Bikes Are Quickly Getting as Smart as Phones

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Today’s high-end bikes are increasingly designed as ­complete systems: Computers run the power meters, turn on the lights, and even shift gears. But the race to adopt each innovation as fast as possible doesn’t always produce a tidy ­package for consumers.

“Right now on a high-end bike, there are probably four to five batteries you have to charge,” says Chris Yu, director of integrated technologies at Specialized Bicycle Components. “A lot of them have a connected app experience. If done poorly, it’s bad for the rider.”

But one segment of the market where big bike companies are getting it right is e-bikes, which are marketed toward those who may not be expert cyclists and prefer a simplified experience. These models look and function like a traditional bike but integrate an electric motor so you don’t work as hard.

Already huge in Europe, e-bikes are beginning to take hold in the U.S., where advocates hope they’ll persuade more ­people to ditch their car during the morning commute. The industry sold $77.1 million in e-bikes in 2017, up 91 percent from the previous year, according to market researcher NPD Group Inc., and sales have grown more than eightfold since 2014.

I recently tested Giant Bicycle Inc.’s city-oriented Quick-E+. Built into an aluminum frame is a rechargeable 36V lithium-­ion battery, which powers a similarly integrated 500 watt electric motor, an onboard computer, and automatic lights. (Yes, like your car, automatic safety lights come standard on many e-bikes.) Everything else a daily commuter would want is here: fenders, a kickstand, and a rack. At $3,115, the Quick-E+ is what’s known as a pedal-assist model. The motor senses how quickly you’re pedaling and how fast you’re going, then produces the right amount of power to match your effort and propel you along at up to 28 mph.

The computer controls are intuitive and easy to work with your left thumb, even when you’re weaving through city traffic. You can choose the level of assistance you’d like from the motor: Eco mode delivers the least power; normal provides, well, a normal amount; and if you’re in a hurry, there’s power mode. The beeper-size computer screen displays the drive mode, speed (current, average, and max), ride time, and range left in the battery. That range varies depending on terrain, drive mode, and your weight; I found the Quick-E+ went about 70 miles before it needed to be plugged in using the included wall charger.

There is no other way to put this: The bike is stupid fun to ride. Step on the pedals, and soon enough you’ll be cruising along with all the joy of two wheels but none of the ­drawbacks—you know, things like physical exertion and sweat. Still, as with most new technology, every plus comes with a minus: The Quick-E+ is heavy and hard to lug around. The handle­bars are wide, giving the rider an extra bit of control, but for me they were a bit too wide for navigating city traffic.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the early days. Hey, your Palm Pilot was unwieldy, too—but you still loved it.

Quick E+ Quick Stats

POWER: The SyncDrive motor produces as much as 500 watts of power, enough to help propel a rider to 28 mph with only minimal effort.

DISPLAY: The Quick-E+’s onboard screen allows you to track ­battery level, speed, and distance ­traveled. There’s even a micro-USB port so you can charge your phone.

ASSIST: Using four sensors, the bike can tell the amount of power you’re putting into the pedals and the speed you’re traveling, then control the motor to match.

CONTROL: Use the pad on the ­handlebars to ­toggle among three levels of assistance: eco, ­normal, and power. The soft-touch rubberized buttons also control the bike’s computer and lights.

CHARGE: Giant says its 36V lithium-­ion battery gives riders a range up to 25 percent greater than competitors’ bikes. Neatly integrated into the frame, it locks to prevent theft.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net

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