We cover electric bikes every now and then at CrunchGear, but while millions are sold in Asia and Europe, they remain a rarity here in the US, even on the mean cycling streets of Seattle. Certainly the convenience of cars and our highway-orientated infrastructure is partially to blame for the lack of interest in these extremely effective transportation tools, but I also think that accessibility has been an issue. The Eneloop bike I rode last year at CES, for instance, I have never seen nor heard of since, and the major conversion kits and full bikes seem like too great of an investment for the chary, green-curious consumer.
Clean Republic, a local Seattle start-up literally run out of a garage, seems to be of the opinion that what matters is simplicity, modesty in design, and of course low cost. In 2010 they’ve gone from prototype to 1,000 kits shipped and although they’re not bucking to be a billion-dollar company, they are building a sustainable business and could be trading in millions pretty soon.
Michael Shope is the CEO, a local and a fellow graduate of mine from Garfield High School here in Seattle. He came into the scene with the simple intention of building a better electric bike for the American market. Part of the issue is commitment: many bike makers are selling models with motors and battery integrated, with 500 watts or more of power. At between $1000 and $3000, they tend to be almost as much of a consumer commitment as a motorcyle or scooter. I considered one myself when I was driving two miles to work back in 2006, since really I just needed a hand on the hills here in Seattle, which anyone will tell you are murder (especially with the rain and the drivers here). But $2000 was rent money, and I already had a car and a regular bike. Shope was counting on people like me, who would love to quit petrol but didn’t want to buy a whole electric bike platform.
The Hill Topper is an original design on an established e-bike principle: the front wheel of your bike is replaced by one with a hub-mounted motor, the battery clips to your frame, and there’s a single button remote for spinning it up. Like other electric bikes, it’ll maintain your speed, boost your pedaling, or propel the bike itself if you need to take a break. Unlike other electric bikes, it can be installed in a couple minutes with no expertise at all, and the whole setup only weighs six pounds. It costs ~$750 for the light, Li-ion 20-mile battery and $400 for a heavier, 10-mile battery.
They’ve sold over a thousand kits to date and are selling them as fast as the co-founder can put them together in North Dakota. Who would have thought Americans would want something cheap and easy? Shope notes: “You already have a bike that you like and is perfectly adjusted and measured for you, just how you like it, and is made of much higher quality components that the expensive full electric bikes are. It just doesn’t make sense to spend $2k on an e-bike when you can just pop our wheel on your own.”
That said, they face tough competition; major bike companies like Trek and Giant, as well as electronics and battery players like Sanyo, are already established and have sold millions in other markets. The pricing is volatile and new battery tech will probably be adopted or developed by the big guys first. However, the ability to turn your ten-year-old junker into a viable commuter vehicle is a serious draw, and although they’re not the only ones offering this type of device, they’re doing it their own way with their own design and that’s worth acknowledgment.
[image credit: Capitol Hill Seattle]