When Carla Graeff runs errands in her suburban Maryland community just outside of Washington, D.C., she doesn’t fire up the family Volvo. Instead, she hops on her eGO electric scooter. What it lacks in creature comforts compared to the family car, it makes up for in much lower operating costs. And it does have air conditioning — the 20 mph in-your-face kind.
Graeff’s eGO doesn’t have pedals. Instead, her feet rest on the battery box that propels the machine at speeds up to 24 mph. Its 24-volt lead-acid batteries give it a working range of 10 to 15 miles. She typically drives it five or six miles on quiet, shady side streets while running errands, carrying what she buys in the wire basket mounted on the rear of the scooter.
In Iceland, gas costs the equivalent of about $6.50 a gallon. So tour guide Fridrik Brekkan commutes around his hometown, Hafnarfjördur, west of Reykjavik, on a Chinese-made electric scooter. He calculates he pays the equivalent of 25 cents to go 60 kilometers (37.8 miles), compared to $16 for the same distance in his Land Rover.
Meanwhile, here on the Great Plains of Nebraska, I regularly ride my TidalForce M-750 electric-assist bike to the bank and post office, and even to shop for small items at the grocery store.
Carla, Fridrik and I have discovered the (literally) quiet joys of e-riding about town, and we’re not alone. Increasingly, people looking for affordable alternatives to increasing gas prices are considering bicycles and motor scooters. Most bikes sold today are the conventional, pedal-yourself kind, and most scooter sales are of the gas-fueled variety. But a handful of electric bikes and scooters are available, with more coming soon, so you now have options for fast, fun, gas-free transportation. The market for electric two- and three-wheelers is promising, but it’s also still young and volatile — buyers should focus on quality, experts say.
Of Pedelecs and E-Bikes
There are two types of electric-assist bicycles: pedelecs and e-bikes. On a pedelec, you have to pedal to activate the electric assist; on an e-bike, you don’t. Pedelecs are essentially a Japanese and European invention. There, governments require that the rider must operate the pedals before electric-assist becomes available, and they limit the electric motor’s power to 250 watts. This is a common-sense safety precaution where riders mix with both automotive traffic and other cyclists in congested urban centers. The United States has no such regulation regarding pedals, and our limit on electric-assist power is 750 watts; 500 watts in Canada.
The more powerful the motor, the less pedaling you have to do, especially on hills. But power gains bring weight gains, and an e-bike often weighs two or three times as much as a conventional bicycle, especially if it uses inexpensive but heavy lead-acid batteries. More and more e-bikes and kits are now using powerful and lightweight, but more expensive, lithium-ion batteries.
Electric-assist bikes come in a bewildering array of makes, models and, importantly, quality. Experts emphasize to not expect cheap electric bikes (some cost less than $500) to be reliable over the long term.
Many industry experts lament the flood of cheap Asian electric bikes and scooters on the market. They have driven some of the more reputable, quality-conscious manufacturers out of business, leaving some early buyers high and dry. A prime example is WaveCrest Labs, builder of my e-bike, the TidalForce. The company announced last year it would abandon the e-bike business. Before that, Ford’s short-lived Th!nk electric vehicle division briefly sold e-bikes before pulling out of the market. And the fate of Lee Iacocca’s EV Global E-Bike line remains clouded, according to industry insiders.
So, the first rule when shopping for an e-bike: Go for quality, defined here as performance, reliability and workmanship. It will cost more initially, but will be worth it in the long run. The second rule: Select a manufacturer with a good track record who appears likely to stand behind its product with parts and service over the life of the machine. For several years, Giant — one of the world’s largest bicycle manufacturers — sold the Lafree e-bike, later renamed the Twist. Most were powered by components supplied by Panasonic, another well-established company. Giant’s current lineup includes the Lite and the Suede E. A to B magazine, a British publication devoted to bicycling, reviewed the Suede E as “probably the best mid-price bike available.” The review duly noted that “Giant will be around should anything go wrong.”
E-bike consultant Ed Benjamin recently formed his own company, Tres Terra, which produces three models. The two higher-end e-bikes use lithium-ion batteries, and they are powerful and solidly built. Benjamin, who, with Frank Jamerson, co-authors the biennial Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports , says he’s an unabashed cheerleader for the electric bicycle industry, but he also cautions about poor-quality products. So does Jerome Byrd, who publishes the Web site Electric Scooter World and specializes in evaluating e-scooters.
All seem to agree that consumers should expect to spend more than $500 for an e-bike that can deliver the necessary performance, durability and reliability.
Convert Your Bike to Electric
You can buy ready-made e-bikes, or you can convert your current bicycle to electric drive. There’s a wide assortment of do-it-yourself kits, some cheap and low quality, others designed to last as long as the bike.
A typical kit includes the motor — sometimes already mounted to a wheel — batteries, controller, twist or thumb throttle, digital instrumentation, and wiring harnesses and cables. Depending on the kit and your mechanical aptitude, you can be up and running in 60 to 90 minutes, according to e-bike expert Dave Dierker. His retail store, ElectricRider, specializes in e-bikes and conversion kits, and his wholesale company, EV Depot, supports bike shops.
A good conversion kit costs $1,000 or more. Benjamin likes the BionX kit from Canada. Dierker, whose company sells similar conversion kits called RoadRunner and Sparrow, also offers Crystalyte’s high-powered Phoenix kits.
Want to ride in unmatched comfort and stability? Consider a recumbent bicycle, especially the tricycle variety. Admittedly a niche vehicle, with good nonelectric models priced at $800 and up, recumbents have been around for nearly as long as conventional bicycles. So fast and ergonomically efficient that they were banned from international cycling races in 1934, these machines are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
It’s possible to add electric drive to most recumbents, either as a manufacturer option or conversion. Tricycle recumbents tend to weigh two to three times as much as a regular bike, and adding electric power only increases the mass that the rider and motor must move. But these are about as close to a motor vehicle as a bike can get and still be legally considered a bike.
The term “e-scooter” applies to a wide variety of machines. At one extreme, they resemble classic Vespa scooters (think Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday); at the other, they’re standup platform scooters — beefed-up versions of children’s sidewalk scooters. They’re intended for short trips; unlike bikes, they have no pedals. Many of the smaller models lack seats and fold up.
The rules for purchasing e-bikes also apply to e-scooters, perhaps even more strongly. When asked about buying a cheap e-scooter, Byrd said, “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
A former software engineer turned teacher and Web publisher, Byrd probably has tested and reviewed more small e-scooters over the years than anyone else in the country. He says that after 30,000 miles of e-scooting around Philadelphia, he simply stopped keeping track of his mileage. He still commutes 15 miles per day on an e-scooter to his college teaching job.
His rules for choosing the right e-scooter are straightforward: First, you get what you pay for. Second, buy as many watts and amps as you can afford.
The power of gas-engine scooters is measured in either cubic centimeters (cc) or horsepower, but e-scooter motors are rated in watts — and the higher the wattage, the better. For example, you can buy moped look-alikes that can carry one adult, with motors rated 250 to 800 watts (equivalent to between one-third and one horsepower). Those scooters might have sufficient power for riding on level ground, but as Brekkan discovered, they will have trouble climbing even the slightest hill. He reports that his scooter can’t climb the hill out of his own yard, so he has to push.
To negotiate hills, you’ll need a machine with more watts. Graeff’s eGO, for example, uses a motor with 1,000 watts continuous output, but which is rated at 4,800 peak watts. This brings up another important point: View all wattage claims with skepticism, especially from less established manufacturers or online retailers. Byrd says knock-off makers and sellers often overrate motors, copy the specifications of more reputable manufacturers, or just plain lie. A favorite trick is to list the motor’s peak wattage as its continuous power rating, but since a motor can run at peak for only a few seconds without damage, this is misleading.
Batteries are the other critical element of any e-scooter or e-bike. The capacity of a battery to store energy is measured in ampere-hours (amp-hours). Byrd advises that if you plan to use the scooter for commutes of less than five miles on level terrain, then a battery rated below 17 amp-hours will be sufficient. For any other application, make sure the machine is equipped with a battery rated higher than 17 amp-hours. And, as with motor wattage, the more amp-hours, the better. Graeff’s eGO, for example, has a 34 amp-hour battery.
Those batteries also must be charged, and the quality of the charger is important. To cut corners, clone scooter makers may ship an inexpensive but inefficient charger. If you notice the batteries getting warm during the charge — and we’re talking about lead-acid batteries, which power most e-scooters today — buy a better charger, Byrd advises. Heat shortens the life of most batteries.
Just as important is the way you treat the batteries. Lead-acid batteries respond poorly to deep discharges or overcharging. To get the maximum mileage out of your batteries, Byrd suggests, take only relatively short trips and recharge the batteries frequently. For example, it’s better to drive three 10-mile trips, recharging in between, than one 30-mile jaunt. Shallower discharges and frequent slow, steady charging will prolong battery life.
If you want to spend less than $1,000 on a short-range stand-up commuter, Byrd recommends the Go-Ped. The ESR750 Sport model has a six-mile range at up to 20 mph in “Turbo” mode and goes nine miles or more in “Econo” mode. Moped clones from Asia rated at 500 watts can be purchased for well under $1,000, and may be an affordable option for short trips over level terrain, but keep in mind Byrd’s dictum that you get what you pay for. In the $1,000 to $1,500 range, both the eGO and a lesser-known e-scooter called the Forsen should be suitable for 10 to 15 miles of travel over mixed terrain at 20 mph.
My favorite class of e-scooter is the electric version of the popular Vespa-style scooters. Powered by 1,500- to 2,000-watt motors, these machines are solid rivals for their 49cc gas-powered counterparts in performance and price but without the noise, tailpipe pollution and reliance on gasoline. Peugeot offered one of these in Europe and was one of the first to demonstrate it was possible to build a practical e-scooter. Motor scooters are extremely popular in Asia as low-cost transportation, so it was inevitable that manufacturers in China and Taiwan would develop electric models to help combat the pollution generated by noisy gasoline scooters.
Unfortunately, this e-scooter class is the most volatile segment of a volatile market, and no manufacturer is currently producing full-size e-scooters for the U.S. market. “There’s not much in the United States right now,” says Bert Cebular, founder of NYCeWheels, an e-ride shop in New York City. “Unfortunately, many manufacturers’ Web sites contain very creative claims, resulting in disappointed consumers.”
In an all-too-familiar scenario, promising machines hit U.S. shores recently from Global Generation Cult (GGC), a small start-up based in Munich. GGC built its E-Max scooters in China, with a Chinese-developed lead-based battery that used silica salt as its electrolyte. It proved remarkably durable and energy dense compared to conventional lead-acid batteries. Nonetheless, GGC has closed down.
Future Electric Rides
Several companies, some well known, have announced their intent to enter, or re-enter, the e-ride market. Keeping in mind that plans can change, here are some interesting developments as of press time:
An Italian company called Oxygen is building a scooter designed for delivery fleets that uses lithium-ion batteries. Word is this new scooter’s range approaches 100 miles on a charge. It’s expected the company will begin U.S. consumer sales soon.
Evader MotorSports recently announced it was beginning to ship two models, the EV 1000 and EV Rally, with a 30 mph top speed and a 40-mile range. Vectrix says it will introduce a maxi-class scooter in late spring or early summer. It’s intended to be highway capable, with a top speed of 62 mph and a range of 68 miles at 25 mph. Vectrix estimates the price will be about $14,000.
Three intriguing future e-rides: Vespa is currently testing prototypes of a gas-electric hybrid scooter in Italy, and Honda announced one in 2004 as a concept vehicle. At the cutting edge is the ENV, a beautifully designed motorbike from a company based in the United Kingdom. A removable fuel cell generator powers it to a top speed of 50 mph, with range estimated at 100 miles. There’s no word yet on commercial availability for any of these.
When you shop for an e-ride, check local regulations and remember the rules. Over the next few years you should have quite a few choices for fast, gas-free transportation.
DIY Electric Motorcycle Conversion
You can build your own electric motorcycle for less than $2,000, according to John Bidwell, author of three books on motorbike and motorcycle conversions. His latest book, The Secrets of El Ninja, explains how to convert a Kawasaki Ninja or similar gasoline motorcycle to electric drive, including sources for parts.
He advises starting with a reasonably inexpensive machine, preferably one with a blown engine but otherwise still in sound mechanical condition. Look for one with as large an engine block area as possible — that’s where the batteries will go. His 72-volt El Ninja has a top speed of 65 mph. He’s achieved a maximum range of just over 40 miles in stop-and-go traffic around Fort Collins, Colo., his home. He estimates El Ninja will go 50 miles at a steady 30 mph. He bought the 1987 bike for $200 and invested another $1,700 in parts and low-cost RV batteries. The machine weighs 550 pounds, only about 50 pounds more than the stock model with a full gas tank.
The Fine Print
Federal law says a “low-speed electric bicycle,” defined as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with a motor of less than 750 watts and a top speed of less than 20 mph on level pavement with a 170-pound rider, is not considered a motor vehicle. Nonetheless, laws governing the use of electric bikes and scooters vary by state. You may encounter varying provisions regarding licensing, insurance, titling, helmet use, lights, operator age, top speed and more. You can check your state’s regulations at www.moped2.org/mstates.htm or www.electric-scooter-world.com/LegalStat.htm.
When Bill Moore is not e-biking around Papillion, Neb., or trying to maximize the fuel economy of his hybrid Honda Insight, he produces EV World, an outstanding source for everything related to green transportation.