Friday, June 10, 2011

Yike Bike & Picycle - Electric Bicycles For All?

It seems likely that cyclists will be seeing more and more electric bikes - for some reason, this seems to take some getting used to. Performance Bike has several Schwinn models now for under $1,000 that looks pretty good and at that price, when people are otherwise buying "city bikes" for close to that price (or more), it seems like a reasonable option.

Some of the options seem a little too exotic, however. The Yike Bike in particular I find puzzling since it doesn't include any ability to pedal the thing at all. Is this really a bicycle?

Promotional video for a Yike Bike

Actually, I can't tell if it is legally a bike or not - the focus of the explanations of the legality of electric bikes is usually on the upper limits for the amount of electric power and not being able to exceed 20 mph unassisted.

Video that attempts to persuade that the Yike Bike can cope with the real world - does not seem the rider read the Yike Bike "warning" page

The above video looks convincing but I doubt I would want to be out on the road much on one. Apparently most of the rider's weight is distributed to the front wheel, but that tiny back wheel . . . And the various Yike Bike videos never show a rider wearing a helmet. I'm not obsessive about helmets, but it seems at least as likely to crash a Yike Bike as a regular one, so why not a helmet? (The unsettling "warning" page for Yike Bike says "always wear a cycling helmet which meets the latest safety standards applicable in your region for YikeBike usage." Oh.)

The steering set-up for the Yike Bike would take a little getting used to (and yes, the "warning" page has some advice there, too). The basic "handlebars from behind" isn't a new idea - a patent I looked at in an earlier post is the same in that regard although the small wheel is in front (and the materials are mainly wood and not carbon fiber!).

In one respect the Yike Bike goes way back, to the "ordinary," with it's extra large wheel in front and tiny wheel in back, when strong braking could lead to "headers" as the rider went over frontwards upon a sudden stop, landing on his (or her) skull. The safety video above actual shows such a sudden stop, but presents it as a "feature" - but on grass. Going down a steep hill might be a bit different. The "warning" page advises (among other things) "never use the YikeBike on steep hills (over 5 degrees) and only go slowly down hill."

Another issue is that the Yike Bike has zero built-in cargo capacity, other than for the rider to carry a backpack or messenger bag. The Yike Bike site states that the combined weight of rider and bag should not exceed 100 kilograms (or 220 lbs, give or take). The Yike Bike itself (the basic model) weighs 23 lbs, which is more than a typical high end road bike these days and about the same as my 30 year old steel Bridgestone road bike. When folded and tucked in the optional $60 carry bag, that would be a bit of weight. And of course if the drive system fails this isn't a bike in the usual sense (that is, with pedals) so carrying would be the only option.

A more traditional electric bike, if not in appearance, is the Picycle.

The basic Picycle

Here the exotic aspect comes from the design, and not from most of the electric bike features. The base version is under $3,000 while another version with a fancier internal hub system (for the pedaling) and a belt drive rather than chain (again, for pedaling) puts the cost up around $5,000. Of course, for either sum, you have a "bicycle" that will attract lots of attention!

The main technical advantage (or difference, anyway) of the Picycle over "traditional" e-bicycles is that the drive system does not boost the existing drive system to the rear wheel but rather has a motor in the front hub. However the Schwinn models for under $1,000 use the same approach. The Picycle also recharges as you coast down hills. On the other hand, it takes 3.5 hours for a Picycle to recharge (per their site) while the cheap Schwinn claims 30 minutes to full charge, allowing the same 20 miles of riding (without pedaling - this seems to be the basic metric for these things).

A version of the Picycle is available with two motors (and no pedals/chain) but that model, able to hit 35 mph, is not legally a bicycle (but the Picycle people ignore that). I certainly wouldn't want such a thing on the bike trail (where the speed limit, much ignored, is 15 mph).

A review of the Picycle from the LA Times - the reviewer wears a leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet since she is apparently more a biker than a cyclist.

The Picycle models have rear fenders, in part because the seat post is integrated with it (I think) but no front fender. Typically I'm not too concerned with fenders (by which I mean none of my bikes have them even though I ride in all weather) but because the front wheel is motorized I suspect it would spit up far more debris in all weather, so I think despite the uncool design aspect that a fender for the front wheel would be good. The Yike bike also allows attachment of a typical rear rack, but generally the publicity photos don't show that kind of ordinary set-up.

The Picycle is heavy - over 60 lbs. If the drive system fails (which is probably not that likely) or you run out of battery power, pedalling this thing would be a chore; still, in a pinch it is better than the Yike Bike no-pedals-at-all approach. (For comparison, the Schwinn models are said to be 12 lbs over the "normal" weight for such a bike, which I would guess would put them at something under 45 lbs.)

The Picycle people offer an amazing set of (pricey) options, including belt drive (rather than chain for the pedal-driven "drive system") and even "PiFi" which is some sort of wireless system (for a bike?!) and naturally, at prices of $5,000 and beyond, GPS theft location capability.

I'm assuming the thinking of the Yike and Picycle people is that there is a market for thrifty green "cyclists" who would find a traditional bike that has added a motor to a traditional bike design to be too pedestrian (perhaps that's a pun?) and that these thrify folks will gladly part with several additional thousand dollars to be special.

It's a theory.

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