Energy | 27. September 2010 | posted by Jan Oliver Löfken

Energy question of the week: Bicycles replacing cars - the future of e-mobility?

According to estimates by the German Federal Government, even though today there are few mass-produced electric cars on the market, there will be a million electric cars on German roads by 2020. Despite numerous pilot projects using electric cars, high expectations are being curbed because of high purchase costs, short ranges and a lack of infrastructure for charging stations. On the other hand, sales of two-wheeled electric vehicles such as scooters and bicycles are breaking all records. So is the electric bicycle replacing the car in terms of e-mobility?

The boom in electric scooters, electric bicycles and pedelecs is particularly obvious in cities, where congestion is heavy. There are already thousands of electrically driven two-wheelers on the streets of major Chinese cities. Manufacturers in Germany estimate that 200,000 electrically driven bicycles will be sold in 2010 – a trend that is growing quickly. Across Europe, sales of electric bicycles are estimated at around 600,000 per year.

Boom in electric bicycles

Manufacturers have responded quickly to the growing interest. Their ranges now go far beyond electric bicycles used only to make pedalling easier for the elderly. The market includes what are known as pedelecs, with an integrated motor of up to 250 watts output. The motor assists the rider at speeds of up to 25 kilometres per hour, and then shuts off automatically. Electronic bicycles (e-bicycles) are faster, being capable of reaching speeds of 45 kilometres per hour, although besides needing moped insurance they also require a lightweight helmet to be worn. Some manufacturers have already secured approval for even faster e-bicycles, with a motor output in excess of 500 watts. In the future, all-weather models should also address concerns about getting soaked in a rain shower.

Probefahren von E-Bikes auf der Eurobike 2010 in Friedrichshafen; Bild: Pressebild Eurobike.

Test riding e-bicycles at Eurobike 2010 in Friedrichshafen; Credit: Pressebild Eurobike.

Besides tourism operators, the primary interest in electric bicycles in urban areas is among commuters. E-bicycles use motors that are mounted on either the front or rear wheel hub or directly on the bottom bracket and have an ample range of 30 to 70 kilometres. The battery, which is usually based on modern, rechargeable lithium-ion technology, is easy to remove and can be recharged from a wall socket in around four hours. As is the case for non-motorised cyclists, traffic queues and a shortage of parking spaces pose no problem for riders of electric bicycles. Prices of the order of 2500 Euros are high, but not as off-putting as the minimum projected 20,000 Euros for a small electric car.

More cycle lanes in major cities

To strengthen the upward trend even further, the e-cycle industry is currently wooing companies who would be in a position to purchase entire fleets of electric bicycles for their staff. Similarly, more and more cities are recognising the potential of increased cycle mobility and are marking out dedicated cycle paths on streets. Every car replaced means less exhaust fumes and less noise, fewer traffic jams and less need for parking spaces in inner city areas – thus improving the quality of life.

Of course the environmental friendliness of electric bicycles stands and falls with the available power mix, but this limitation applies equally to electric cars. On the other hand, electric bicycles are not moving any unnecessary mass and consume substantially less power. To help increase the usage of electric bicycles even more, usage models based on the example of car sharing are also planned. Also, as with a mobile phone contract, e-cyclists might in future be able to acquire a subsidised bicycle with the obligation of purchasing all its power from a specified provider. Electric mobility is becoming a reality, albeit in a slightly different manner than originally expected.

The DLR Energy question of the week in 'The future of energy' Year of Science

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has given the Year of Science 2010 the motto 'The future of energy'. For this reason the science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will this year answer a question on the subject of energy in his blog each week. Do you have a question about how our energy supply might look in the future? Or do you want to know, for example, how a wave power plant works and how it can efficiently generate electricity? Then send us your question by email. Science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will investigate the answers and publish them each week in this blog.

Top image: Pressebild Eurobike.


About the author

Energy journalist Jan Oliver Löfken writes among other things, for the Technologie Review, Wissenschaft aktuell, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung and P.M. Magazin on issues involving energy research and industry. For DLR, he answered the Energy question of the week during the Year of Energy 2010. to authorpage