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More power vs. downsizing: The e-bike of the future

There’s one encouraging development in these uncertain times: e-bikes are the future. Driven by the mobility revolution and changes to day-to-day circumstances brought about by the Corona pandemic, e-assisted bicycles, which were already in fashion before, have now become all-time best-sellers – despite the often months-long waiting time for a new e-bike to be delivered. Previously, this was more common in the automotive industry. With this tailwind, engineers and product managers are currently working on e-bikes that will be launched in the next two- to three years. Talking to e-drive unit manufacturers and e-bike experts, you can already see what the next generation of e-bikes will look like.

One thing is clear: The self-driving e-bike presented about a year ago by Chinese inventor Peng Zhihui is unlikely to make it to series production. But an increasing number of electronics in the form of connectivity, comfort and safety will be a major driver of development for the next generation of e-bikes.

The move toward more connectivity and personalized options is already clearly emerging: at Bosch, one of the market leaders in e-bike drive units, the most important current product innovations are not motors or batteries, but rather connected biking. What is that? "With the smart system, all components of the e-bike are connected, and can be continuously updated via updates over-the-air and expanded with new functions. The e-Bike Flow app is the heart of the smart system and offers the e-biker many additional benefits, such as digital theft protection with e-Bike Lock, route suggestions and activity tracking. The features ensure that people reach their destination more comfortably, safely and in a way more tailored to their needs." So says Tamara Winograd, head of marketing and communications at Bosch E-Bike Systems.

The possibilities for using different technical systems, and combining them, as well as utilizing apps with an e-bike, can already be imagined. Bosch, for example, has introduced eSuspension in collaboration with suspension manufacturer Fox, where the suspension automatically adjusts to the road surface. According to Bosch, the integration of other useful features or services is conceivable - what this means can be envisaged by looking at the latest developments from other suppliers, such as tire pressure monitoring, ABS or radar systems that warn of approaching traffic from behind. Nothing is impossible. Whatever is integrated, the Bosch smart system is controlled via an LED remote in conjunction with the Flow app and the optional Kiox display. Other apps, such as Apple Health, can also be integrated into the Flow app. 

Winora e-bike

More safety through networking

The integration of different electronic components and apps on a display mounted to the bike is also where other e-drive unit manufacturers foresee the biggest leaps forward in the next generation of e-bikes. For example, Fabian Reuter, CEO of Fazua: "Connectivity and customizing will be decisive for future e-bikes." His words carry weight; after all, Porsche recently acquired the Bavarian brand, one imagines in part because of the high level of innovation at Fazua. Reuter also predicts that "mobile phones will displace manufacturers' displays in the future." Why? Quite simply: "No display developed in-house is better than the one on the smartphone!"

Even more interesting than the integrations of different systems and apps into one display are the possibilities for improving safety when riding, as outlined by Tamara Winograd of Bosch: “Today, connectivity is still strongly linked to the smartphone. Our vision is that the e-bike itself will become part of the Internet of Things and communicate with other road users via digital data exchange, i.e. bike-to-X communication." So in the future, for example, the e-bike will warn a car when it is approaching in the latter’s blind spot. "The launch of the smart system last summer was the first step towards making the e-bike part of the Internet of Things in the future," says the manufacturer’s press spokesperson, revealing what we can expect in the future - and not just from Bosch.

Michael Wild, Head of Marketing at the German Shimano importer, Paul Lange, identifies another trend that will shape e-MTBs in the coming years: "Overall, e-bikes are still in a very dynamic development phase, with an innovation curve that is still very steep. However, a gradual shift from hardware to software innovations can be observed." What this means is that, with perfect sensor technology, motors in the future will respond ever more effectively to the requirements and riding situations of the moment. A drive unit that reacts ever more responsively to the situation and riding style means it is less and less noticeable when riding.

Split in drive units

Which brings us to the next big topic for the coming years: Batteries and drive units. For a long time, the thinking here was that a lot helps a lot. Drive units have become increasingly powerful over the last few years, offering more and more torque, while at the same time the watt hours (i.e. the range of the batteries) are increasing. The status quo for e-bikes is motors with around 85 Nm of torque and batteries with at least 500 watt hours, or even significantly more. For their current top-end motor, Bosch offers the option of power from two batteries with up to 1250 Wh operated in tandem. That makes sense for frequent riders, for epic tours, and of course for the growing cargo bike segment. And the rousing performance of these powerful motors is undoubtedly impressive. However, this development also means that e-bikes are usually quite heavy beasts. Even e-mountain bikes, trimmed for lightweight construction, roll over the trails with a combat weight of more than 20 kilograms, and the trendy SUV bikes also tend to weigh more than 25 kilograms. The reason? Even the lightest of the today’s popular mid-range motors, Shimano's EP8, weighs 2.6 kilos – those from Bosch, Yamaha or Brose weigh even a few hundred grams more. In addition, the battery weighs at least 2.8 kilograms. Range and power have their drawbacks.

If you ask the big players of the drive unit manufacturers, they are firstly proud of what they have achieved. Michael Wild explains for Shimano: "With our flagship EP8, we have a drive unit that is characterized by its particularly low weight, but that also has very compact dimensions." However, he also acknowledges how important the lowest weight possible is. "A natural riding experience should be one of the central characteristics of an e-bike. And low weight plays a key role in ensuring that the handling and riding characteristics of e-bikes are as close as possible to those of conventional bikes." But sacrificing performance and range for the sake of weight? An increasing number of e-bikers are realizing that they don't actually use the range of their ample batteries in everyday life.

Bicycle manufacturers have also recognized this and are currently driving a growing trend toward lighter e-bikes with slightly less power and a shorter range. These e-bikes come with somewhat smaller and lighter motors. For example, models from Mahle or Fazua do without the energy-guzzling turbo mode, and come with slimmed-down batteries. Some of them have well under 500 watt hours, which is far below the current standards for full-grown mid-motor e-bikes. So even a full-suspension e-MTB with such a slimmed-down drive unit weighs only about 17 kilograms.

Georg Zeppin, specialist editor and experienced tester at the e-bike magazine Elektrobike, sees the trend towards smaller, more compact e-bikes as one of the key developments of the coming years. "This downsizing is about the wallet alone: small, lightweight systems are cheaper," says the expert. Fazua has already been focusing on similar downsizing for years; the complete drive weighs 4.3 kilos, including all components in addition to the 55Nm motor and 250Wh battery. Managing director Fabian Reuter explains: "Our background is active, the handling of our drive unit is natural and reactive." Fazua doesn't even want to offer the massive thrust of its competitors' hefty drive units: "Our system responds to more pressure from the rider with more assistance, so the bike constantly motivates you to pedal more." Recently, Porsche bought Fazua, which is a clear signal of how significant the impact of such lightweight e-bikes will become in the coming years. E-bike expert Zeppin is certain: "Manufacturers like Bosch and Shimano also see these developments and will bring lighter drives."

However, the battery is almost more important than the drive unit. For the first few years, discussions about e-bikes were accompanied above all by the anxious question: "How long will the battery last?" In order to allay this greatest fear of potential customers, the battery packs became – and continue to become – ever more powerful, but therefore also larger and heavier. The question arises: When will the long-promised development push from the automotive industry bring lighter, smaller, but more powerful batteries to e-bikes? Zeppin is skeptical: "New, lighter or smaller cells are not yet ready for the market. And when the next generation of rechargeable batteries comes along, the automotive industry will pick that up, because in comparison, the demand (and thus the market significance) of e-bikes is rather negligible." The manufacturers of e-drive units are also conspicuously reticent when it comes to commenting on new generations of batteries.

The future of the e-bike is twofold

So, what will the next-generation e-bike look like? It depends, because e-bikes will split into two categories in the coming years. The high-performance, high-range bikes with mid-range motors will offer even more range as an option, but above all increasingly connected systems for increased safety, riding comfort and customizable features. Under the appropriate designation of “SUV bikes”, one can already guess where this journey will lead: This category will take off with maximum power, impressive ranges, a full range of equipment and lots of high-tech.

In addition, lighter e-bikes with less range will establish themselves. These will be intended for everyday use in the city and offer a "bike-like", straightforward riding experience - and which will also be available at lower prices than the high-tech behemoths.