Where the U.S. lags in technology

I live in the heart of Silicon Valley. During my commute to work I routinely pass Google self-driving cars, mapping cars, and next-generation Segway-like personal transports. Hybrid-electric cars are as common as pure fossil-fuel guzzlers. There are bicycles on the roads, but not many.

My next job will result in a shorter commute, and is within striking distance of a comfortable bike ride. I rode a couple of possible commute routes last weekend, and they timed out at about 35 minutes; that’s probably not much longer than it would take by automobile, after factoring in stop-and-go traffic lights and the search for parking. Around the same time, my local bike shop advertised a new generation of electric-assist bicycles from Trek. Curious, I test rode a couple, and could see the potential for making a borderline commute relatively effortless.

I haven’t seen very many electric-assist bikes on the road, so I looked around for who else carried them. There is one shop in Santa Clara devoted exclusively to ebikes – ELV Motors. They have every style and price point under the sun, crammed into a tiny showroom. The proprietor was more than happy to let me test ride a half dozen different models, each with different approaches to electric assist and with varying degrees of build quality. This then led me to on-line discussion groups and a subpopulation of the do-it-yourself maker community.

I soon learned that the most popular motors and batteries are all made in China. Not, as I assumed, because that’s where practically everything technical is made due to cheaper labor. As it turns out, the Chinese market for ebikes is huge relative to the U.S., because China is a bike-commuting society. In the U.S. most adult cyclists ride for pleasure or health; in the rest of the world, bicycling is seen as a primary mode of transportation. With the exception of the ELV Motors shop, ebikes are a relative novelty around here, where only 2 or 3 bikes are available in shops carrying hundreds of pure pedal-powered models.

In fact, the Trek bikes I linked to above have been available in Europe for years – only this year did Trek decide to dip its toe in the U.S. market. This entire market and network of ebike builders exists largely outside of the U.S. – I can’t think of any other relatively modern technology where this is the case. The motor sizes are often spec’d to comply with European limits on ebike power (U.S. laws are a bit more patchwork, and fortunately allow larger motors before crossing the line to “motorcycle”).

I’ve been reading the reviews of the kit motors and batteries one can order to transform an ordinary Craigslist commuter bike into an eBike, and the tinkerer in me is intrigued. I’ll start by trying the commute under exclusively human power, but sometime this winter I may end up building more than guitars at the TechShop


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