute, a long wheel base bicycle designed to carry loads of up to 100kg-perfect for transporting goods in the urban environment.” [their emphasis]

This might be an accurate statement in a superficial sense, but it deserves some careful disection.  If you live in an urban environment that is relatively flat, and if you can fit your load into the comparatively small Ute side bag, the Ute will be perfect for you.  On the other hand, if you manage to load 100kg (over 200 pounds) of cargo on the bike (that might require some creativity), you’ll find the motor is not powerful enough to help much on even moderate inclines.  During my test drive (see my in-depth review here), the motor shut down while climbing a short, steep hill of about 15% grade – no load, medium assistance level.  At first, I thought the failure was a battery issue, but now I’m pretty sure the controller was temporarily disabling the motor to prevent overheating.  If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, you may have to pedal up the steep hills without assistance from the motor, just when you want it the most.  I also have concerns about the ability of the front rim brake and rear disc brake to safely stop a heavy load in an emergency.

Kona’s description of the Ute ends with this: “Serious power for carrying heavier loads. Ditch the truck, people.”

I’m not a marketer (and thankful for that), but is it really necessary to hype the bike past the point of reasonable expectations?  I mean, the Ute is a great bike for commuters who have some extra stuff to carry.  It feels more like a normal bike than its bigger and heavier competitors.  Maybe those facts aren’t sexy enough for the marketing department, but this is a bike that could satisfy many customers.  The big question is how it will compare to Trek’s bike which will be released late this fall.  I’ll talk about that shortly.

Yuba elMundo

Yuba elMundo - Click for larger image

The elMundo has quietly undergone some changes since I corresponded with a company representative in late spring (here).  The only clue that the bike has had another transformation is the addition of “v3.0″ to the bike’s name.  Photos on the website have not been updated.

Yuba has ditched its 750W motor from Aoetema and now uses a 500W motor from eZee instead.  The fact that Yuba mentions the brand of the motor on its website is progress, but I still have a question.  The only motor I know of from eZee is rated for 400 watts nominally, and about 800 watts peak.  Is the 500W figure quoted by Yuba fudging a little?  Not that I’m focused exclusively on the wattage of the motor: even at 400W, the geared eZee motor might deliver more power when it’s needed than the Aoetema motor.  But the effort to be scrupulously accurate on these specs would be a welcome development in the cargo bike market.

I would love to know what inspired the motor change, but I have a couple of guesses.  First, the eZee motor uses internal planetary gears, which should help deliver higher torque at low speeds for climbing hills.  The elMundo is a big, heavy bike (due to its high-tension steel frame), and it really needs a high-torque motor.  Yuba is also calling attention to the disc brake mount on the motor.  Although the standard elMundo comes with a rim brake on the front wheel and a disc brake on the rear, I would encourage anyone who intends to descend hills with a loaded elMundo to invest in a front disc brake. 

Interestingly, Yuba has removed any mention of cargo weight capacity from its descriptions of both the Mundo and elMundo.  The company previously claimed an absurd figure of 400 pounds, plus rider.  Although the frame may be able to handle that, it was hard for me to imagine the brakes (and perhaps the tires) would be capable of stopping that load in a reasonable distance.  If my complaints helped motivate this change, I am pleased.

As before, I must add a huge caveat to my descriptions of the elMundo.  Although I’ve read blogs and emails from people who are very happy with their Mundo bikes, I’ve never ridden one or even seen the bike in person.  The scarcity of Yuba dealers in my area makes that challenging.

The elMundo is also likely to have a competitor in the upcoming Trek bike, so I’ll move on to that.

Trek Transport+

Trek Transport+ - Click for larger image

The entry of bicycle behemoth Trek into the electric cargo bike market is huge news.  Trek’s annual sales are at least 100 times those of Kona, and I couldn’t even find sales figures for Yuba.  If Trek decides to put any weight into the marketing and support of their bike, other cargo bike manufacturers are likely to become asterisks in the margins, at least in the U.S. for the next couple of years.  Besides my bike, I’ve never seen an electric cargo bike being ridden in my city.  At this point, I’ll bet the first one I see will be a Trek.

With an MSRP of $2679, the Transport+ has the Ute squarely in its sights.  Like the Ute, the Transport+ includes a bunch of accessories at the base price: folding rear load racks, front rack, Bontrager Transport cargo bag, fender, wide-stance kickstand, front and rear lights.  With the front rack, rear side racks, and bigger cargo bag, the Transport+ appears to be more serious about hauling cargo than the Ute.

These features alone could justify the extra $80 for the Transport+, but Trek’s choice of motor is an even more compelling reason.  It comes with a beefier 350W motor which is essentially the same direct drive BionX motor I have on my bike.  This motor offers superior load-carrying and hill-climbing capabilities compared to the Ute. It is quieter, the pedal activation system works a little more smoothly (in my opinion), and it offers regenerative braking which takes some of the load off your brakes.  The advantage of direct drive (as opposed to planetary gears) is that the BionX motor is very, very quiet.  The downside, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, is that motor assistance starts to fade at speeds below 6 mph, and this can be a challenge when hauling a heavy load up a steep hill.

BionX has incorporated additional features since I bought mine a year ago.  When you turn the console light on, the lights in the front and rear of the bike turn on too, powered by the same battery.  On my bike, I have to flip at least 4 switches to turn lights on and off, and I have to keep all those separate batteries refreshed.  This is a welcome advance!

Trek explains their “Ride+” motor technology in a series of videos available here.  One of the videos mentions a 250W motor, but that’s a less powerful version than the one Trek is using for the Transport+.

Another feature I like about the BionX system is the integrated battery/controller.  If you compare the photos of the Ute and the Transport+, you’ll see the latter doesn’t need the extra black box mounted near the cranks on the Ute.  The console for the BionX also gives better feedback about the level of assistance requested and received from the motor.

It’s always easy to get excited about a bike when it’s merely a photo and a set of specs, so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm for the Transport+ until I can actually ride one.  There are still opportunities for Trek to misstep.  But with an attractive bike, good technology, a large dealer network, and marketing muscle, it seems like this is Trek’s game to lose.  But we’ll all be winners if this bike helps bring cargo biking into the mainstream.

Big year for cargo bikes

A year ago I was shopping for an electric-assisted cargo bike.  None were available pre-built from a manufacturer.  The state of the art was an XtraCycle like the Surly Big Dummy driven by a Stoke Monkey, but it wasn’t easy finding a bike shop that wanted to build one for me.

Today we have ready-made electric bikes from two manufacturers, and the biggest U.S. bicycle company is about to enter the market.  I’ve been riding my bike almost daily for 11 months.  There have been few problems and virtually no close encounters with cars.  My blog receives over 1,000 unique visitors per month from all parts of the world (but mostly U.S. and Canada), indicating an encouraging level of interest in this transportation alternative.

Sometimes the pace of change seems slow, but looking back, a lot has happened this year.  I wonder where we’ll be next year about this time?


21
Jul 2010
by don

Yuba elMundo Questions and Answers

 

June 7, 2010

Dear Yuba,

Hi.  My name is Don, and I write a blog about electrically-assisted cargo bikes.  Although I’m pleased with the performance of my Rans Hammer Truck and BionX motor, many of my readers are interested in less expensive alternatives.  The Yuba elMundo and Kona Electric Ute are two possibilities I’ve mentioned in my blog.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information available on the web to help prospective buyers make an informed purchasing decision.  To help fill the void, I was able to arrange a test ride of the Ute, and I posted a fairly detailed review here: http://mycargobike.net/2010/06/15/first-look-at-the-kona-electric-ute/

Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a Yuba dealer in my area to test the elMundo.  I don’t know anyone who owns an elMundo with whom I can correspond.  Lacking first- or second-hand experience, I’m hoping you can answer some of my questions to help me and my readers understand where the elMundo fits in the assisted cargo bike marketplace.  With your permission, I would like to post this letter and your responses on my blog within the next couple of weeks.

Your website provides a brief description of the elMundo, several photos, and a tantalizing price for a bike in this category.  I’m especially excited to see a lithium ion battery and a 750W hub motor.  However, there are few details for those of us who obsess over such things.  For example, who makes the motor?  How did you decide it was a good match for your bike?  Does it have internal gearing to help deliver good torque at low speeds?

Besides the low price, there is a significant advantage of having a motor integrated by the bike manufacturer (as opposed to an after-market build like my bike).  Customers will assume that the manufacturer has carefully matched the capabilities of the bike and motor.  The manufacturer will analyze loads and stresses to enhance the reliability of the product.  The bike will be tested under strenuous conditions, and a single warranty will cover both the bike and the motor.  Can you assure us that this analysis and testing has been done on the elMundo, and can you provide details regarding your warranty?

Yuba elMundo

The Yuba Mundo is rated to carry loads of up to 400 pounds, excluding the rider.  Since there is nothing to the contrary on the web page for the elMundo, I assume that the weight limit is the same.  With the help of that powerful motor, it will now be possible for people to carry some pretty heavy loads up an incline.  Of course, what goes up must come down.  That’s why I was surprised to see only rim brakes in your photos of the elMundo.  From my perspective, that seems a little risky.  I know disc brakes are now an option on the Mundo.  Are they also available for the elMundo, or does the hub motor preclude the possibility of a front disc rotor?

It also seems possible that your motor is likely to produce new stresses on the front fork that didn’t exist on the non-electric bike.  Have you made any modifications to strengthen the fork?

Finally, I’m curious how much the elMundo weighs.  Is the battery removable for remote charging, and can you also charge it on the bike?  How long does it take to fully recharge?  Do you have any estimates regarding the lifetime of the battery and motor?

If you have any customers who would be willing to share their thoughts and experiences on this bike, I would love to talk to them.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks,

Don


July 7, 2010

Hello Don,

Great to hear from you.  I have visited your blog many times before and I did find the content extremely interesting, your analysis and opinions are well documented. Also this is the first email we are getting from you asking questions about the elMundo.

If you were interested we could put you in touch with a few users of the elMundo Cargo Bike, these users are mostly in the Bay Area. Also one our dealer Cycle9 specializes in electric bikes and cargo bikes and has supplied electric Mundos to a numerous customers. One of them Mark Strosberg has been commenting on your blog, he purchased his Mundo from Cycle9.

Currently the elMundo is a Mundo Cargo Bike frame with an after market electric kit installed on the bike. So a lot of the questions your are asking can’t really be answered since it seems that many customers are riding electric Mundos with different motors or battery packs. The model supplied by us integrates a battery placed between the rack and the seat stays, it is removable but doesn’t need to be removed to be charged.

The motor is made by Aoetema, we have tested various combinations of motors and like this specific 750W version for many reasons one of them being the torque it gets for hill climbing.

The 36V LiPO4 battery offers about 20 miles of charge on flat terrain. Motor, battery, controller are under warranty for a year.

We do ship the elMundo with disc brakes installed on the rear (although it doesn’t show on the pictures!).

We have no doubts that the Mundo bike is the best platform for an electric Cargo Bike in the market place due to the strength and solidity of the Hi-ten steel frame. So the elMundo can take the rider, the loads, the passengers and the electric assist.

The battery can be removed and the current combinations gives a range of about 15-25 miles depending on the conditions and terrain.

Let me know if you have further questions or comments.

Ben


After this email exchange, I asked Yuba further questions about the weight of the bike and clarifications regarding the warranty, but I haven’t received a reply.  If or when I do, I will post their answers.

Yuba’s first response was a bit of a mixed bag, from my perspective.  I’m happy to hear the elMundo now comes with a rear disc brake.  This seems to be a fairly recent development, and it’s a welcome step in the right direction.  However, it doesn’t alleviate my concerns about stopping this bike when it’s carrying a load.  Stopping distances for cargo bikes in general is a topic I hope to investigate in the future.

The Hi-ten steel frame of the Yuba is an interesting feature compared to the aluminum frames of the Ute and the Hammer Truck.  It is heavier, of course, but steel will bend under stress rather than break.  If you’re contemplating moving heavy loads on a cargo bike, that might be important to consider.  But in that case, remember to test those brakes and upgrade them if you need to.

Although I have no experience with the Aoetema motor, the reviews I’ve found on the web have been mostly favorable.  It appears to be a reasonable choice for this bike.  However, it sounds like Yuba views the motor as an after-market product, so I’m guessing they would refer you to Aoetema if you had any warranty issues.  This negates one of the advantages I was hoping would come from an integrated product.  When you buy a car, you get a single warranty that covers the whole car.  You don’t have to go to different companies to deal with motor issues, frame problems, etc.

The one year motor/battery/controller warranty is okay, but only half the duration of the BionX warranty.

Although the elMundo remains an interesting option in the electric cargo bike market, I’m hesitant to recommend it without trying it.  Ben didn’t give me hope that I would get a chance to do that any time soon.  If I could find a Yuba dealer in Seattle, I’m betting they wouldn’t have an elMundo ready to ride.  Like Kona, Yuba seems reluctant to vigorously pursue this market.  I would love to know whether that is due to technical issues, or if these companies are skeptical about the size of the market.  In either case, the cargo bike revolution is off to a very leisurely start in America.


15
Jun 2010
by don

First look at the Kona Electric Ute

[NOTE: I originally posted this article on June 15, 2010.  In mid-August, Kona officially added the Electric Ute to its 2011 catalog (here).  I've re-edited the article to incorporate new information and correct a few mistaken assumptions on my part.  I compare the Ute to the latest version of the Yuba elMundo and the upcoming Trek Transport+ here.]

One of our local bike shops (Alki Bike and Board) received its first Kona Electric Ute on Saturday.  The owner knew that I was keenly interested in taking this bike for a test drive, and he immediately notified me of its arrival.  I got to the shop while they were putting the final touches on the bike assembly.

The Kona Electric Ute will have a chapter in the history of cargo biking, because it is one of the first cargo bikes from a well-known manufacturer that includes an electric motor as an integrated option.  Most of the electric-assisted cargo bikes currently on the road are after-market builds, which makes them more complicated and expensive for the average consumer.  With a retail price of $2599, the Ute is considerably less expensive than my Rans Hammer Truck / BionX motor combination.  The question is, did Kona skimp on anything to hit that price target?  Does it still feel like a quality ride?  Could I use this bike to do the same chores I do on my bike?

First impressions

The Ute is a good-looking bike, with golden paint (but not too flashy) and a nice, thick wooden cargo deck mounted on top of the long, thin battery.  It’s not an Xtracycle, and it hardly looks like a long-tail bike.  It’s not just nicely-proportioned; the weight is well distributed between the front and rear (by contrast, my bike is quite tail-heavy if you try to pick it up).  The Ute is also quite light for an electric cargo bike.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a scale to get an accurate measurement, but I estimate it weighs about 45 pounds.

Kona Electric Ute

Cargo deck

Despite the Ute’s pleasing proportions, the cargo deck is quite long.  It provided ample room to seat both my children during our test ride.  However, it’s several inches narrower than mine, and the kids complained that it wasn’t as comfortable to ride on.

The owner of the shop was surprised that the Ute came with a triple chain ring on the cranking end, including a large top gear that should take you up to 30 mph if you feel the need for speed.  A handsome seat, dual kickstand, front and rear fenders, and a handlebar-mounted warning bell are other nice touches that enhance a general impression of a bike that hasn’t been nickled-and-dimed to hit a price target.  The bike comes with one pannier bag (not shown here).  A second will cost $80.  Of course, you’ll still need to buy lights, but it’s possible you could hit the road with this bike for under $3000.  That’s a few hundred more than the Yuba elMundo, but that’s a very different bike.

On the question of quality, my first concern was the brakes: a rim brake on the front and disc brake on the back.  It appears the front rim brake is necessary to make room for the hub motor.  It’s not obvious how you could install a disc brake without changing the motor as well.

How critical is a front disc brake?  That depends on your situation.  If you intend to carry big loads down steep hills, the rim brake will be an issue.  The rim on the Ute looks pretty durable, but it’s hard to know how it would wear under heavy use.  In my opinion, Kona wasn’t trying to build the ultimate hill-hauling machine with the Ute.  If that’s what you’re looking for, there are other bikes to consider.

Motor

Hub motor and rim brake

The Ute’s 250-watt front hub motor looked tiny compared to the 350-watt BionX motor I use.  Could a motor this small really help with big loads and big hills?  I took it on a  ride around the neighborhood to find out.

On flat terrain, the motor behaves much like mine.  With these motors assisting your legs, it’s not always clear what gear you should use.  Many times you can shift into a higher gear than normal, and the motor makes up the difference in effort.  You don’t even have to down-shift when coming to a stop, because the motor will help you start again.

But there were some differences too.  Unlike the unusually quiet BionX, the Kona motor always lets you know it’s there.  It emits a sound that I can best describe as a moistened finger rubbing across glass – sort of a cat-like mewling.  It’s not an unpleasant electric whine, but it’s a noise you probably wouldn’t miss if you turned the motor off and pedaled along without it.

Like my bike, the Kona motor is activated by pedaling, not by a handlebar throttle.  There’s always some debate about whether a throttle or pedal activation is better.  Since I’m used to pedal activation, I’ll admit being partial to it.  Kona says they use a “Dutch design TMM torque sensor” to determine how hard you’re pedaling and how much additional assistance to kick in with the motor.  During my ride it worked pretty smoothly, but wasn’t quite as responsive as the BionX system.  In some cases, the motor continued to pull for several seconds after I had stopped pedaling.  When you apply the brakes, the motor stops immediately, but I’m not sure how it knows to do that.

Another difference is motor vibration.  With the motor directly under the handlebars, I felt small vibrations from this motor more distinctly than I do from mine.  Is this a showstopper?  Not at all.  But does it diminish the illusion of bionic legs propelling me smoothly and quietly down the road?  Well, yeah.

To test the bike’s hill-climbing abilities, I found a pretty steep section of road – several hundred yards at maybe 15% grade.  My first attempt was successful, and the motor provided welcome help on the steep incline.  I had to pedal a little harder than my bike, but in hindsight I realize I had the motor set on the middle assistance level.  Changing to the highest assistance level might have provided more help.  However, a fist-sized hub motor isn’t going to perform miracles.  I decided to repeat the experiment so my wife could take some video of it.  On my second ascent, the motor suddenly shut off about half-way up the hill.  This was disconcerting — I’ve never experienced anything like that with the BionX motor.  Thinking I had done something wrong, I made another attempt in a lower gear, but this time the motor was comatose during the entire effort.

Now I was worried that I had damaged something.  Fortunately, the motor came back to life on the flat roads back to the bike shop.  I am now pretty sure that the controller was purposely shutting down the motor to prevent damage from overheating.  Unfortunately, there is no indicator on the Ute’s display that the motor is in an overheated state.  Because of that, you’ll worry if it ever  happens to you (which it may not).  After a little cooling break, everything should return to normal.

Battery / controller

Battery

I’m pretty excited about the Ute’s battery.  It is nicely integrated in the bike, and it’s big enough to provide ample range.  The battery can be removed and taken to your office for charging, or it can be charged on the bike.

Although I didn’t have time to test it, the combination of a big battery and a small-ish motor should theoretically give the Ute good range on a single battery charge.  The rider can adjust the assistance level by quick taps of the power switch behind the handlebar display.  Obviously, range will increase with a lighter level of assistance.

The system uses a separate controller box mounted on the main stem above the crank, but it’s smaller and more refined than the Stoke Monkey controller.  The handlebar display shows battery status, speed, mileage, and assistance level.

The bike

Handlebar display

Due to the battery cut-out issue, I didn’t have the opportunity to haul a load up a hill.  For my purposes, that would have been the most interesting (and most strenuous) part of my test drive.  In lieu of that, I put both kids on the cargo deck (about 140 pounds total) and rode some laps around the parking lot.  The bike handled this test well — no squeaks, no noticeable flexing, and no balance issues with the heavy load and high center of gravity.

Of course, cruising on this bike is the easy part.  Starting and stopping was a slight challenge for me, because I’m accustomed to the low step-down of my Hammer Truck.  With the Ute, I have to jump off the seat, tip the bike slightly (not a good idea with kids on the deck), or reach a tip-toe down.  Despite a few wobbly moments, I felt pretty stable with the kids on the back.

But I probably wouldn’t make a habit of transporting more than one child on this bike.  I carry both kids down our hill on my Hammer Truck, but I keep it slow — around 10 mph.  Even with regenerative braking engaged, the brakes can get pretty hot.  Attempting that trip with the Ute’s brakes would cause too much anxiety.

Conclusions

The end

Although it has been helpful for me to structure this review using comparisons to my own bike, it’s not entirely fair given the Ute’s significantly lower price.  I am personally excited by the Ute’s value and the potential to expand the cargo biking market.

Video review

If you want to see some clips of the bike in action, check out the video version of my review:


6
Jun 2010
by don

Looking for the Ute

I went to the “Sustainable West Seattle Festival” with my family on a rare sunny Saturday afternoon, hoping to see a Kona Electric Ute that a local bike shop was scheduled to show there.  It was fun to see many like-minded people showing various sustainable choices — bee keepers selling local honey, farmers selling organic chicken feed for your home-raised chickens, Zip cars, small wind turbines, and various kinds of electric bicycles.  Unfortunately, the Ute was not one of them.  Apparently, the Kona rep had not gotten a Ute to the bike shop in time for the festival, so this elusive bike foiled my best efforts once again.  I know a bike shop in our area that definitely has one, but it’s a bit of a drive and a ferry ride to get there, so I’m hoping to combine that trip with another outing sometime.

If my efforts to see a Ute have been challenging, getting a demo of the Yuba elMundo seems nearly impossible at the moment.  There is only one bike shop within 100 miles listed as a Yuba dealer.  When I contacted them about the possibility of seeing the elMundo, what I got instead was a strong recommendation to steer clear of this bike as well as the Ute and any other inexpensive cargo bike.  The bike dealer recommended the Surly Big Dummy with a Stoke Monkey motor as a superior way to handle our hilly geography.  This came as a surprise to me, because the Big Dummy was the bike I first intended to buy, but I was disuaded by several factors.  I’ve listed these elsewhere, but the main problems were the size of the bike (my wife wants a bike that is easy to ride) and maintenance of the Stoke Monkey (frequent alignment is necessary to avoid problems with the second chain).

The bike dealer pointed out that the Stoke Monkey is better for climbing hills, because it works through your bike’s gears.  In contrast, a hub motor like the BionX applies torque after the gears.  When you climb hills, a hub motor is running at low speed where it is inefficient.  I can verify that: on the steepest part of my hill where you want the most help, the motor does not feel like it is working as hard as you would like.  The bike dealer says his Big Dummy climbs 20% grades (steeper than mine) with less effort than my bike.

So, if you’re serious about replacing your car and hauling big loads up steep hills, the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey are probably the best choice for you.  But unfortunately, it requires a custom build, and it’s a pretty crude system compared to my bike.  This video shows what I mean:

Everything demonstrated here seems like it’s a generation behind my bike.  The controller and burrito bag seem pretty crude: my controller must be built into the BionX battery case, which is beatifully mounted under my cargo deck.  Putting that big battery in the XtraCycle bag seemed primitive in comparison.  I could go on, but you can watch the videos and form your own opinions.  (If you haven’t seen my bike video, it’s here.)

I hesitate to criticize the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey, because it’s a great bike and people have done a lot of amazing things with it.  For example, the BikeForth.org blog is one of my favorites — the author is pushing the boundaries of car replacement with weather coverings and solar power for his Big Dummy.  It’s really great stuff, but I sometimes feel like he’s quite a bit ahead of his time.  My practical side is struggling to find ways to get more people on bikes, even if only for some of their trips.  I would love to jump directly into a future where bikes are as prevalent in my country as they are in Denmark, but to enable that future we have to find a way to make our bikes more mainstream.  I feel like my bike is closer to that practical ideal than the Big Dummy/Stoke Monkey, but the price is still a barrier unless you’re completely replacing a car.  Even as a cargo biking advocate, I still drive our mini-van, frequently.  With our current infrastructure and suburban location, it’s not possible for me to transport my busy family without the car at this time.  So the cost of the bike comes on top of the cost for the car, and that is a challenge for many family budgets.

On the other hand, I don’t want to recommend the Ute or the elMundo if their inexpensive price comes at the cost of reliability, functionality, or safety.  Until I see them first-hand, or a good bike magazine does a thorough review and comparison of them, I can’t say if these are good candidates for advancing the worthy cause of cargo biking.


27
May 2010
by don

Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution

[NOTE: I originally posted this article on May 27, 2010.  Since then, new information has become available.  I edited this on August 24 to incorporate some of the new developments.]

The title of this post might be a tad premature, but today I’m feeling a little more optimistic than I have in recent weeks.  That’s partly due to encouragement from my readers (you are a wonderful bunch!)  And perhaps some of the credit goes to a break in our Seattle rain that is allowing work to proceed on the solar panels being installed on my roof this week (soon I will be motoring up the hill using electrons harvested very locally).

But the biggest boost in my outlook came from news that two of the biggest names in cargo bike manufacturing — Kona and Yuba – are offering electric assistance as a pre-built option for their bikes.  Regular readers of my blog will know that this is a development I’ve been waiting and wishing for, and I think it signals the beginning of a new chapter in the annals of this kind of transportation (at least in the U.S.)

Why is it significant?

First, customers will no longer have to build these bikes themselves.  That requires either mechanical ability or a good bike mechanic and some extra cash.  But the process isn’t streamlined: which motor do you use?  Where do you mount the battery?  Are the specs on the motor a good match for the loads on the bike?  I’ve read several blogs where the build process took months to complete.

One can assume that the bike manufacturers have matched an appropriate motor to the bike.  If there are issues with the bike, there is a single contact, rather than wondering if the problem lies with the bike, the motor, or the installer.  To date, electric cargo bikes have been one-off custom builds, and there is no easy way to leverage knowledge or share solutions.

Economies of scale will reduce prices (both of the new bikes are significantly less expensive than mine), and competition will keep those prices within reach of people who need an alternative to a car for financial reasons.

So here’s a quick comparison of the bikes, with mine thrown in for context:

  Kona Electric Ute Yuba elMundo

Rans Hammer Truck / BionX
Price $2,599 $2,297 (includes tax and shipping!) $3,887 = $1,997 (bike) + $1,890 (BionX)bags/runners/deck not incl.
Motor 250W front hub 500W front hub 350W rear hub (BionX)
Links http://www.konaworld.com/bike.cfm?content=electric_ute http://yubaride.com/yubashop/28-e-mundo.html http://www.ransbikes.com/Hammertruck09.htm

http://www.cycle9.com/c9store/electric-bicycle-kits-c-5/bionx-pl-350-rear-hub-motor-kit-p-48

When I originally wrote this article, I included a row in the table above listing the carrying capacity of each bike.  Since then, I have become concerned about the ability of cargo bike brakes to stop loads that approach the carrying limits of the bike.  Yuba has actually removed any mention of carrying capacity from its website.  In my opinion, that is the responsible thing to do.  There is already a tendency for enthusiastic cargo bike promoters to put very large loads on these bikes and post photos for bragging rights.  Even though it’s fun, I don’t think it’s in the long-term interest of cargo biking to promote unrealistic or unsafe behavior.

Since I wrote this article, there have been further developments for the Ute and elMundo, and there is a new bike coming from Trek.  You can read about them here.