Are e-bikes city transport of the future?
Could it be the next big thing? The solution to transport woes and global warming? Oh heck, don't say the electric bike. John McCrone reports.
Is there an electric bicycle in your future? The coming mass mode of transport? The way you get to work, to the shops, to your friends?
Not if you can help it, you are probably saying, casting a guilty glance at the SUV on the driveway.
Yet e-bikes are happening. Sales are soaring in China where two-stroke motor bans in air polluted cities mean the poor have to find an alternative to their step-through scooters.
And even more remarkable is the take-off in Europe where one in 10 bike purchases are now of the battery- assisted kind. Traffic congestion and heavy fuel taxes as well as carbon footprints have made them the right investment.
And pundits say this is the way tomorrow will unfold. Everyone might be talking about a coming switch to hybrid motor vehicles and electric cars (good grief, they even want to launch a Formula E championships - zero emission e-car racing).
However as the world's oil fields run down and petrol becomes too expensive, or international action on climate warming finally gets serious, the argument is that we will jump straight to e-bikes instead.
Any kind of metal box on four wheels is a luxury society cannot afford when for just a few cents a day, we can do all our needed zipping around. Or even for nothing once we all also install solar panels on our roofs and plug our e-bikes into those.
Right, stop sniggering. It is true that in car-crazy, sprawling-city, New Zealand, we are going to be about the last to catch this particular wave. But in the end - maybe 10 or 20 years down the road - will we have a choice?
In Christchurch, my Korean neighbour has one. I spotted another whirring past a gaggle of sweaty Lycra- clad racing cyclists, heading up a steeper section of the Port Hills.
So they do seem the cool new thing. But where do you buy them? Regular bike shops appear to shun them.
The only local outlet looks to be More Mobility in Addington - displaying the Singapore-designed, China-made, eZee Kinetic bike range next to its mobility scooters, electric beds, footwarmers and other senior citizen "living aids".
OK. Maybe not such the cool thing then.
A phonecall to the Nelson-based distributor, The Electric Bike Hub, reveals that e-bikes require a matching e-sales infrastructure. Think it through, I'm told. Someone has to know how to fix the electronics.
It is early days for the development of the support networks, even if a rival firm, The Electric Bicycle Company, is about to open its first dedicated e-bike shop at The Tannery in Woolston in a few weeks.
So I am sent to see the Electric Bike Hub's Christchurch technician, Anthony Field, at his Spreydon home. Field - known to his mates as eco-Ants - is more what you might expect.
A dedicated greenie engineer, his other job is servicing the electronics inside the Kakapo and native bat recording boxes used by the Department of Conservation. A couple of crates sit in the hallway awaiting his attention.
Field is a bit of a tinkerer and is keen to show me his toilet with its Heath Robinson water-saving invention. The sink to wash your hands is plumbed so it drains to fill the toilet cistern below. No water wasted.
And he is into his electric vehicles. A battery-powered BMW, a homemade conversion he bought off a fellow enthusiast, has to be moved off the driveway so we can get at his garage.
"There are only about 60 electric cars in the country." He can fill up its "tank", do a 100km round trip, for just $4 he claims.
But his pride is the e-bikes he has been building for himself since he was a student at Canterbury University. The first project in 2007 was a mountain bike with a burglar alarm lead acid battery strapped to the pannier rack and a cheap Chinese hub motor fitted to the rear wheel.
He wheels out the Mark II version he put together in 2010 and still uses. Watch out he warns as I clamber aboard. This one is a rocket even though he has now cut the power output down to a third of what it was to be sure it is safe and street legal.
It is part of the e-bike's evolution. As in the early days of the automobile or aeroplane, e-bikes are still just emerging from that pioneer era of free and occasionally wild experimentation. Debates are continuing whether the electric motor best goes in the back wheel, front wheel or crank.
And Field says the law also has to keep pace with their possibilities if e-bikes are actually going to be a mass transport solution.
One of the reasons why e-bikes are taking off so fast in Europe, winning out over e-scooters, is that they enjoy all the accumulated privileges of bicycles, like no road tax and the use of cycleways.
But the flip side is that the regulators are insisting they retain their pedals and cannot be just "sit ons". Engine power is also been restricted. It is this kind of interaction that is shaping the e-bikes we see arriving on our shores.
Field's home-made rocket machine had a 1000 watts output before he down- rated it. He says New Zealand's tolerance is higher than Europe's, but is settling on 300 watts as the top mark to still count as a bicycle and not a motorbike.
"Which experience tells me is about right," he grins. It can be hairy enough as it is when it is easy to cruise like Lance Armstrong while pedalling like a nana, Field says. "Drivers are always pulling out in front of cyclists. But it gets really dangerous if they look at you and don't realise you're going at twice the speed they anticipate."
So astride the machine, I twist the grip throttle with a little nervousness and blat down the street. I soon return to Field with a smile. "Everyone has a smile on their face after their first ride," he exclaims. "Electric bikes are just fun."
Then I try out a proper bike of the future, an orange Yuba Mundo cargo bicycle with a stonking rear pannier. Designed to tote 200kg - or "two children and two weeks of shopping" - it is meant to be the people carrier of the planned e-bike revolution.
People are really using these things in the US says Field. He has heard of student furniture removal firms that shift home for you, organic wholefood stores where they are the eco-friendly delivery machines, tradespeople who use them to carry their tools. All very cool.
Just not in New Zealand yet. "We imported them thinking we would be pumping them out," Field admits. But the hot seller so far has been the eZee Sprint lady step-through - the model that looks quite at home down at More Mobility.
Field points out that the cargo bike has a front-wheel hub motor - better weight balance - and dual throttle and pedal power control. All part of the ongoing technological evolution. But watch it, dial it down, when doing a U-turn, he advises. And I soon discover what he means.
At five bars on the battery meter, the bike is really doing 99 per cent of the work. You rotate the pedals simply to wake the motor into action. So when turning at the end of the road, the merest hint of pedal pressure brings a sudden assisted surge which threatens to accelerate the Yuba into the nearest bush.
However it does not take long to figure it out. With power adjusted to half myself pushing, half the electrics, it all seems rather more secure.
Field says this hidden poke of an e-bike - the fact it drives itself if you let it - does make you feel guilty out on the road.
When alongside other commuting cyclists at the lights, especially those with all the racing gear, he often apologises in advance, lets them know he is about to vanish off into the distance with no real effort. Otherwise they might bust a gut trying to keep up.
Yet there is still a fresh air and exercise benefit from pedalling lightly, Field adds quickly, as an ordinary bicycle is more likely to get left in the shed. "I probably use an electric bike five times more because it's so enjoyable. Whatever time I get up, I've got a tail wind. Everywhere I go, it's downhill. So I'm using it all the time."
People will commute three times the distance with an e-bike, which in a city like Christchurch means they are practical even for travelling from the outer suburbs. The extra acceleration makes you feel safer in traffic and you can arrive at work without the tell-tale "glisten" - no need to spend 10 minutes showering and changing, Field says.
But what makes him passionate about e-bikes is that if everyone switched we would save the planet.
Look, he says, unclipping the battery pack from the seat stem, that's about 10 cents of electricity and it will do your day. E-bikes are the game changer the world has been waiting for.
Social shifts have a way of creeping up on you and then shooting right past. Especially where technology intersects economics. Tipping point behaviour.
Solar panels - photovoltaic (PV) cells - seem to be doing that at the moment. A few years ago they were an expensive green fad. But China has been driving down the hardware prices.
In Queensland, so many homes now have panels on their rooftops that the state coal-fired power stations are struggling to make a profit. Last month, mid-day electricity was being sold at below night off-peak rate as PV has been killing the grid's demand.
So electric bicycles could be like that within the next decade. On the other hand, e-bikes have already seen their false dawns.
In 2009, a pair of Christchurch entrepreneurs opened up Ecogo, a shop for e-bikes in Redcliffs. Partner Ron Jarvis says they thought they could not fail - everyone would want one. "They were just bloody brilliant."
But perhaps the price tag at $2500 was too steep. "They've got to be around $1500 I reckon." Ecogo's unsold stock was rented out to tourists as a novelty in Hamner. And now Jarvis is back to selling used cars on a car-lot - rather ironic, he agrees.
Jace Hobbs, the American founder of Nelson's The Electric Bike Hub, says he got into the business at around the same time.
How it happened was that the local furniture store had imported some of the first eZee bikes.
When he phoned to inquire, he ended up buying the national dealership rights as well.
"The guy said he thought it was a clever idea to sell electric bikes and they were selling well. But he said look, I don't even ride a bicycle. I don't know how to adjust a brake."
That was when Hobbs realised there could be no e-bike revolution until there was also the right support structure in place. Any importer could go to a Chinese trade fair and come back with a container load to flog off. Yet to create public confidence, they had to be treated as more than a gimmick.
Hobbs says the reason why the current e-bike trend got started was the arrival of lithium batteries to replace the old lead acid or nickel hydride cells. These immediately halved the weight of the packs. And they are still on a curve of development.
Hobbs says the energy density of rechargeable lithium cells - being pushed so hard for so many electronic applications - is expected to double again in the next few years. And to be honest this might make a big difference for the practicality of e-bikes as the current distance between charges is around 100km. For bike trekking tourists, hill living commuters, cargo bikers, or others with an all-day load, better batteries will make e-bikes steadily more attractive.
It is a tipping point thing, Hobbs says. And obviously, better cycleways in New Zealand are going to be as important as the technological advances. Hobbs was on an Auckland future transport committee where eyes were opened realising that e-bikes rather than e-cars could be what cities need to plan for.
"Electric cars don't change your congestion problems. You still need build wide roads and provide the parking."
So it is a package of changes that have to come together to create a market. Hobbs agrees price is an issue too. The eZee bikes are mostly in the $3000 bracket. The sales pitch is that is cheaper than a family owning a second car.
Thus the reality at the moment is that the market is tiny. E-bike customers are the elderly who want the assisted pedalling, or existing bicycle commuters who are fed up with battling headwinds and hillclimbs each morning.
And if petrol stays relatively cheap and abundant forever, if climate change demands no concerted action, then e-bikes will never be more than a novelty, another technological fad. No way are they going to be part of any normal person's future, Hobbs concedes.
Yet if the adjustment to global realities becomes more of a lurch than a smooth transition, it is good to know that at least there are choices, Hobbs says. It is one of the things that could happen - half the town zapping about on electric two-wheelers - even if it seems rather difficult to imagine at the moment.