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Electric Bikes Generate a Following

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ten years ago, Ed Carter swore off the smog, traffic and parking hassles of cars and embraced the nonpolluting freedom and simplicity of bicycles as his main means of transportation. Now the 41-year-old Culver City resident has found an alternative to his alternative.

In October, Carter bought an electric bicycle, joining the growing ranks of U.S. consumers looking to add a little kick to the standard two-wheeler and in the process, manufacturers hope, sparking greater acceptance of electric vehicles as a viable substitute for gasoline-powered cars.

“I wanted to get something nonpolluting that I could use for longer distances or when I was tired,” said Carter, a film archivist who rides 10 miles each day to and from work. Helping him in that commute now is an E-Bike, an electric bicycle manufactured by EV Global Motors Co.--a Westwood-based start-up notable for one of its founders, retired Chrysler Corp. executive Lee Iacocca.

The E-Bike can operate as a standard bicycle or, with the flick of a switch, travel up to 15 mph without assistance from its rider, thanks to a battery-powered 400-watt motor mounted in the hub of its rear wheel.

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In a twist on the two-car household, Carter can choose between his E-Bike and his 21-speed GT road bike, depending on his mood and the circumstances of the day.

“Sometimes you just don’t want to show up places all hot and sweaty,” he said, offering one of the reasons he opts for the E-Bike over his regular bicycle.

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Since their first notable appearance in the United States in 1994, electric bicycles have registered increasingly bigger blips on America’s consumer radar with each passing year. In 1995, for instance, just 1,500 were sold nationwide, said independent bicycle industry consultant Ed Benjamin. Last year, sales hit 30,000, he said, and that number is expected to surge to 120,000 by the end of this year.

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Up till now, buyers have largely been affluent, retirement-age couples who bought sets of his-and-hers bikes, Benjamin said. Fleet sales to law enforcement and businesses have accounted for 5% of sales.

“We’ve reached that critical mass where the product is really going to take off,” Benjamin said.

Already electric bicycles seem to have made inroads among a variety of demographic groups.

“From what I’ve seen, it covers the whole spectrum from young up to seniors,” said Mike Alas, manager of Millennial Motors in Oceanside in northern San Diego County. The retail shop, devoted exclusively to electric scooters and bicycles, has sold more than 40 electric bicycles and do-it-yourself conversion kits (used to transform regular bicycles into battery-powered road bikes) since it opened in November.

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“Everybody loves the bikes,” Alas said. “I don’t know how the word is being spread, but it’s being spread.”

Manufacturers such as Currie Technologies Inc. of Van Nuys are hoping that the word resonates particularly in the ears of baby boomers. The company plans an aggressive marketing campaign this year aimed at consumers in their 40s and 50s--two age groups that were instrumental in popularizing mountain bikes in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now may need a little zip in their pedals as they get older.

Indeed, many models of electric bicycles, such as the E-Bike and Currie’s E-Cruiser, have retro ‘50s styling that seems squarely targeted at boomer nostalgia. Marketers also hope to play on other popular consumer sentiments: concern for the environment, disdain for rising gasoline prices and, perhaps the most easily tapped, aversion to pedaling up hills.

“We’re out to take hills out of the equation,” said Currie co-founder Richard Mayer, whose company builds four models of electric bicycles. “People on bikes hate hills.”

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Steve Burd, 45, of Yorba Linda used to be among them. Two years ago, the plastic-moldings maker dreaded huffing and puffing up inclines every time he went riding with his 7-year-old daughter. She rode a single-wheeled trailer bike attached to the seat post of his mountain bike so that, in theory, the pair could pedal as a team. On hills, however, Burd found himself doing most of the work.

Now neither of them has to do much. Burd fitted his bicycle with a battery-powered motor manufactured by ZAPworld.com, based in Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, and considered the pioneer of the U.S. electric bicycle industry.

“If I come to a hill and I need a little power, I just push the button,” said Burd, who liked his ZAP unit so much that he bought one for his 73-year-old father.

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ZAP and Currie products, Benjamin said, have been among the most popular sellers. Meanwhile, EV Global’s E-Bike and a model called Lafree made by Taiwan-based Giant Manufacturing Co. have made major strides in the market since their introductions early last year, he said. Another player on the horizon is Ford Motor Co., the world’s No. 2 auto maker, which plans to introduce its own electric bicycle in the summer as part of its Think line of electric vehicles.

Propulsion systems differ by bicycle. Currie’s approach, for example, drives the rear wheel at its axle, whereas ZAP bikes (the name stands for “zero air pollution”) employ a motorized roller mounted on the outside of the back tire. The E-Bike operates like a moped, with no pedaling required, whereas Lafree riders must maintain nominal pedaling while the motor is activated.

Powering the motors on most electric bicycles are 24-volt lead-acid batteries with a range of up to 20 miles under continuous use. The batteries are recharged by plugging into a standard electrical outlet. (For recharging times and other specifications, see accompanying box.)

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Sales and distribution methods also vary widely, including direct order and the Internet as well as bicycle shops, chain retail outlets and even car dealerships. Maintenance is handled either at the point of sale in the case of bikes shops and dealerships or by the manufacturer for bicycles ordered directly or bought at a retailer such as Kmart.

Under California law, electric bicycles can be ridden wherever standard bicycles can, and riders are exempt from holding operating licenses if their “motorized bicycle” goes no faster than 20 mph when the motor is engaged and the motor itself generates no more than 1,000 watts of power, said Bruce Allen, a policy analyst with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento. (Consumers should also check with their health insurance companies to verify whether their policies cover them while they are riding electric bikes.)

Electric bicycles may be as much as 30 pounds heavier than their manually operated cousins, given the heft of the battery packs and motors.

The bike patrol for the Escondido Police Department, in fact, opted against acquiring electric bicycles after officers came back from an experimental shift worn out from pedaling around the extra weight.

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“Until someone comes up with a lighter battery, it’s just not feasible for us,” said Scott Walters, a bike patrol officer.

The bike unit of the UCLA Police Department, on the other hand, likes the boost that electric bicycles give officers as they patrol the hilly campus.

“It lets us save up our energy so we’re not so tired out once we get to a call,” Officer John Adams said.

But beyond their motor-enhanced convenience, electric bicycles are seen by their creators as a crucial first step in the evolution of consumer acceptance of electric vehicles--a step, they and others hope, that will eventually lead to a widespread embrace of electric automobiles.

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To date, electric passenger cars and trucks have been slow to take off because of a widespread perception that they are plagued by limited driving range (140 miles at the high end) and generally high lease rates ($450 on average).

“First we have to prove the reliability of electric vehicles before we’re going to get any one to buy a car run by electricity,” EV Global President Bob Holmes said.

Mayer of Currie Technologies agrees: “We got to get people thinking electric before bringing out the cars.”

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Stephen Gregory is a frequent contributor to The Times’Business section. He can be reached at highway1@latimes.com.

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Pedal Power

Even as the electric bike market starts to take wing, consumers already have a variety of choices before them. Here are details on four notable electric bikes:

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E-Bike Standard Model

Manufacturer: EV Global Motors

Weight: 67 pounds

Top speed with motor: 15 mph

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Battery range: up to 20 miles

Recharge time: 4 hours

Retail price: $995

Contact: (800) 871-4545; https://www.ebike.com

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Comments from Ed Benjamin, a partner with Cycle Electric International Consulting Group, which tracks the electric vehicle industry from its offices in Pocatello, Idaho:

“Widely regarded as the best-looking American electric bike, the E-Bike uses a powerful, German-made hub motor and is fun to ride. The E-Bike had the most range on a charge of any bike tested by Extra Energy V.i.G, a German not-for-profit agency that promotes electric bikes.”

ElectriCruizer DX

Manufacturer: ZAPworld.com

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Weight: 52 pounds

Top speed with motor: 18 mph

Battery range: 10-15 miles

Recharge time: 3 hours

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Retail price: $825

Contact: (707) 824-4150; https://www.zapworld.com

Comments from Benjamin:

“Industry pioneer ZAP produces a very simple, modestly priced machine that has a been popular seller across the country. The DX version has two motors, giving it more power and speed than ZAP’s SX version.

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U.S. Pro Drive Mountain Bike

Manufacturer: Currie Technologies

Weight: 58 pounds

Top speed with motor: 18 mph

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Battery range: up to 20 miles

Recharge time: 6 to 8 hours (with standard 1-amp charger)

Retail price: $899

Contact: (800) 268-8596; https://currietech.com

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Comments from Benjamin:

“The USPD mountain bike performs well with one of the best starting torques and accelerations of any bike. This bike is often praised for its excellent ride.”

Lafree 602 XU

Manufacturer: Giant Manufacturing Co.

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Weight: 75 pounds

Top speed with motor: 20 mph

Battery range: up to 20 miles

Recharge time: 4 hours

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Retail price: $995

Contact: (310) 223-0212; https://www.giantbicycle.com

Comments from Benjamin:

“The Lafree was awarded recognition as the best electric bike tested by Extra Energy V.i.G. A solid, well-thought-out bike by one of the world’s best bike builders.”

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