Is Britain ready for an e-bike boom? We road test the electric bicycle from SMART


We all love to look back on predictions of the future from years ago that, wonderfully far-fetched as they were, simply failed to materialise.  Who knew that we wouldn't live in glass domed cities, with personal hover craft, and robot maids to make our beds and do the dishes?

So it is with some trepidation that I make a prediction for the future of the British bicycle industry.  The technology supporting electric bicycles has reached a mature enough stage that e-bikes are now here to stay, and as a market is only going to get bigger.  But is Britain ready for an e-bike boom?

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In Germany a second consecutive year of double digit growth of e-bikes has seen nearly half a million units sold this year.  In the Netherlands, the natural home of the bicycle in Europe, e-bikes make up 15% of all bicycles sold.  China - which is undergoing a massive middle-classisation of its population and a booming aspiration for private mobility - already has an estimated 120 million electric bicycles on its streets; from the humble pedelec to the fully battery-driven motor scooter.

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But here in the UK, sales are so far relatively paltry by comparison, with 15 to 20 thousand units shifting each year.  This is coupled, dare I venture to suggest, with a certain snide opinion of e-bikes within the industry.  I recently had coffee with a group of friends who work in bicycle sales, workshops and road racing; they all made the same sneering remarks; "Why wouldn't you just buy a real bike for half the price?".  I pointed out that we live in an ageing, fattening population where those who are fit (and willing) enough to ride a road bike are just a tiny proportion of a potentially much larger lucrative market, and they began to understand.

So to see what the e-bike fuss is all about, I borrowed one from those clever compact car manufacturers, smart.  Well known for their two seat city runarounds so popular in continental Europe, smart have turned their hand to building bikes as a tool to compliment the cars they sell.

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A unique aluminium frame cleverly incorporates a lithium iron battery, and rear-wheel mounted silent motor.  The harder you turn the pedals, the more power the motor delivers, meaning you'll be up to a (limited) maximum cruising speed of 15mph in seconds.  An internal SRAM 3-gear hub gives you added range, whilst the carbon belt drive (no oily chains here) keep your trousers neat and clean no matter how far you ride.  The unusual headset incorporates a digital dashboard showing you how fast you're travelling, how much output the motor is delivering, how much juice is left in the battery and what you're putting back in to the system via the regenerative power braking system.  Simply put, there's a lot of technology tucked away inside this bicycle.

All in the bike weighs a fairly hefty 26kg, comparable to a Boris Bike at 23kg, which is just about manageable if you're a long way from home when the battery runs dry.  A full charge of the battery will take about 5 hours, and the manufacturers claim that will last you approximately 100km (60 miles) of moderately paced riding with the lights on.  As with mobile phones, GPS and all other battery powered mod cons, the smart bike battery will not last for ever.  The manufacturers think it will stay strong for about 500 full charging cycles before giving up the ghost, so the cost of eventually replacing the battery is one to include in your price calculations.  And how about the price?  Direct from the manufacturers, who offer hire purchase and credit schemes, this zippy little number will set you back some £2,500.  By comparison, a basic smart fortwo coupe car will set you back just shy of ten grand.

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So who would use such a bike?  I can see plenty of successful suburbanites strapping one to the back of their cars, driving part of the way to work, parking on the city borders and finishing their journey with a battery-assisted ride to work (imagine the congestion charging fees you could save!)  Likewise, city boys with expensive suits might find the smart e-bike a little kinder on their wardrobe than sweating through August atop a Boris Bike (or on the tube for that matter).   Younger people looking for a flexible alternative to insuring themselves as drivers might see this as a brighter financial decision than running a car, and older people looking to increase their mobility whilst being kind to their joints might also consider an e-bike like this.  Dare I say it, but there are also plenty of people out there who probably quite like the idea of getting around by bike without having to put in quite so much effort.

The bike's riding style takes a little getting used to; the electric kick is a little unnerving at first, getting you up to maximum speed exceptionally quickly with minimum effort.  But once you're cruising along it is undeniably good fun, and my inner gadget fiend loved using such a sophisticated machine.  The engine, all tied up inside the rear wheel like some magic mechanical box, is completely silent and propels you along quickly without having to burst in to a sweat or feeling tired.  The regenerative braking feels akin to throwing an anchor off the back of the bike, but if it all helps to keep the battery topped up then I can put up with that.  The integrated Busch and Muller LED lights are fantastically bright and completely maintenance and faff free; something most ordinary bike builders would do well to take note of.  The saddle provided with the bike, in smart green and cream, was butt-punchingly uncomfortable for me but can easily be changed out.  Less easy to fix is the fact that the headset height is not adjustable so you'll want to take either a small, medium or large frame for a test ride before committing to purchase, and to make sure the riding position is comfortable for you, especially on London's pot-holed roads.  The white and green colour scheme is continued across the bike meaning that - differing from some of the rather unwieldy looking e-bikes on the market - the smart e-bike is pretty, well, smart.


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I imagine the primary factor holding back the e-bike market in the UK is the same holding back the cycling market in general; riding a bike on Britain's roads is just too unnatractive a concept for too many people.  However, there are plenty of early adopters out there who would be prepared to give it a go.  We've written before how technology and bicycles are increasingly converging; whether that is handle-bar mounted tablet computers or using smart phone technology to navigate bike hire schemes.  E-bikes are just another spoke in this increasingly large wheel, and a growing commercial market that retailers would do well to be prepared for. 

I had a lot of fun whizzing away from the traffic lights on the smart e-bike as my fellow "manual" cyclists huffed and puffed behind in envy.  They'd best get used to it; I suspect we will only see more and more electric bicycles on our roads in the future.

For the dimensions of a smart e-bike and purchase options, see here.  With thanks to Mercedez Benz / smart for the loan of the bike.

 
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22 comments:

Andy Macc said...

Looks like a bugger to lock.

Alistair Burns said...

Chap at work has one, keeps him fitter than sitting in a cab like his neighbours in Belgravia would do and he arrives with a smile every morning. Only problem he has had so far was some toerag nicking his saddle and battery, hope the battery is secured on this one.

Paul M said...

I think one feature which could really make e bikes take off is the way they take the sting out of hills. It's a common enough refrain - "it's too hilly around here to cycle" and the power-assistance makes light of really quite steep slopes.

I suspect a lot of people are also unaware - yet - that an ebike which meets the EU criteria on max power, speed and not being power-only is classified as a pushbike for licensing, insurance, helmet, training etc purposes.

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous I found it easy enough to lock using the folding bike lock that was provided by smart (you can see it strapped to the back of the seat post in the picture above)

@Alistair You're right, security would be a concern with such an expensive machine. On this model the battery is locked in to the frame and can only be released with a key.

@Paul I think like you do! For many people the prospect of hills is not an attractive one, and e-bikes really take the sting out of them. It's not much of a climb, but going east to west on Holborn every morning on my ride to work is the bit that normally gets me feeling a little warm under the collar. Doing it on the e-bike was a piece of cake - I didn't feel the incline at all.

Alistair Burns said...

@mark did you try cycling it unpowered? There are bound to be occasions where people neglect to charge the battery or alternatively want to get some proper exercise. If it can be used, with some effort no doubt, it could be compelling for many and I would rather the roads were congested with these.

ibikelondon said...

Hi @Alistair I did indeed (doing exactly what you mention, running out of power having not kept an eye on the battery levels) It was like riding a boris bike with a large bag onboard. You won't win the Col d'Etape without the battery assist, but you'll get from A to B okay if you take it easy. The gears come in handy for such situations, and the hub and belt drive performed perfectly.

Tim Benson said...

They always used to look so ugly but this one is certainly worth some consideration. As battery technology improves in leaps and bounds so will their overall viability. At nearly 60 I fit into the creaky joint category and after 40 years pedalling I am beginning to see these bikes as a serious contender. Thanks for the helpful review.

congokid said...

Want one!

It would be great for coping with the hills round where I live, if I could be persuaded to cycle more on the local country/town roads which are far from bike friendly.

Not so sure it would be easy for urbanites to store at home or work without serious weather or theft protection.

Anonymous said...

I always thought, that it would take off only slowly. But it is way too convenient to be ignored.

It extends the commutable distance and thus lets you cover more kilometers in less time.

If you look at those http://www.haibike.de/produkte_liste_epower_en.html or those http://en.r-m.de/e-bikes/ you know, that this will take off.

Human Cyclist said...

One went past me recently, wow. Looked so elegant gliding through the street. Rather have this overtake me than a scooter or car.

Paul Ryan said...

I had one of these on trial and seriously considering buying. For me the comparison isnt to non electric bike but real alternative to car / public transport. It has fantastic range, cleverly recharges battery when going downhill and very stable. The stability means it is too heavy and yes should be £600 cheaper but still a big leap forward. It could comfortably do a 20 mile each way commute and even if you used it once a week to replace car / train would save a big chunk of the price and get you fitter.

E-Bike Fan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Electric bikes need more press exposure. Here is an article form last week from the New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/booming/i-sing-the-bike-electric.html

Joey said...

You can download the official PDF brochure in english here:

http://tools.mercedes-benz.co.uk/current/smart/brochures/smart-ebike.pdf

Also available in many other languages, just search google!

Anonymous said...

H2E acronym for Human Hybrid Electric also Hill Headwind Eliminator. After weeks of WEB shopping and demo riding many options I purchased the SMART ebike because there was nothing comparable at any price ... 100+ km and I'm extremely pleased with the sales/delivery, performance, design, fit, finish, and local support/service. "You get what you pay for" in my experience.

Anonymous said...

H2E again. I forgot to mention the SMART ebike makes commutes minimum 20% faster without breaking a sweat especially on long steep hills.

Anonymous said...

Two weeks and counting now - must report I thoroughly enjoy riding my SMART electric bike - just past 100 km. No more fear of sweating, hills, or head winds and two wheeler trips are 20% - 30% shorter than without electric assist.

Anonymous said...

Anyone able to advise me where I can purchase a reasonably priced accessory Smart pedelec battery? I'm in Canada and was quoted $700 plus shipping and taxes.

Catherine

Pawan Yadav said...

I have written reviews on electric bikes here http://usemyreviews.com/electric-bikes-reviews/, I hope it is helpful here.

e-bikes said...

H2E again. I forgot to mention the SMART ebike makes commutes minimum 20% faster without breaking a sweat especially on long steep hills.

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