Bike of the Future: Batteries Included

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's an idea worth pursuing: Get people to give up their gas-guzzlers for a cleaner, more fuel-efficient type of transportation.

For most people, this means a new kind of car, perhaps an electric vehicle or an electric-and-natural-gas hybrid.

But Gary Starr thinks he has an even better answer: an electric bicycle.

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Using some of the same technologies that are extending the range and lowering the cost of electric cars, some manufacturers are creating electric-powered bicycles that one day could take the world by storm.

"We actually believe we're getting people out of cars," says Mr. Starr, co-founder of Zap Power Systems in Sebastopol, Calif. And "the electric bike can be the catalyst for the entire electric-vehicle industry.... Once people get used to the idea of plugging in their vehicles, they'll want more electric vehicles."

The first step is a monumental one: getting consumers to accept an electric bicycle.

For the past six years, Japanese manufacturers, such as Yamaha and Honda, have made electric bikes for the Japanese market. At least a dozen companies in Taiwan are looking into the technology. In the US, the business is dominated by Zap (www.zapbikes.com), but it remains a niche market.

The Americans believe they have two advantages over their Japanese counterparts. First, their engines can be retrofitted onto most bikes, while Honda and Yamaha sell specialized vehicles. Second, Zap uses an auto-engage system, which powers the bicycle only when you turn the throttle on. That way, if you ever run out of battery power, you can still pedal the bicycle home without having to push against the natural compression caused by the engine.

Although a Zap system adds about 20 pounds to the weight of a bike, it can power a rider 15 miles at about 20 miles an hour. Many users prefer to extend that range by pedaling much of the way themselves, leaving the motor to power them over steep hills or through busy highways.

Consumers can buy a $450 kit that can be fitted to their own bicycle or a complete motorized model for $900.

The bikes aren't only aimed at American consumers. Zap sells a $1,700 model (complete with flashing lights and siren) for police. More than 50 police departments are trying it out. The company has also reached an agreement with a Shanghai bicycle company to sell up to 5,000 Zap motors in China.

Shanghai officials are particularly eager to find a clean alternative to the more than 470,000 gasoline-powered bicycles and mopeds that currently roam their streets. The city recently banned sales of new mopeds because of the pollution and noise they cause.

According to some studies, mopeds create 10 times the pollution that electric bikes do (even after factoring in the emissions of the electric-power plants that charge the bikes' batteries).

Some key players remain skeptical, however. "I have a lot of pessimism about the electric bicycle," says Sheldon Cook, owner of AAA Moped of Miami, a large Florida retailer. "I think it's more trouble than it's worth."

Mr. Cook does sell another electric vehicle - a solar-powered electric scooter - that uses both the sun and batteries to zip along at 20 miles an hour. Recreational pilots pack them for the occasional long trek between the hangar and their private planes.

Cook sees additional indoor uses, such as mall security. But for every one electric-vehicle sale in his store, he sells some 300 mopeds.

Mr. Starr is more upbeat. "I think it's a billion-dollar market just starting," he says. With its partner in China as a low-cost producer of bikes, his company plans to start churning out other electric vehicles, including scooters and motorcycles.

But the first electric vehicles to be sold in the millions will be bicycles, he predicts.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom. com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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