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The future of bikes is electric

Ebike sales in the U.S. are projected to grow from 300k units per year to 7m

4 Minute Read

What you need to know: Sales of ebikes are eventually expected to comprise half of all bike sales, meaning about 75m units will be sold each year, up from about 30m currently. The United States could see one of the biggest increases: Some 300k ebikes will be sold this year and that number is expected to increase to 2m within the next few years and eventually 7m annually.  

How you can capitalize:

  • Design a low-cost model of ebike to sell direct-to-consumer. 
  • Build apps that allow luxury ebikes to communicate to other riders and emergency responders.
  • Design electric-powered mopeds and motorcyles.

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In his recent report on electric bicycles, longtime industry analyst Ed Benjamin analyzed the rift between traditional bike dealers and the consumers they’re supposed to serve. 

Basically, he suggested, the dealers and brands are run by former racers and longtime enthusiasts who believe in hard workouts and human power. And then there are the American consumers. 

They don’t race or idolize the sport of cycling. They mostly care about commuting quickly, or keeping up with their friends on group rides. These average riders have been embracing electric bikes, while many bike shops and sellers still believe traditional bicycles powered by legs are the only option. “The (dealers) are almost unable to realize they are a small minority,” wrote Benjamin, who is the founder and senior managing director of eCycle Electric, “and that the majority of Americans may prefer to control an ebike with a throttle.”

This slow adoption of electric bikes bikes — ebikes — by traditional bike retailers is part of the reason they present a growing opportunity globally and especially in the United States. This year, Benjamin estimates, about 300k ebikes will be sold in the U.S., up from about 250k in 2017. He expects that within the next few years, the number will increase to between 1m and 2m, enough to comprise about 10% of all bikes sold per year in the U.S.      

High growth projections are being estimated in Europe, too. This spring, the European Cyclists’ Federation updated a projection that 50m bikes would be sold in the EU by 2030 to 150m. Benjamin expects that worldwide ebike sales will eventually comprise half of all sales, growing from about 30m to 75m per year (most current sales are in China, which was an early adopter of the ebike and where most ebike sales are to people replacing old ebikes).

If Benjamin’s projection comes to fruition, about 7m of those ebikes would be sold annually in the United States, where opportunities exist for building new, inexpensive brands, improving in smart bicycle technology, especially for safety monitoring, and introducing electric power to motorcycles. 

Pedelecs market

Source: Mordor Intelligence

Why the United States

U.S. residents in major cities and suburbs don’t have to look far to see the need for alternate transportation options. It’s not uncommon for an American commuter to spend more than 100 hours a year stuck in traffic. A study by the transport company Inrix found that Los Angeles loses $33B because of traffic-induced losses, with New York City, San Francisco and Miami also losing billions. 

The United States lags behind many European and Asian countries in bicycle commuters. About 0.6% of workers regularly commute by bike, some 900k people. Common reasons for avoiding bicycles include a lack of bike lanes and trails, but cities are investing millions to create safer bike infrastructure.

In recent years, escooters have gotten more publicity — and funding — for addressing the commuting problem. Bird has received $2B from investors, and Lime transitioned its focus from bikes to scooters. But escooters have also been a divisive introduction to the urban ecoystem, with cities like New York and San Francisco banning all or certain brands. Electric bikes are an evolution from an existing transportation option that has already been accepted in America. 

They’re also a better fit for the suburbs, where a typical distance between someone’s home and office is too long for a scooter. 

“When you have a family of four on some cul-de-sac, three miles to the nearest strip mall and seven miles to work, what are the options for them? The best option might be a good electric bicycle,” says Hal Harvey, the CEO of San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy think tank, Energy Innovation.    

And then, Benjamin notes, there’s an enjoyment factor. Ebikes offer navigational systems and other smart capabilities. They take less work to operate than regular bicycles, a plus for people who don’t want to sweat during their commutes or who are trying to get into shape.  

In bike-crazy Amsterdam, where bikes outnumber people, ebike sales will eclipse traditional bike sales this year. “In the future we will not talk about e-bikes, but just bikes,” Floris Liebrand, who studies the automotive and bicycling industry in the Netherlands, told The Guardian. “E-bikes will be the new normal, I think, within 10 to 15 years. We think that all bikes will be supported by small engines.”

The enthusiasm in Amsterdam convinced Benjamin of greater potential in the U.S. “If the Dutch, proud of their fitness and bicycle skills, are now using ebikes in such numbers, what will the Americans, who regard anything with a motor in high regard, wind up doing?” he asks in his report. 

The opportunities

Launching a direct to consumer ebike brand: Traditional bike retailers’ reticence to sell ebikes has given online sellers a major advantage. Benjamin’s analysis indicates that a majority of American ebike transactions occur on Amazon or other websites.   

Successful startups that sell direct to consumer include Rad Power Bikes and Evelo. Major brands like Giant and Trek have ebikes, but they account for small slices of the overall market. 

Source: Mordor Intelligence

Although luxury brands sell, particularly in the Netherlands, Benjamin says Americans will prefer less expensive ebikes as they test the technology in the coming years. The cheapest bikes right now are $500 to $600, which is still out of the price range for most middle-class Americans. And lower-to-middle class Americans are more likely to bike to work than wealthier Americans.   

Improving smart bike safety technology and communication: The best ebikes have more than electric capabilities; they have the internet and navigational components. Benjamin says the next stage for technology will be bike-to-bike communication and accident detection. 

Bike-to-bike communication would allow for group riders to track other members of their group. The accident detection would communicate to friends and family or emergency responders when a cyclist falls off or crashes their bike.

Bringing electric to motorcycles and moped scooters: Worldwide, the vast majority of motorcycles and moped scooters run on gasoline. That won’t last forever. “We’ll see the gasoline powered two wheeler replaced by electric overtime,” Benjamin says.

He believes all 65m gasoline-powered to two-wheel vehicles sold every year will go electric because of private disruption and governmental intervention.     

Adrian Craig contributed to this article.

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