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Pedals with the mettle

Approaching bicycle retailers in the early 1990s to encourage them to sell electric bikes, Frank Jamerson says he was often met with the response “Get the hell out of here”.

The author of Electric Bikes Worldwide Report says it was early days for electric vehicles, bikes included, and for shop vendors the idea of selling a non-manual bike defeated the whole purpose of the cycling culture.

“They only did pedal,” Jamerson says.

Two decades later things are changing. As technology in electric vehicles advances to the point where they are affordable, people are becoming increasingly aware of the option and the cycle culture is making room for its electric counterpart.

Jamerson is one of the industry’s longest-standing advocates. He began publishing Electric Bikes Worldwide Report in 1995, just as the industry was seeing huge growth in China.

With contributions from electric-vehicle experts from across the globe, including experts from China, Jamerson has put together one of the most collaborative publications on the light electric-vehicle industry.

Not a typical conservationist, Jamerson’s fascination with electric bikes is not entirely green-based, though he is glad to talk up the environmental benefits. Instead, the chemical physicist’s fascination grows from his involvement with General Motor Co’s physics and electrochemistry departments during the 1980s, setting up the United States Advanced Battery Consortium, which eventually led to GM’s EV1 - often hailed as the first modern electric vehicle.

Seeing the vast potential in the new technology, Jamerson was smitten.

“Just before I retired, I went to a meeting in Europe on batteries and electric cars. My wife went with me and she told me one day that there were electric bikes being exhibited out in the lot,” he recalls.

“I had never seen an electric bike before, and after trying one I thought ‘My god, if I can get people to buy electric bikes they’ll buy GM’s EV1’.”

Jamerson acted on his hunch, importing German-made electric bikes and approaching local shops.

“I had a lot of interest, but no sales. There was no market. There were a couple of startups in California, Zap being one of them, but no real market,” he says.

Not yet ready to give up, Jamerson began working to promote electric bikes. In 1995, two years after retiring from GM, he was approached by Malcolm Currie, a former chairman of Hughes Aircraft Research whom Jamerson had met while working with the car manufacturer to acquire Hughes in the 1980s.

Currie was in the midst of launching an e-bike company and as Jamerson was about to deliver a presentation on electric motors in Europe, Currie asked him to provide some information on the subject.

“I told him I would write him a report and we dickered over the price. He did buy the report and I said to myself ‘If he bought it, maybe some other companies will’,” Jamerson says.

“I resold the report to a couple other companies, and that was the beginning of EBWR. I’ve been reporting on electric bikes ever since.”

At the time of his first report there were only 200,000 electric bikes being sold annually, with the majority in Japan. But in just more than a decade, China would boost those numbers into the millions as the e-bike craze hit Asia, Jamerson says.

The 212-page biannual report has since expanded to include all forms of light electric vehicles and Jamerson now works with dozens of manufacturers worldwide to gain insight on the industry. In China, his partner and contributor Ed Benjamin, a fluent Mandarin speaker, works extensively with Chinese companies to understand the European and US markets.

With information ranging from regulations and sales figures to the nuts and bolts of solar-vehicle races undertaken by universities, it is among the most in-depth reports of the electric-vehicle industry.

While the US and European markets are dwarfed by China’s massive 30-million annual sales of electric vehicles, Jamerson says that 2012 should be a big year for those industries.

“Many of the bike companies have been telling me that 2012 will be much better than 2011. I’m hopeful we’re on an upward curve that’s substantial.”

He attributes much of the growth to the baby-boomer generation who are turning to electronically assisted cycles as a low-impact way to get exercise through cycling while avoiding the strain of difficult terrain.

“The electric bike is an exercise machine, but it’s an exercise machine that is moderate with respect to your heart rate,” he says.

With two bikes of his own, one from Taiwan-based producer Pihsiang and the other from US manufacturer Busettii, Jamerson has taken to using them as a primary form of transportation for short-distance travel.

“I’m in a golf community here in Northern Michigan which is very hilly. I can take my electric bike and zip around these hills like they’re nothing,” he says, noting he can average around 64 kilometers on one battery charge, which costs less than a dollar.

But for now, the biggest problem is awareness.

“The other factor is that most people don’t know what an electric bike is,” he says.

“There’s more awareness, but it still has not reached that critical point where it equals millions of units sold. The conventional bicycle market in the US is around 15 to 20 million per year. That’s pretty significant.

“So there’s an opportunity there. But most folks use bikes for fun, recreation, and they don’t consider an electric bike fun - but it really is.”

As for his goal to peddle e-bikes to the public in order to boost sales for electronic cars, there seems to have been little impact.

“At this stage there are still more electric bikes being sold than electric cars,” he says, noting that electric-car sales were 20,000 to 30,000 a year, compared with 100,000 electric bikes.

While the industry is a far cry from the days when Jamerson was being chased from shops, he says there is still a long road ahead before electric vehicles become commonplace.

“When microwaves first came out, nobody bought them. It was years before they caught on. Same thing was true with the television,” Jamerson says.

“The industry in the US and Europe is not quite there yet, because people haven’t given it a chance. You’ve got to try it to like it.”

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