The meteoric rise of the electric bicycle is continuing so quickly that the bike industry itself still has to adjust to all the new possibilities. On the other hand, companies that want to offer their staff a fleet of bikes wonder which e-bike is most suitable. And governments have to decide what place to give these bikes-that-are-no-longer-bikes in their legislation. The Energy and Automation Research Group at the Ghent Technology Campus assists the various parties with its expertise and advice.
The universal charging infrastructure for e-bikes that Professor Jan Cappelle and his team developed is only one example of the expertise that they have developed in recent years. It started in 2016 when the City of Ghent and supermarket chain Colruyt approached the research group with the question of what to consider when purchasing high-quality electric bikes.
“We researched the performance, safety and reliability of the existing electric bikes in a project called TGVelo,” Professor Cappelle says. “How powerful is the engine, when does the bike start skidding, how do you measure the likelihood of a flat tire? The result was a list of seventy parameters and corresponding testing procedures. Companies that want to issue a tender for electric bikes can select the points from this list that are most important to them, and they can also test them themselves.”
We are conducting a whole series of tests through which the performance of speed pedelecs can be compared. For example, which speed pedelec accelerates best when cycling uphill in headwind?
The research group is now conducting the same exercise again, but this time focused specifically on speed pedelecs, electric bikes that can go up to 45 km per hour. “When it comes to cars, we know what it means to accelerate up to 100 kilometres per hour in three seconds. But it’s more difficult for us to conceive of the difference in performance between speed pedelecs with 350 or 800 watt engines. We are conducting a whole series of tests through which the performance of speed pedelecs can be compared. For example, which speed pedelec accelerates best when cycling uphill in headwind? We also have test stands on which we measure breaking power and action radius, among other things.”
The researchers do not only analyse technical aspects. Many users complain about incidental aspects and riding comfort. “You mustn’t forget that people often buy a speed pedelec to replace their car, and sometimes to ride it for distances over 50 kilometres per day, so expectations in terms of comfort are very high. That is why we have also conducted tests that are outside our comfort zone of purely technical parameters. We even put on white overalls and rode through puddles to measure the effectiveness of the mudguards based on mud splatter.”
If fitted with a decent mudguard, a fast electric bike can be the ideal mode of transport to get to work. The Flemish Department of Environment commissioned Jan Cappelle and his colleagues to research the potential of speed pedelecs for commuter traffic. Under the heading ‘365SNEL’, a total of 160 employees from ten companies were selected to commute via speed pedelec for three weeks.
“This resulted in a unique database,” Professor Cappelle says. “Using the numbers we have collected, we can show the Flemish government and the bicycle industry how people use speed pedelecs in practice. Where did they ride and at which speeds? And did they use the same route between the beginning of the three-week period and the end or did they look for better cycle paths, for example?”
The data collected during the research refute a common misconception about speed pedelecs: that you maintain a constant speed of 45 km per hour. “In practice, you rarely actually get up to that speed. But it is much easier to predict your travel time than in a car. One of the test riders usually left for work by car at 5.45am, arriving at work at 6.05am. He would actually have preferred to start at 7am, but on some days, he would have been stuck in traffic for an hour and a half. With the speed pedelec, his commute took half an hour and he could choose his departure time himself, irrespective of possible traffic jams.”
Despite the price tag, twenty percent of the participants did eventually buy a speed pedelec. “The test project was a real eyeopener for a lot of people: commuting with a fast electric bike is perfectly possible, you save time, and it is lots of fun too.”
Legislators do not unanimously share this enthusiasm. They often have difficulties with new kids on the block like the e-bike, the Segway and the electronic scooter: they don’t fit into existing boxes. “European technical legislation describe speed pedelecs via a loophole as cycles designed to pedal, a confusing term,” Professor Cappelle says. “One of the stipulations states that the power of the cyclist may be enhanced, but not by more than four times. It is very strange reasoning. Someone who is not very strong and therefore opts to use a speed pedelec may not, in principle, use it to increase their strength too much…”
“We are apparently stuck in a traditional conception of the bicycle: you have to push and it should be tiring. I remember a representative of the bicycle industry telling us: ‘A bicycle still has to be a little bit fickle.’”
According to European legislation, speed pedelecs on the road have the same status as motorcycles. Many member states struggle to translate this in their traffic regulations. Belgian civil servants were shrewd enough to create a separate category: class P motorcycles. “That was indeed very clever because it enables you to introduce a range of separate regulations: are you permitted to ride them on towpaths, ride them in the opposite direction on one-way streets…? It is a pity, however, that speed pedelecs tend to be legislated according to the principle that you are not permitted to ride them anywhere unless a sign explicitly indicates that you may. It would have been better to reverse this principle and say that they are permitted everywhere unless they are explicitly prohibited. That would have saved a lot of traffic signs too (laughs).”
The situation is even more unclear for people who prefer to use a Segway, monowheel or electric scooter. “The Segway, for example, does not fit into a single existing category. So you don’t know which rules to follow and who knows how a judge would rule if you got into an accident. The government should be happy about every road user who decides not to use a car, and ought to offer more support to them. In addition to making significant investments in promoting electric cars, could the government not also highlight the benefits of electric bikes and support our manufacturers with their innovations in electric two-wheelers? We are a country of cyclists and we have excellent professional cyclists who would make perfect ambassadors.”