The rise in popularity of e-bikes has been as great, if not more so, than that of electric vehicles. Thanks to the pandemic, many people have wanted to explore forms of travel that are less likely to put them in enclosed spaces with other potentially infectious humans. But there is a huge price range between basic e-bikes and premium options. I spoke to American e-bike manufacturer Bird’s Director of Vehicles, Scott Rushforth, about how his company differentiates its e-bikes with sophisticated battery management, inspired by electric cars, giving them extra gadget appeal.
Much of the variation in e-bike prices will be due to conventional bike-related differences, such as better braking systems, higher quality gears, lighter materials used in construction, and (with mountain bikes) more sophisticated suspension configurations. But the electrified part can also vary a lot. Although e-bikes look like simple devices, they have the potential for improvement with connected technology in a way similar to passenger cars. Bird focuses its developments on this area.
My conversation with Rushforth was timed to coincide with Bird’s arrival in the UK, which in itself shows the maturation of the market. The event took place at the London Transport Museum, with MP Paul Scully as special guest. Rushforth explained that his company is applying technology derived from the automotive industry to e-bikes. A key inspiration has been battery technology in electric vehicles. While most e-bikes have extremely passive battery management, Bird actively monitors the cells in its packs to rebalance them during charging and discharging for optimal power and life. This technology continues to evolve and allows the Bird 2 and 3 to have a three-year lifespan, but Rushforth claims the Bird 4 will deliver five years – far longer than the average mobile phone.
Bird also claims that the active thermal management and heat sinks in its batteries mean they can cope better with ambient temperature differences than other brands. There will therefore be less variability in performance in cold winter and hot summer conditions. The company does not manufacture its own batteries, but has its own test team and laboratory, to ensure that its technology is as optimized as possible.
Bird e-bikes also use regeneration, so they can recover energy through electric motor braking. This can add 5-10% to e-bike range, according to Rushforth, and will be especially beneficial if your route is going downhill. Many e-bikes don’t offer regenerative braking, but Bird says it only costs $5-7 to add, so it’s money well spent.
Bird bikes are connected vehicles with built-in GPS, which can help track them if stolen, but is also essential if the bikes are used through a commercial sharing service. The u-blox positioning system is used, which can provide locations with up to 10 cm accuracy. Bird has been integrating connectivity since 2017. E-bikes effectively act as “Internet of Things” devices returning information for optimization and analysis. This includes monitoring batteries 50 times per second across parameters such as temperature, voltage, total output and input power, and even humidity.
According to Rushforth, Bird bikes don’t just share information with a centralized server, but other nearby Bird bikes. However, the data is sent with “end-to-end encryption” like messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram, so there shouldn’t be any worries that malicious parties could hack the stream. From a user perspective, this allows Bird owners to monitor their e-bikes remotely via a smartphone app – another similarity to the latest cars.
Although an electric car essentially replaces a fossil-fuel car, doing essentially the same job, an electric bike isn’t quite a straight-line alternative. If you’re already happy to cycle to the shops, work, and other regular destinations, an e-bike probably isn’t for you. You’re already fit, saving the planet, and hopefully having fun in the sport.
An e-bike is for people who don’t feel comfortable riding a non-electrified bike because they fear they’ll be too tired, too sweaty, or even unable to complete a ride entirely due to steep inclines. Of course, bicycle enthusiasts can also benefit from electric bicycles, but their most important role is to let more people feel that they can ride a bicycle instead of taking other means of transport, such as a car. or even a bus or a train.
But adding functionality connected to an e-bike also adds another dimension. There’s already a certain type of rider who values their bike as a gimmick, especially when it comes to customizing individual components. The connected e-bike exploits this by allowing software functionality to be added, in the same way that connected cars now have a smartphone-like appeal. That’s one more reason to get out on two wheels and roll.