By Mike Montgomery, Contributor
I write about the many issues technology entrepreneurs confront.
Electric bicycles may have gotten off to a clunky start, but thanks to smart engineering, they’re riding in the fast lane now. Global ebike sales are expected to grow 6.3% annually through 2025.
Game-changing innovation sometimes starts with a small company that hits upon a big idea. Other times, it comes from a big company with a small idea — maybe even, say, a fringe idea hatched at a 400,000-employee company that has been a leader in automotive technology for more than a century. This is the story of how the big German stalwart Bosch tiptoed into the once-quirky category of electric bicycles.
The story begins in fantasy, with a European folk tale about “7-mile shoes.” According to lore, the shoes allowed the wearer to travel 7 miles in a single step. About a decade ago, that’s what Peter Kimmich, a Bosch engineer, wanted to make — for bicycles. He faced two major hurdles. One was solving engineering problems that plagued ebikes. The other was convincing Bosch higher-ups it was worth taking a flier on. Why would a big, conservative company that at that point had spent 122 years focused mostly on cars want to enter the ebike market?
Early electric bicycles could be odd-looking, and they weren’t huge sellers. There were problems with overheating, with battery life, with climbing hills. Parts would break down, causing headaches for retailers who’d have to deal with dissatisfied customers. Some ebikes could also be a little scary because it seemed like the motor was in charge instead of the rider.
“I wouldn’t have bought an ebike at that time,” says Claudia Wasko, a Bosch vice president who went on to champion the project. “They were just uncool.”
But Kimmich had an idea, one centered on a precision-engineered Bosch auto part — specifically, a power steering motor.
Bosch had spent years engineering this device, intended to improve the way the motor boosted the driver’s input when turning the wheel, but the auto companies weren’t buying as many as predicted.
Meanwhile, a second engineer, who was also a cycling enthusiast, was thinking about another Bosch part that could be repurposed: compact, lithium-ion batteries used for power tools. Together, the two men began poking around, wondering, “What else do we have in our toolbox we could use to create the 7-mile shoes?” says Jonathan Weinert, marketing manager for Bosch eBike Systems.
Their answer: A torque sensor. In a car, this sensor can tell whether the weight in the passenger seat comes from a human or a heavy bag of groceries, and will trigger an alarm to remind the passenger to use their seatbelt. On an ebike, the sensor could be rigged so that the motor would subtly provide extra assistance on hills; on flats, it would back off. Whereas earlier ebikes could give riders a jolting sensation, the Bosch system allowed riders to feel more like they were riding a normal bike. A “tailwind feel” is what Bosch calls it.
The problem was, it wasn’t really feasible to just strap these parts onto existing bike frames, and Bosch didn’t have experience designing bike equipment. They’d need to partner with an experienced bike company to make this work, so Wasko made the rounds trying to sell the concept. Several declined, saying, essentially, “Bosch was dreaming,” Weinert recalls. They didn’t see enough potential to design a frame around a motor. Then Wasko met with Cannondale, which began designing frame concepts that would work best with the Bosch system.
Bosch introduced their innovation at the Eurobike trade show in 2010, using a nonbranded frame for test drives. By that point, Wasko had impressed other bike companies with the power system, and, in addition to Cannondale, 13 other brands had prototypes on display. By 2011, several brands of Bosch-powered ebikes were available to consumers.
Today, there are dozens of other established bike makers that have designed their own frames and added ebikes to their product lines. Bosch’s power system also has inspired new businesses, including entrepreneurs like Benno Baenziger.
In 1993, Baenziger had co-founded the Electra Bicycle Company based on his design for a beach cruiser. When Trek jumped on the cruiser craze and bought Electra, Baenziger semi-retired, but kept tinkering around with bikes. He’d seen early ebikes on the market but wasn’t interested. “They looked like a terrible afterthought,” he explains. “Like a misfit.”
But when he saw Bosch’s display at the Interbike Expo in 2014, he fell in love. “I knew a new ebike world had arrived,” he says. “It looked like a refined, beautiful, well-working product. It inspired me.”
Which is how, in 2015, Baenziger got back into the bike business. He partnered with Bosch to come up with his own finely honed frame designs and set up shop as Benno Bikes. He’s not interested in shaving weight like many traditional bike makers; he just wants to give people reasons to get out of their cars. That means utility, getting from point A to point B — a bike for people who want to drop the kids off at school, cycle to work without getting sweaty, and pick up a couple bags of groceries on the way home.
Baenziger isn’t the only one inspired by Bosch’s 7-mile shoes. Haibike designed an electric mountain bike (eMTB) around the Bosch motor, and now there is an eMTB race series. Riese & Müller uses Bosch motors in its electric cargo bikes. Baenziger is hearing from people who want studded tires to ride in the snow and attachments to hold things like painting ladders, pizza-delivery boxes or emergency equipment for EMTs. The Los Angeles Police Department uses ebikes equipped with Bosch motors.
Bosch believes its power systems helped jumpstart the ebike business. In the U.S, ebike sales doubled between 2016 and 2017, reaching $77 million. In much of Europe, ebikes are even more popular. In Germany, for example, nearly 20% of bikes sold are electric, and analysts predict that will soon increase to one-in-three. Global ebike sales are expected to grow 6.3% annually through 2025.
People like Baenziger see a future of more innovation, not only in the technology but in the way people view their transportation options.
“Well-designed ebikes don’t replace bikes,” Baenziger says. “They replace cars. I think we’re heading into a great evolution.”
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I am the Executive Director of CALinnovates, a technology advocacy non-profit bridging the divide between entrepreneurs and government. I’m a veteran strategist with extensive experience working at the local, state and federal levels. I’ve worked on political, fundraising, legal, public policy and new media issues. I also have extensive experience crafting solutions to regulatory, political and legal challenges in the private sector.