My DIY SLA Trip Batteries

Caution: shop talk blog post intended for do-it-yourselfers. For my recent 240-mile journey I created what I call my “trip batteries”—batteries that I can attach to my bike to augment my regular batteries, but that I don’t intend to carry around on a daily basis. As such, the main design criteria for these batteries is that they be inexpensive. I don’t want to pay the big bucks for a battery that I only use once in a while. The obvious choice is SLA (sealed lead acid) batteries. These are the same kind of batteries used in cars, and the technology is almost 100 years old. E-bikers out there may poo-poo this choice of battery. After all, compared to my lithium batteries, my SLA batteries are heavy (20lbs vs. the lithium’s 15lbs), not quite as powerful (600wh vs. the lithium’s 720wh), don’t last as long (300 charge cycles vs. the lithium’s 1,500) and they are dumb (that is, they don’t have a battery management circuit board in them to prevent human error from damaging them, although most controllers provide the necessary protections). But they are cheap. I can put together a 10ah 36v battery for about $120 versus a 10ah 36v battery for $600.

Continue reading My DIY SLA Trip Batteries

Long Distance Trip on My Ebike Workhorse

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a 240-mile journey from my home in Ithaca NY to the New York Yearly Meeting (a Quaker gathering) in Silver Bay. Silver Bay is a resort on Lake George in the scenic Adirondacks. My vehicle of choice: a Surly Big Dummy cargo bike equipped with a Stokemonkey electric motor. I had made this journey last year covering the distance in three days. This year I planned to tackle the distance in two days, going 120 miles each day.

Last year my strategy was to charge my batteries en route using three solar panels supported over the rear of my bike. The solar panels were helpful, but couldn’t generate as much electricity as I needed. This year I upgraded my bike to use two 36-volt LiFePo4 batteries in series (for 720 watt-hours), and for this trip I carried an additional pair of 36-volt SLA batteries (for an additional 600 watt-hours). All of these batteries together weigh about 70 pounds.

I purposefully limited the amount of power my bike could draw from the batteries. My 72-volt system can easily push my bike over 20 mph, but at that speed my distance would be limited to about 60 miles. However, if I kept my speed between 10 and 15 mph I could get a full 120 miles out of my batteries, though I would have to be in the saddle 12 hours.

Continue reading Long Distance Trip on My Ebike Workhorse

I Flooded the Mississippi

Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?

Continue reading I Flooded the Mississippi

Name Our Ebike Club

Could this be our new logo? Have a better idea? Let us know.

I’m planning to start an electric bike club with some friends in Ithaca and we don’t yet have a name. Can you help us think of one? Finding a name is an important first step for any organization. It will force us to think about the goals of our group. This grueling process may release our hidden differences, but the fires of our disagreement will forge in us a new a sense of unity! Right. We invite you to participate.

Ithaca is especially suitable for ebikes. The largest part of our community is students. A very visible part of our community is environmentalists. Both of these groups would benefit from biking: students need an inexpensive mode of transportation and environmentalists want transportation that better fits with their values. But both groups are held back by (among other things) the incredibly hilly terrain here. An ebike erases that impediment. For a variety of reasons the bike stores here are unable to step up to the plate to promote ebikes. That’s where a club comes in. Our club is all ready to go except for one thing: we lack a name. Here’s some thoughts that may guide your club naming.

Continue reading Name Our Ebike Club

Ebike Excitement Causes “EV Grin”

Thea and I like to go letterboxing (see letterboxing.org) on our ebikes.

I recently increased the power of my Stoked Big Dummy by setting it up to use two 36v batteries in series rather than only the one 36v battery. (“Stoked Big Dummy” means a Surly Big Dummy extra long bike with a Stokemonkey electric motor.) The change required purchasing a more robust motor controller from the fine folks at ebikes.ca. I also had to open up the controller and solder some beefier resistors in there and make some other modifications. But the result has been amazing. My bike is now very responsive and can easily accelerate to 20mph in a few seconds, and go up hills at 15mph without pedaling. Normally in this blog I rail against speed, but I am discovering that this moderate increase in speed increases the utility and safety of my beloved car replacement vehicle. I can now go on single-afternoon 100-mile trips by bike without it being a big deal “tour”. And I can more easily maneuver in traffic and join the flow. True, I’m now using 20 watt-hours/mile rather than my usual 10 watt-hours/mile, but still nowhere near the 1200 watt-hours/mile that a car uses.

I won’t deny it, speed can also be fun. I recently put together an ebike for my daughter. In the photo above you can see that the bike has a big black front hub. That’s the motor. The batteries are in the bag on the bike rack. Her first ride produced in her the legendary “electric vehicle grin”. She said that her bike was “like a car disguised as a kid’s bike”. She instantly recognized that her new ebike would give her a basic freedom that is denied to kids in our society: the ability to use roads for transportation. Kids in our society are taught from the moment they can walk to stay out of the road. No wonder then that kids must rely on parents and school buses for transportation. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. The ebike, and the EV grin it causes, may change this sad state of affairs.

I thought this recent post to the Endless Sphere ebike forum by icecube 57 captured the “EV grin” phenomena that is currently only shared by hobbyists but may soon be experienced by the general public as ebikes take off. You can read the original post (along with video) here.

“In other news Im very suprised at the power of this motor. My neighor just moved in her bf. I came home to find them socializing with my wife in the garage. The conversation shifted to my bike. He was like ill try it later. I said you are going to try it now. He gave in. I started him off in Grandma mode. (20mph legal restricted) He was excited about that. The controller still dumps 3500-4000w off the line but it tapers off quickly and he proceeded to take my bike up the huge as hill on my street that I will stall on in grandma mode and it took him up the hill without stalling un assisted maintaing about 15mph. Which I cant even do unless I have a running start. He is about 120lbs lighter than me so I can understand it being easier on the motor and controller. He went around the block and came back. He said take this out of grandma mode. He had a grin from ear to ear…Its one thing to ride your own bike but to see someone else riding it with EV grin hauling ass at top speed in traffic like its a motorcycle”

For the record I only have a temporary interest in riding an electric motorcycle, until the grin wears off. My ultimate goal is to build a lightweight (200 lbs.) narrow (42″) slow (20mph) passenger-carrying “car” that falls within the legal definition of an ebike. I couldn’t see myself succeeding with 36v. I can definitely see it happening with a 72v machine.

Transport+ update: Available. Invisible.

It has been 7 months since I posted my first article mentioning the Trek Transport+.  After a very long fall and winter, the bike appears to be available to order.  Trek has removed the “available late fall” qualification from their web site, and dealers in my area would be happy to take my order.  With a price tag of $2809.99, it’s a little more expensive than the aggressive target of $2679 that was originally announced.  It’s also $100 or $200 more than its competitors, the Yuba el Mundo and the Kona Electric Ute, but definitely worth considering for features like the BionX motor and integrated lighting (see my original article for further details).

However, my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that I have never seen this bike, and it’s unlikely that I will in the near future.  I’ve inquired at my local Trek dealers (there are quite a few in my area), and they don’t have any Transport+ bikes to show.  They can’t tell me when or if they will see one.

Reviews of the Transport+ are rare on the web as well.  The most complete review I found was from Bike Radar.  The author loaded the bike and rode it for 6 weeks in a variety of conditions, so that review answered many of my questions.

If I were to review the bike myself, I would concentrate a little more on hill-climbing, braking, and range.  I’d also check out the handling of the bike with loads that are carried a little farther to the rear than comparable bikes (including my own Rans Hammer Truck).  But unless I can make special arrangements with Trek or a local dealer, that opportunity doesn’t look likely in the foreseeable future.

I’m both excited and frustrated with this state of affairs.  For now, I’ll turn to my readers.  If you have any experience with the Transport+, let us know what you think in the comments below.

Year of the electric cargo bike: 2011

Today I was eagerly searching for a Trek dealer in the Seattle area who might have the new Transport+ cargo bike available for a test ride.  I knew I was being a little optimistic, but several months ago a Trek marketer told me the bike would be available by November.  Trek’s web site continues to say “Available late fall”, and there’s even a brief video review from ElectricBikeReport.com.

But no luck.  The best I could hope for at local bike shops was late February of 2011.  The marketer that gave me the more ambitious date is now out of the country and apparently not answering email.

Perhaps I’ll just need to be patient for the next 4 months, but I find this a little discouraging.  It reminds me of the glacially slow rollout of the Electric Ute, and I expected something different from Trek.  Instead, the introduction of the Transport+ is looking just as cautious as the Ute, and I’m wondering why.

Then I found this blog entry from the president of Trek, asking his customers to help him make the case to his market forecaster that this is a bike that will generate interest.  What the #@%!?  Maybe this is a clever ploy to increase buzz, but it’s not the approach I hoped the company would take to build this market.

I found another review of the Transport+ that looks encouraging, but in the details it trimmed 100W from the power of the motor, and nearly $500 from the price.  If these specs were true it could make the Transport+ even more attractive to the mass market (if a bit less attractive to us hill dwellers).  However, since these details conflict with Trek’s web site, I suspect they are not accurate.

In any case, the clock is ticking.  Unless competitors slip their schedules, there will be other interesting bikes to consider in 2011, such as those from Onya and Urban Arrow.  I’m excited to see this race heating up, but I’m disappointed if the starting gun has actually been delayed for a few months.

P.S.  If anyone at Trek is listening, I would be happy to present your side of the story if you would like to tell it!

ElectricBikeReport.com

Today I found a relatively new web site (started in June) that reviews electric bikes and developments in the industry: ElectricBikeReport.com.  Aside from frequent articles, the web site includes a section on electric cargo bikes.  At this point, the site is a little rough – maybe half-way between a hobbyist blog and a professional site, but it has potential to develop into a great hub for people who are shopping for an electric bike, tracking recent developments, or maintaining the e-bike they already own.  The web site creator has been in the industry for some time and has worked in bike shops.  He seems enthusiastic and committed to pursuing this as a real business venture (he sells some merchandise and derives income from ads on the site).

This is another step in the development of electric bikes that I’ve been hoping to see.  We need people who can make a living by providing helpful information as well as selling and servicing these products.  Even though I enjoy blogging about electric cargo bikes as an interesting hobby, I will gladly turn the reins over to professionals when that day comes.  I’ll be watching ElectricBikeReport.com to see if it or other sites like it make MyCargoBike.net superfluous.

Electric cargo bikes everywhere

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

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 Mule

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.

Onya E.T.

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:

Leaning Loader

If you want to see lots of hills and turns, here’s another video with pretty much nothing but that.

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:

AVD Truck
AVD Van
AVD Taxi

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.

Legal infrastructure

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.

Third generation electric cargo bike

I worked in the computer industry for three decades, so I am accustomed to the furious pace of innovation associated with that enterprise.  Even so, I have been surprised by the pace of development of electric bikes in general.  While competition in the electric cargo bike category has been a little less fierce, it’s amazing that we’ve witnessed three generations of development in a little over a year.

The first generation of electric cargo bikes were do-it-yourself jobs.  Customers had to pick a bike and a motor, put them together, and hope the marriage would be a good one.  That’s what I did with my Rans Hammer Truck and BionX motor, and as you probably know, I’m pleased with the result.  But there are quirks and compromises that I have to warn people about when they take my bike for a test drive.  There are issues (like a non-existant gear) that wouldn’t be tolerable on a bike that was manufactured with an integrated motor.

I’ve written extensively about the second generation of electric cargo bikes.  These are cargo bikes that come with an optional motor from the manufacturer, like the Kona Electric Ute, Yuba elMundo, and Trek Transport+.  Each of these bikes is available in assisted or non-assisted versions.  The motorized versions reduce the guesswork and installation labor compared to the preceding generation.

I’ve frequently mused what a third-generation electric cargo bike would look like.  What if a manufacturer, instead of adding a motor to a non-assisted bike, decided to start from scratch and design a bike that integrated electric assistance so fundamentally that it defined the essence of the bike?

Several days ago, I got my first answer to this question from a Dutch company named Urban Arrow.

Urban Arrow

Let me just say it: I’m very excited about this bike.  Just in case my exuberance gets ahead of my experience, I’d like to be clear why I’m excited about it.  It’s not just about what the bike is, but what it represents: a preview of where I expected electric cargo bikes to be in another couple of years.  If the company manages to sell this bike next year at their current price target, the market is maturing faster than I imagined.  Either that or they are a little ahead of where the market opportunity is today.  It will be fascinating to find out.

I will caveat my remarks by acknowledging that I’ve never ridden this bike or seen it in person.  Since Seattle is pretty far from Amsterdam, I don’t know when I’ll have that pleasure.  However, the Urban Arrow won an Innovation Award last month at the Eurobike Show in Friedrichshafen, Germany.  So at least I’m not alone in my appreciation.

Without further ado, here it is:

Urban Arrow

Yes, it’s a front loader – the first with integrated electric assistance that I’m aware of.  As I’ve said before, front loaders are common in Europe, but they look pretty strange to North Americans who may have never seen one in person.  Despite the unusual configuration, a front loader is really what you want if you’re transporting young children.  With a lower center of gravity, their wiggles won’t disturb the equilibrium of the bike as much.  In a worst-case scenario, they won’t have as far to fall.  It’s also comforting to have them strapped in a sturdy box and under their parents’ watchful eye.  Furthermore, when the weather turns wet, you can do this:

Urban Arrow with cargo cover

I can’t imagine a kid who wouldn’t be thrilled to ride in that cozy compartment.  There really isn’t a comparable way to shelter your kids on a longtail bike.  The cargo box features a bench seat (which hides the removable battery), 2.5″-thick high density foam for comfort and safety, a grocery net, and even cup holders!  The box can be removed to convert into a flat-bed cargo bike, although I’m not sure how simple that is to do.

Groceries and passenger in the box

Most front loader bikes are heavy – between 70 and 100 pounds, and that’s without a motor or battery.  The Urban Arrow uses an aluminum frame to keep the weight under 100 pounds including the motor and battery.  That’s not exactly light compared to the longtails I’ve reviewed, but it’s prepared to handle some serious cargo.  The company claims it can carry up to 400 pounds in addition to the rider.  As usual, I wouldn’t want to test those limits, especially coming downhill.

Although the company doesn’t refer to the angled seat stem and forward pedals as a “crankforward” design, it’s closer to the posture of my Hammer Truck than the other bikes I’ve reviewed.  I’ve described the advantages of this design in previous articles, but perhaps the main advantage is reduced step-down height.  You can get your foot on the ground while seated without tipping the bike and your cargo too far.

Motor and transmission

Daum crank motor and chain

The Urban Arrow is assisted by a 250-watt motor manufactured by the German company Daum.  In previous articles, I’ve faulted the Electric Ute for using a 250W motor, which I felt was inadequate for carrying cargo uphill.  But even though the power rating is the same, there’s a critical difference between these bikes: the Ute has a hub motor, which typically produces less torque at lower hill-climbing speeds.  The Arrow’s motor is connected to the crank, and it drives the wheel through the transmission – just like your legs.  If the motor is beginning to fade at low speed, you can simply shift to a lower gear to increase cranking speed and get closer to the motor’s optimum torque range.

Stoke Monkey motor

This idea isn’t new.  Cargo bikers have been using Stoke Monkey motors to drive their cranks for years.  But the Stoke Monkey requires an extra chain to drive the crank, and another extra-long chain to drive the rear wheel of a longtail bike.  If you’re the type that likes to lubricate and adjust chains in your spare time, a Stoke Monkey might work for you, but it’s not a solution that is likely to appeal to the mass market.

The Urban Arrow’s design avoids another pitfall of the Stoke Monkey: shifting under power.  If you’ve opened up the throttle on your Stoke Monkey and then try to shift, you have at least 2 times the strength of your legs ready to grind through your derailleur and gears.  The Arrow uses a Shimano Nexus 8 transmission to dispense with the gears and derailleur.  Besides easier and more reliable shifting, the Shimano hub allows you to shift even when you are stopped or under load.  That makes shifting one less thing to worry about.

Urban Arrow in urban setting

Eight gears seems adequate with motor assistance.  I have 21 gears on my bike, but I only use the top 3 or 4 of them when the motor is helping.  However, if you want to carry cargo over hills beyond the bike’s battery range, eight gears might not be enough.  The company claims an assisted range of over 30 miles, but I suspect those are relatively flat miles in Holland, not Seattle hills.  Battery capacity is 36V at 9.5 amp-hours.

Like almost all the electric cargo bikes I’ve reviewed in previous blog posts (with the exception of the Yuba elMundo), motor effort is controlled through a torque sensor which measures how hard you are pressing on the pedals, and then kicks in a proportional amount of assistance.  I prefer this method to a manual throttle.  Twisting both a throttle and a gear shifter is more than I care to think about when I’m negotiating traffic and road hazards.

To comply with European law, the motor is only allowed to assist up to 15 mph.  In my opinion, that is a bit conservative, but probably wise.  Especially when people are carrying kids, we shouldn’t encourage them to exceed that speed.

The drive chain of the Urban Arrow is nicely enclosed to keep it away from clothing and small fingers.  It’s a great feature enabled by the internal hub transmission.  I would still like to ride a chain-less bike someday, but this is a nice step in the right direction.

Daum display

Assistance level and a wealth of other information is displayed on the large Daum control panel.  Apparently, it will even measure your heart rate if you’re riding for fitness.  A premium version includes GPS (for a premium price).  That could be useful for rental bikes, letting the rider know where they are, and helping the rental company to keep track of their bikes.  If a bike is stolen, the GPS unit can tell you where it is via SMS messages.

Brakes

Shimano roller brake

When I saw the first photos of the Urban Arrow, I was excited to see disc brakes on the front and rear wheels.  A company representative soon corrected my false impression: the disc-like features on the axles are actually cooling fins for Shimano roller brakes.  The company deliberately chose roller brakes rather than disc brakes to reduce the possibility of skidding.  Having experienced the dangers of skidding with a heavy load, that sounds good to me.  On the other hand, will these brakes handle the long, steep incline that heats my disc rotors to the point of scorching?  I don’t think Holland has hills like that, so the performance of these brakes on steeper terrain is still a concern for me.

When you look closely at the front wheel, you see something next to the roller brake fin.  At first I thought it was a hub motor: it’s nearly the same size as the Ute’s motor.  But it’s actually a hub dynamo.  It produces electricity as it spins.  At first that seemed odd to me – you’re spending electricity on the back wheel to produce electricity on the front wheel.  Fortunately, my contact at the company cleared up the mystery.  They need the hub dynamo to determine how fast the bike is going so they can keep electric assistance within legal limits. 

Lights

Excess electricity from the dynamo will be used to power the Arrow’s front and rear running lights.  For increased safety, I’d be willing to accept a little drag on the front wheel even during daylight hours.  I’m not sure what happens at night before you achieve sufficient speed to fully power the lights.  I would be tempted to put Down Low Glow light tubes on either side of the cargo box to enhance visibility from the side in the evening.

Videos

The videos and slideshow below require Flash and won’t be visible if you’re reading this article through my email feed.  If you would like to see them, click here to open the article in your browser.

The video below shows the Urban Arrow carrying kids.  It’s in Dutch with English subtitles.

The next video is a review of the bike by a Dutch technology reporter.  Unfortunately, it’s all in Dutch with no translation.  I included it here because it contains two interesting clips.  In the first, the rider performs a U-turn with the bike.  That’s one drawback of the front-loader design; the rod that turns the front wheel prevents sharp turns, so a short-radius U-turn requires some back-and-forth.  The second clip compares hill climbing with and without motor assistance (he thinks that is a hill?!? :-))  I couldn’t hear any difference between the two, raising my hopes that the motor is as quiet as the company claims.

Price and availability

The company is aiming to start selling the bike in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2011 for around $3700.  That’s at least $1000 more than the motorized longtails I’ve been reviewing, so that alone might narrow the market for this bike.  On the other hand, it’s in the ballpark of similar front-loaders without a motor (like this Bullitt from Splendid Cycles).  If you’re looking for a kid carrier, the Urban Arrow would be a good deal at that price.  The rain cover will add about $250.

Price is just one factor that will determine the success of the Urban Arrow in the U.S.  I’ve already wondered how this bike will perform on steeper hills, but there are plenty of places in the U.S. where the landscape is more forgiving.

I think the bigger question will be dealer support.  If I were going to invest thousands of dollars in a bike like this, I would want a reliable and knowledgeable bike shop nearby who could maintain and repair the bike, when necessary.  I’m guessing that few bike shops in this country would be familiar with Daum motors, and although Shimano is a well-known name, experience with roller brakes may also be sparse.

I’m hoping that some American bike shops will start selling the Urban Arrow and specializing in its upkeep.  A really savvy shop could alleviate customer concerns by offering free pickup of a disabled bike.  Even if the bike is your “second car”, getting its 8-foot length into or onto your first car could be a challenge.  By way of comparison, loading my 7-foot Hammer Truck into our mini-van is pretty tight, even with the back seats removed.

Final thoughts

It’s ironic that a bike I’ve never seen has inspired me to write a longer review than one I’ve actually seen and ridden (like the Electric Ute).  I’ve never felt comfortable writing about a bike that I’ve only met in cyberspace, but I’ve done it before when I felt it gave a better idea of the range of options and where the market is headed.  That reasoning justifies this article because the Urban Arrow breaks new ground in several ways.  It’s a harbinger of a new generation of bikes, and I’m excited about that possibility.  I hope other third-generation bikes are around the corner rather than years away.  If I get a clue, I’ll be happy to let you know.

The Urban Arrow is enough of a leap forward, I can’t stop myself from wondering what a fourth-generation bike would be like.  In my opinion, the next major advance will be some sort of automatic transmission.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, truly practical human-assisted transport will isolate rider effort from the terrain.  Someday, a rider will pedal at a steady, comfortable pace, regardless of whether they are going uphill or down, and biking infrastructure in our cities will become more accomodating as riders of all ages and fitness levels discover they can participate in this revolution. 

If nothing else, the Urban Arrow gives me hope that this vision is still achievable and on track.