Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why Car Drivers with a Clue Support Bicycle Infrastructure

Photo courtesy of therozblog via Flickr

Imagine what it would feel like to accidentally maim, cripple for life, or kill a bicyclist (daughter, wife, mom, son, husband, dad, teenager or kid) with your car, regardless of who got the traffic ticket.

On top of that guilt, imagine the potential for an emotionally and financially devastating lawsuit.

Oh, and don't forget the deductible on your car insurance.

I've had to brake hard to avoid hitting a cyclist, day, night, rain, or shine, many times in my life. As a cyclist, I've been on the receiving end more times than I can count as well.

A bicyclist can be difficult to parse out against a cluttered background and can be moving five times faster than a pedestrian. It's just physics.

Any motorist hoping that bicycling will be made illegal has a screw loose. This is a case where it would be much better to join them rather than fight them. Motorists should be the most enthusiastic supporters of any infrastructure that gets bicyclists out of their hair.

And did I mention all of the parking that bicyclists free up?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Battery History Lesson from a Nerd King

Justin Lemire-Elmore is a founder of a very small Canadian company that sells electrical supplies for do-it-yourself electric bicycle enthusiasts. His website contains a wealth of information that many thousands of DIY builders have put to great use (myself included) like this hub motor simulator. He also has a degree in engineering physics from the University of British Columbia.

Justin is a bit of a legend in the hot-rod electric bike community. He has personally designed and manufactures several gadgets to meet the needs of DIY electric bike builders.

He recently gave a 2 hour talk titled "Lead Free Since 2003" to the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA) about his seven year struggle with different battery technologies, which was video taped (poorly) and can be viewed by clicking on the following links (in sequence). Oh, and the battery on the video camera pooped out five minutes before the end, which explains why there are no concluding remarks: 1/6 2/6 3/6 4/6 5/6 6/6 1/5 2/5 3/5 4/5 5/5

You should also download the following PDF which will let you see what he is talking about in the video:

He sums it all up below (taken from a post on Endless Sphere): was an almost therapeutic experience to get all that off my chest too! It gave some closure to this whole chapter of trying to work out custom ebike packs with all the various Chinese cell and pack assembly companies. From now on it'll be just eZee batteries with Samsung / Sanyo / Panasonic cells and programmable O2micro BMS circuit. Don't care what's the price at this point. Just want reliability.

My own personal feeling is that unless the cells are coming from a long standing big company with years and years of expertize and R&D and internal know-how in battery manufacturing, then they're not going to come close to the standards needed for a consumer industry. Almost all the new companies eagerly selling larger format EV batteries fall way short of this category. I mean we got 4 sample 48V headway packs earlier this year, and have already had to do cell replacements in two of them. A hobbyist can put up with those kind of statistics, an industry can't.

BionX was smart and used Sony cells in their lithium packs. Much as some might begrudge them charging $1200 for a replacement 36V 9Ah lithium pack, at least their users almost always get 3-4 years of regular use from the batteries before they start to wear down, and virtually never have cell problems. Sony can't afford the risk associated with their cells having problems. In hindsight I would have so happily paid twice as much for our packs to have those kinds of statistics, and at the end of the day our customers (assuming they weren't put off by sticker shock) probably would have too.

For now, we're taking a gamble on Samsung being able to deliver a reliable LiMn ebike cell, and they are assembled into packs for eZee at the same facility that does the BionX pack assembly. It's only been 6 months that we've been dealing with them though, so too early to say if that typical lifespan will be 12-18 months or 3-4 years. I'm sure hoping it's the latter because ebike users really deserve it.

For all the talk of LiFePO4 lasting 5-10 years and thousands of cycles, we've yet to see anything firsthand that comes close to consistently delivering this in practice with the ebike grade LiFePO4. I'm sure A123's are up to the task, but I have sincere doubts about all the other manufacturers.

As for the house burning down at the end of the slides (video cutoff just before I got here), that occurred to my very close friend just this summer. She happened to have a battery pack that had all the EU ebike certifications, including the stringent UN38.3 shipping tests, with a UL/CSA certified charger. Went to walk the dog for 15 minutes with the battery charging by her door and came back to the suite in flames, with the battery pack and charger (which had been beside her coat rack and a wicker basket) right at the epicenter. The fire investigation that followed was inconclusive at determining the exact cause or event sequence that lead the pack to do this.

Just 4 months before that I was actually on a tour of this very battery facility and saw the test rooms where they drive nails through the cells, heat them up to 100oC, charge them to 10V, pound them with a sledge hammer, etc. and in all cases the cells wouldn't fail with flames. So what happened that would cause a 2 year old battery that hadn't shown a single sign of strange behaviour to suddenly burn down a house? I have no idea.

Following are a number of links documenting my experience with an electric bike I have been riding since 2005:

Videos: (video has over 700,000 hits) (view from helmet cam, with afterburner) (with trailer going uphill)

Blog posts:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Electric Bicycle Evolution

I spotted an interesting looking electric bicycle in front of my neighborhood grocery store a while back. The picture you see above came from an owner's manual I found on the internet.

It has some nice features like:

1) A centered kickstand (electric bikes tend to be top heavy)
2) Front and rear disc brakes (will never wear a hole in your rim)
3) A pivoted rear wheel frame (loose tail to protect electronics and your butt)
4) A cargo rack that fits on a loose tail (a feature easier said than done)
5) Lithium ion batteries (never buy a bike with lead acid batteries)
6) It folds in half (nice if you don't have a bike rack and can lift it into trunk)
7) No front derailleur (not needed)

However, at 24 volts it will be underpowered.

I don't know what the "XB-310Li" costs but the Sanyo Eneloop pictured above costs about $2,000. I do know which bike looks cooler.

The bike below was purchased by one of my neighbors off Amazon for about $300. I believe it is 24 volts and uses lead acid batteries.

What do all of these bikes have in common? They were all bought off the internet and as soon as any electrical component fails the owners are out of luck because there are no repair shops for them (unless they can do their own troubleshooting and soldering, assuming they can get parts as well). The lead acid powered bike will fail before the year is out guaranteed because that's about all you get from lead acid.

Those of us who have built our own bikes are looking to iterate toward better and better designs. For example, ideally, you would get rid of spokes on the wheel that has the motor because they always stretch, get loose, and eventually fail.

Above photo from Golden Motors

Above photos from Grin Technologies

The price may be right for some of these Chinese electric bike parts, but reliability and support can be very dicey.

The Chinese market for electrified bikes and scooters is gargantuan. There isn't much money to be made in the paltry American market.

The people at the Canadian business called Grin Technologies are filling a niche. They designed the legendary CycleAnalyst and now have a lighting system that can be run off just about any battery pack.

Buying an electric bike sight unseen off the internet is asking for trouble and most people don't have an electric bike shop in their neck of the woods that sells and services electric bikes that don't look like something your grandma would ride.

That leaves the DIY option, which for now is a good option if you are willing and able to learn and experiment. Home built bikes often outperform the best store bought ones for a fraction of the cost. The 1000 watt limit for ebikes in California and Washington state has blurred the line between human powered with electric assist and electric powered with human assist. But that's OK. If we are going to break the stranglehold internal combustion cars have on us we will need a little room to maneuver and experiment.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Seattle gets a bike box

Photo courtesy of itdp via Flickr

According to this article over on the Seattle Post Globe, work crews were busy last night installing the first of two planned bike boxes in Seattle. I drive past those intersections about twice a week while delivering my daughter to school, although I don't usually get up that way on my electric bike. I will get to see it first hand from my car tomorrow.

From the Seattle Department of Transportation:

New bike facility increases visibility and awareness; makes road safer for cyclists and drivers

SEATTLE - To create a safer roadway system and help encourage more bicycling citywide, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is today installing the city's first bike box at E Pine Street eastbound at 12th Avenue. This fall SDOT will also emplace these new bike facilities at E Madison Street eastbound and westbound at 12th Avenue, and Seventh Avenue S northbound at S Dearborn Street.

A green box with a white bicycle symbol inside, a bike box is a nationally used intersection safety feature that prevents bicycle/car collisions by placing cyclists at the front of the vehicle queue. The boxes improve safety for all roadway users by increasing awareness and visibility of cyclists; helping cyclists make safer intersection crossings, especially when drivers are turning right and bicyclists are going straight; and encouraging cyclists to make more predictable approaches to and through an intersection.

When the traffic signal is yellow or red, motorists must stop behind the white line at the rear of the bike box and cyclists should enter the box itself. When the light turns green, motorists and cyclists may move through the intersection as usual, with cyclists going first. Motorists turning right on green should signal and watch for cyclists to the right, especially in the green bike lane of the intersection. New signage will help motorists and cyclists understand the new roadway feature. No right turns on red are allowed at these intersections.

SDOT is installing bike boxes this year as part of its Bicycle Master Plan implementation. These safety features are used in a number of other US cities to include Portland, New York City, Baltimore and Minneapolis.

I used my electric bike quite a bit yesterday, making trips to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, the hardware store, grocery store, and a drug store.

As always I rode far enough away from parked cars to avoid being killed by a suddenly opened door, which irritates motorists because I'm harder to pass.

Left turns always make me nervous. I don't like taking my hand off the handle bar to signal at such a critical juncture and I also don't trust that the cars behind me will see me in all of the clutter. I usually find a way to turn left without having to play Russian Roulette, even if I have to pull over and use a cross walk.

I have also noted that some motorists don't appreciate it when a cyclist goes to the front of a line of waiting cars. They often gun their engines and blow by in a huff. Hopefully these bike boxes will let them know that it's legal for bikes to do that just as it's legal for pedestrians to stop cars at cross walks.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Electric Bike Rally Report

The above footage is actually part of the festivities during the New Belgium Tour De Fat which was in progress when we arrived at Gas Works. You can right click on the image to watch the full sized video on YouTube.

I failed to get a shot of Ray's machine so I'm adding a photo below:

Specs can be found on our Flickr page. Since this photo he has added a larger front ring.

The rally was great fun. We learned a lot of valuable lessons, like, avoid gravel trails. This was more or less a test ride for a much bigger rally at a later time.

I was using two different cameras that use different video editing software, in case you were wondering about the poor quality and inconsistency!

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Best Buy to Carry A2B

The original Metro (not being sold at Best Buy) is actually more of a moped than a bicycle. It has a twist throttle, smallish wheels like a scooter (which enhances acceleration from a stop), along with front and rear suspension--pedaling optional:

  • Maximum road speed under power – 20 mph
  • Up to 20 miles* unassisted range (extendable to 40 miles**)
  • Battery chemistry: lithium ion
  • Nominal voltage: 36 volts
  • Continuous power output: 500W
  • Real-time state-of-charge indicator
  • Frame: TIG welded 6061 aluminum
  • Suspension (front): Ultra Motor shock-absorbing front fork (80mm travel)
  • Suspension (rear): Ultra Motor shock-absorbing swing arm (30mm travel)
  • Tires: 20 x 3.0 Kenda Kraze
  • Gears: Shimano Alivio Derailleur with 7-speed twist shift
  • Brakes (front and rear): Avid BB5 disc brakes
  • Saddle: oversized Ultra Motor comfort saddle
  • Weight of A2B Metro with battery: 72lbs

Model 13102 has an unspecified wheel diameter, but appears to be smaller than 26 inches on this photo-shopped image. There is no mention of this model on the A2B website. Front suspension only. Specifications are sketchy but this model may use a throttle instead of a torque sensor to call for power from the motor.

  • Front suspension and disc brakes
  • Help the bike come to a complete stop safely.
  • 400W electric motor
  • Helps you power up steep hills.
  • 36V lithium-ion battery
  • For great performance. Power-on-demand conserves battery power.
  • Reaches speeds up to 20 mph
  • With a range up to 20 miles (depends on rider weight).
  • Minimal assembly required
  • Note: The purchaser and rider of this scooter or bike are responsible for knowing and obeying all local, state and federal regulations regarding the riding and use of this bike or scooter.

This is model 13107 (click here for larger view), which appears to be a black version of the model 13108, which is painted blue. On the A2B website it is called the Hybrid. They all have standard 26 inch diameter wheels and you have to pedal to get the motor to help out.

  • From our expanded online assortment; not available in all Best Buy stores
  • TIG-welded 6061 hydroform-structured aluminum frame
  • Provides durability, strength and style.
  • Avid BB5 disc brakes
  • Provide precise control for coming to a safe stop. Also features a 7-speed derailleur with twist shift.
  • Brushless 400-watt direct-drive motor
  • For reliably powering up steep hills and variable terrain with on-demand acceleration and responsive torque.
  • Sanyo advanced 36V lithium-ion battery
  • To efficiently power the bike. Smart charger charges in up to 4 hours to keep you on the go. Charge status indicator near the throttle keeps you aware of charge status.
  • Reaches speeds up to 20 mph
  • With a range up to 20 miles (depends on rider weight).
  • 26" x 2" tires
  • Provide comfort and stability while you ride.
  • Full front suspension
  • Helps reduce impact from road obstacles for a smooth ride.
  • Comfort seat
  • For ergonomic support during long bike rides.
  • Minimal assembly required
  • Note: The purchaser and rider of this scooter or bike are responsible for knowing and obeying all local, state and federal regulations regarding the riding and use of this bike or scooter.

The Metro is rated at 500 watts while the others appear to be rated at 400 watts. My guess (by looking at the similar price tags) is that all models use the same motor, controller, and battery, which is good from a maintenance and supply perspective.

Laws vary radically from country to country and from state to state so an electric bike maker has standardization problems.

Best Buy was wise to choose a product made in the USA that uses the same basic electric components because customer support is critical for retail sales, however, they are about to embark on a steep learning curve. Many bikes will be returned because they don't meet the near infinite variety of customer expectations. A 300 pound guy who thinks he is getting a scooter will not be pleased to find his range is only five miles. As with all retailers, a stock of used bikes will begin to pile up and people are going to want some kind of warranty to buy them.

If they don't plan to provide bike servicing this experiment will fail. What will you do when your bike quits working? There are no electric bike repair shops. Are they going to teach the Geek Squad electric bicycle repair, and what will the hourly rate be?

There is also a liability issue to deal with. Electric bikes move and will have electromechanical failures, throttles can get stuck, people will get hurt and they will sue.

I called a store in Portland to see what I could find out. Nobody seems to know what is going on and there does not appear to be any kind of protection plan like you can buy for a computer. These bikes are not cheap. This is an investment you need to protect.

The best marketing strategy for now might be for manufacturers like Ultra Motors to do their own local retailing and repair, eventually transitioning to franchises later on, but I've been wrong before. Time will tell.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pacing the A2B

Spotted another guy riding an A2B on the bike trail the other day so I thought I'd follow him to see how he used it. He was listening to an MP3 player and didn't have any rear view mirrors.

I clocked him at 20 mph the whole time except when he slowed down in traffic. He used his pedals once, briefly, as he climbed a short, fairly steep hill.

A few days later I spotted him again going in the opposite direction. Now I know where he lives and where he works, brawhahaha!

The A2B is clearly an electric moped, not a hybrid electric bicycle. It accelerates easily to 20 mph without any pedal assist. I had no problem staying up with him but I had to pedal fairly hard to catch up.

From an engineering perspective, safety is all about impact. Impact is a synonym of force. Force is defined as the product of mass and acceleration.

Mass is how much you and your bicycle weigh combined. The weight of a conventional bicycle is not significant. The weight of the rider is a much bigger factor. Getting hit by a 300 pound dude is three times worse than getting smacked by a 100 pound woman.

Acceleration is a function of how fast you are going and how fast you slow down. Hitting a brick wall at 20 mph will create a much bigger deceleration (word often used to mean going from a high speed to a low one) than hitting one at three mph.

Total force imparted to the brick wall or a pedestrian depends on weight and speed. Getting hit by a feather going at 20 mph will not create much force.

Based on its max speed of 20 mph and 75 pound weight, the A2B is no more dangerous than a bicycle or electric bicycle. Any regular bike can exceed 20 mph if the rider is fit and motivated.

The pedals are required to qualify as an electric bicycle, but at some point you have to wonder if having pedals matters. Safety has nothing to do with pedals, although you do need a place to rest your feet.

The definition of a legal electric bicycle varies a great deal from place to place. Following are the most common parameters used:

1) Maximum power drawn by motor
2) Maximum level speed (without pedaling)
3) Maximum weight
4) Maximum of two wheels
5) Pedals connected to drive system

In some parts of Europe the restrictions have reached comical proportions. The maximum power is about the same as a large light bulb and the motor shuts off at 15 mph or anytime you stop pedaling!

IMHO, this is an example of over-regulation and it is not going to do much to reduce carbon emissions via promotion of electrification of personal transport.

Weight can't be regulated. You can't make it illegal for 300 pound people to ride bikes and tandem bikes often weigh more than that with both riders. You can't expect a cop to weigh a bike. Anyone can add a hundred pounds of battery to a bike to increase its range. There is no reason for anyone to build an electric bike the size of a Harley Davidson if it can't exceed 20 mph. The speed limitation will limit weight.

Power drawn by the motor does not matter if the machine will not go faster than 20 mph. You may need a lot more power going up a hill. And, you can't expect cops to measure a bike's power rating.

And what if I choose not to turn the power on? How can you cite a rider of an electric bike if the thing isn't even powered up? The motor, battery, and controller become cargo.

It is easy to count wheels and measure speeds (that's what radar guns are for).

Weight is a factor when you are talking about motorcycles and scooters that also exceed 20 mph. Because of the low cost, lead acid is the preferred battery in China, where electric scooters are typically redefined as electric bicycles if they have pedals on them. You can't just paint a picture of pedals on one, you have to actually connect them to the rear wheel with a chain. However, riders never have to use them. Getting hit with an electric "bicycle" in China is like getting hit with a conventional scooter because they go as fast as they can whenever they can.

Real electric bikes typically weigh in around 75 pounds. This is roughly about 50 pounds more than a cheap bicycle because of the motor, controller, and battery. A large lead battery can make a big difference but here in the states lead batteries are rapidly becoming less common.

I've seen some home-built electric bikes that used huge motors on the front and rear wheels powered by a hundred pounds of lead acid battery. They probably weighed close to 200 pounds without the rider and were capable of doing 40 mph without pedaling. They would have been much better off just buying an electric scooter. If these bikes were limited to 20 mph they would not have wasted their time and money. Getting caught doing 40 mph should get these bikes impounded as illegal, IMHO. They will ruin it for everyone if they become too common.
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