Cleantech Market Intelligence
Building the Ultimate Consumerist E-Bike
As an avid cyclist, I spend a lot of time behind the handle bars pondering important things like whether SRAM or Shimano is better, whether that guy in the Dodge sees me, and whether Tri-Berry flavored Gu is really a different flavor than Jet Blackberry Gu. The biking in the Motor City is actually pretty terrific because (and I don’t know if you’ve heard this anywhere before) people have been leaving Detroit over the last couple decades, so the traffic is light in many areas. This has given me another thing to ponder over the years – why more people don’t bike to work around here?
This morning, as I was scanning the news, I caught a fun piece that actually has some pretty interesting insight behind it. The Commute by Bike blog did an imagining of what an Oprah-sponsored and Apple-manufactured bike would be, calling it the “oBike.” I should clarify for Pike management and clients that I do not consider this site to be a source of “news” per se, but they do have interesting reviews and it’s among my RSS streams periodically it gets read among the actual news sites. Anyway, my job security aside, what was of particular interest is the concept that for a bike to become “the ultimate consumerist bike” it has to be something that generates a following, drawing in consumers by trying “not to think like a cyclist.”
This is where the electric bikes come in. Most e-bike manufacturers already recognize that those most likely to purchase and use these vehicles are not avid cyclists. They are often middle age and many are just getting into (or back into) bicycling as a form of transportation. Demographically, this makes sense as young people tend to lose interest in bikes for motorcycles or automobiles, and those who want to be considered cyclists generally steer away from e-bikes.
This has resulted in many companies offering e-bikes that have very trendy designs, e.g. purpose built e-bikes, rather than a traditional bicycle with a motor and battery attached (though there are many of those too). These purpose-built e-bikes have riding positions that are more comfortable, more upright and often allow the rider to set their foot flat on the ground while still seated. The trendy designs are even drawing in demographics who may not have been an original target. This has even captured the attention of automobile manufacturers who are increasingly showing off e-bikes and e-scooters modeled in the design of their cars or trucks. In other words, they are aiming for that “oBike” concept.
There is a second important piece of this fad puzzle: The vehicles will have to be sold, according to Commute by Bike, through Apple stores. Regardless of your opinion of Apple stores, this does raise an interesting point. In the automotive world, Tesla Motors is moving this direction by setting up their own retail dealers designed to give the feeling an Apple store.
E-bike manufacturers have been stuck in a bit of a no-man’s retail land, as e-bikes are largely ignored in local bike shops, big box stores often don’t know how to sell the vehicles, and specialty e-bike stores remain few in number. Specialty stores, like electronics giant Best Buy, may have been a good fit in the past, but as Best Buy shifts its business model there is a legitimate question as to how e-bikes might fit in the future. An e-bike manufacturer with money to burn may see success setting up its own trendy dealer network, though that is no small undertaking with a heavy cost burden.
So, what’s that mean for “ultimate consumerist e-bike” dream? Unfortunately, I don’t think it will exist near term. While the e-bike designs may point to a stylish vehicle that could pique the interest of non-cyclists, the U.S. market for e-bikes seems likely to remain comparatively small and companies will continue to struggle to figure out the retail channel for several more years.