The transportation industry has seen the future, and the future is 1895.
That was the year Ogden Bolton Jr. of Canton, Ohio, was awarded U.S. Patent 552,271 for an “electrical bicycle.” A century and change later, electric bikes have gained new currency as car and motorcycle companies like Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Yamaha have horned into the market with their own designs.
While the pandemic has accelerated bike sales, the overriding attraction is that cities worldwide are beginning to restrict motor traffic. These companies are betting that e-bikes are the urban vehicles of tomorrow — or at least vehicles for good publicity today.
“In the past 12 to 18 months, you have seen a lot of new brands come into the market,” said Andrew Engelmann, an e-bike sales and marketing manager at Yamaha, which has been in the electric bike business since 1993 and claims sales of two million worldwide. “We in the U.S. have not seen this new energy toward cycling since Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.”
Credit the coronavirus pandemic, which has ignited bike sales of all stripes, but none so much as e-bikes. While retail unit sales of bicycles from January to October last year were up 46 percent from a year earlier, electric bikes were up 140 percent. Measured in dollars, regular bikes were up 67 percent and e-bikes 158 percent — so don’t expect a discount. Those numbers, from the market researchers at NPD, do not include online-only retailers such as Rad Power Bikes, so sales may actually be higher still.
Ogden Bolton aside, there is a historical connection between bicycles and motorcycles. Many early motorcycles came from bicycle makers that simply clapped a motor on a bike, often retaining the pedals in the style of a moped.
The automotive industry’s bicycle connection is more recent, with the likes of Malcolm Bricklin and Lee Iacocca introducing electric bikes in the ’90s. Both flopped. Mr. Iacocca’s design, typical for the time, was hampered by a lead-acid battery with a 15-mile range and a top speed of 15 miles an hour. Many car companies, including Ford, Audi, Maserati and BMW, have gotten into and out of e-bikes since.
“No car company has had any success selling an electric bicycle,” said Don DiCostanzo, chief executive of Pedego Electric Bikes, who in 2014 licensed a bike design to Ford. “It’s fool’s gold. It can never replace the profit on a car.”
Yet car and motorcycle makers are being drawn in. “I think they are seeing a lot of the same opportunity we see,” said Ian Kenny, who leads the e-bike effort at the bicycle company Specialized. “But I think there is a very big difference between demonstrating you can do something and doing something very well at scale.”
However, changes in the way people get about, especially in Europe and Asia, are enticing motor vehicle companies that operate internationally. Overseas, in cities that manage pollution and overcrowded streets by restricting motor traffic, e-bikes often fill a gap.
“In Europe, the e-bike is more of a fundamental transportation tool,” said Dirk Sorenson, an analyst for NPD. London, Madrid, Oslo and Paris are among the growing number of cities restricting downtown traffic.
The pandemic has American cities testing similar restrictions. Boston, Minneapolis and a number of California cities have instituted Slow Streets programs, restricting motor traffic on side streets in favor of cycling and walking. It even has UPS, Amazon and DHL trying out e-cargo bikes in New York.
“There is a huge opportunity for e-bikes in the U.S., which is a huge untapped market,” said Rasheq Zarif, a mobility technology expert for the consulting firm Deloitte.
Some companies are preparing now for the possibility that “micromobility,” as the buzzword has it, will catch on here.
“Let’s imagine Harley-Davison is not a motorcycle company but a mobility company,” said Aaron Frank, brand director for Serial 1, which builds an e-bike in partnership with Harley. “There is a strong argument we can do for urban commuters what Harley-Davison did for motorcycles.”
Other companies see e-bikes as a gateway to sell their primary products. Though best known for its motorcycles, Ducati North America wants e-bikes to “potentially turn people on to Ducati,” its chief executive, Jason Chinnock, said. “And we’ve seen that with people at some events and with the media reaching out.”
E-bikes may be more expensive than bicycles, but are cheaper than cars or motorcycles. And improved motor and battery technology is bringing prices down. Low-priced e-bikes with a motor in the wheel hub — similar to that 1895 design — can be had for about $1,000. Prices for versions with more complex, geared motors at the pedals can reach more than $10,000.
“Spending $1,000 on a bike seems out there,” Mr. Kenny said, “but when you don’t look at it as a toy — when it becomes transportation — it becomes a very different conversation.”
Price isn’t the only hurdle. E-bikes confront a crippling hodgepodge of laws. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed “low speed” e-bikes (with a motor equivalent to 1 horsepower or less) a bicycle, states still decide where that bike can be ridden.
“It’s up to 50 states to define the use, and that’s been a big problem in the past,” said Claudia Wasko, general manager of Bosch eBike, a prominent manufacturer of drive systems.
The PeopleForBikes coalition drafted model state legislation to allow most e-bikes in bike lanes and parks. It suggests three classes of e-bike, with a top speed between 20 and 28 m.p.h. Twenty-eight states have adopted some version of the legislation.
Some companies may be less concerned with the future of mobility and more interested in getting some attention now.
“I think it’s a halo thing,” said Mr. DiCostanzo, whose company has produced e-bikes for Tommy Bahama, Ford and others. Halo vehicles represent a brand’s aspirations, like concept cars.
“I think that’s what it is for Ford,” he added. “They wanted it for window dressing, and that’s what they got. I think they sold 500 in the five years it ran.”
Mercedes, which is taking orders for its top-of-the-line Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team V11 e-bike at $12,000, said it was a chance to showcase its ability with high-tech materials from carbon fiber to paint.
“High-performance road bikes and e-bikes provide a great way to showcase such technologies into a range of consumer products,” said Damian Cook, a spokesman.
For some in the bicycle industry this all smacks of déjà vu. In the 1970s, a bike boom was thought to presage a new future for transportation in which cycling was central. But it failed. Though there were many contributing factors, roads weren’t made more bicycle-friendly and people didn’t want to arrive at work sweaty.
With the combination of Slow Streets programs, which address the first problem, electric bikes, which address the second, and a pandemic that has given people a chance to adjust to both, experts like Mr. Zarif find hope.
“When you give people a chance to try something, it reduces resistance to change,” he said. “As a society, the reality is we go forward — we don’t go backward.”