Electric cargo bike, made in China

If you have been following my blog about electric cargo bikes for a while, you know that I often make predictions about where the market for these bikes will go.  Over time, many of my predictions have come to pass, but usually later or on a smaller scale than I had anticipated.  For example, I wrote this almost a year ago:

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…

That was one of my most audacious predictions, and one that I didn’t expect to happen any time soon.  But let’s check where we are one year later.  Available at Wal-Mart?  Yes, but not electric cargo bikes, just electric bikes in their traditional form, priced between $400 and $800.  Still, an electric bike for $400?  That’s just unbelievable.  Or maybe crazy – the bike has mixed reviews from customers on Amazon.

ODK Utility Bicycle

But as far as I can tell it’s not manufactured in China, and surely not designed there, so that part of my vision hasn’t arrived yet.

Or has it?

I was recently contacted by Tora Harris, founder of Juiced Riders, a small company with a new electric cargo bike that is – you guessed it – manufactured in China.  At first, I was reluctant to write about yet another cargo bike that I’ve never seen nor ridden, but the ODK Utility Bicycle represents several interesting steps that make it worthy of comment.

The first thing that caught my eye is the ODK’s form factor.  In size and shape, it’s an intermediate step between a traditional electric bike and a heavy-duty cargo bike.  That could be interesting for people who want the ability to carry something, but who don’t need to carry loads of construction materials (or passengers) on a regular basis.  Happily, the price is somewhat less than the big bikes as well, reportedly $1999.  Although that’s still far from the halved price point I thought we might see someday, the ODK’s specs are much better than the discount bikes that are likely to compete for the low end of the market.  For example, it has disc brakes on both wheels, an ample motor big enough to power the bike without pedaling (500W), and a double-size battery that provides plenty of range (all according to the company’s specs).  The included accessories like mud guards, chain guard, light, and bell are nice touches.

And this is another bike that qualifies for my third generation label.  We are now well within this generation of electric cargo bikes that have been designed and manufactured with electric assistance in mind from their inception.

But for me, the most interesting part of this bike is the story behind it, which the founder has documented in a 79-minute video on their web site, detailing the process of working with various Chinese manufacturers to build it.  At first, I wasn’t sure I would have the time or patience to watch the whole thing.  But as I continued watching, I became more and more fascinated by the country, the people, and the process of building an electric bike from scratch.  It provides a unique peek into a country that many worry will dominate the globe.  If you don’t have an inclination to watch the video yourself, here are a few of my impressions:

  • Chinese workers wind the coils of electric motors by hand?  I would have bet money that a machine did that.  The women who wind the coils are virtually machines themselves.  It’s mind-numbing work that they perform with almost robotic speed and efficiency.  Building batteries is also much more labor-intensive than I would have guessed.
  • Speaking of women, they make up the majority of the work force in these factories, and they do most of the hard or intricate work.  Women are also present at the business lunches and dinners (of which there are many in this video), but most of the business managers are men.
  • If you want to build a complex product in China, you better like Chinese food, a lot!
  • This film won’t allay any fears of China as a competitor in world markets.  From the earnest engineers of a tiny company with 5 employees working out of a garage, to mega-manufacturers who produce millions of units per month, the Chinese people are hungry for success through hard work.  I’m hoping it’s not a permanent condition, but the US seems distracted by political and fiscal issues in comparison.

Even though my inclination is not to recommend a Chinese product over ones made in America or Canada, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dedication and perseverence that produced this bike, especially when you see all of the human faces behind it.

In the end, I’ve discovered neither an urge to cheer nor to cry over this development.  Instead, I’m left with a quiet smile.