The problem of standardization is one that every tech sector has to solve, sooner or later. Remeber when, until a few years ago, each cell phone producer used a proprietary cable to recharge their phones? If you broke the Nokia charger, you couldn’t use your wife’s Motorola charger. Now (almost) everybody uses the micro USB standard, and consumers’ life is a bit simpler. Only brands that have a very strong power over the market, like Apple, can afford not to use standards – that is why you need a Lightnng cable to recharge your iPhone.
The ebike sector has to manage similar problems now. Over the last few years we have moved from the hegemony of conversion kits (more or less artisanal in nature), possibly composed of pieces coming from different manufacturers, to a great investment in the sector by big actors (such as Bosch, Shimano, Yamaha, Brose…): these, on the contrary, have chosen to offer “closed” systems, as the components can only link with other components made from the same manufacturer: if you have a Bosch motor, you must have a Bosch battery and a Bosch display.
The ebike sector is still young, and the situation remains fluid. It may happen that in the next few years some universal standards evolve, which make it possible to combine components from different manufacturers. Imagine if you could be able to assemble your own dream e-mountain bike, with a Yamaha motor (maybe because you like the double chainring); a high-capacity Focus battery (more than 600Wh); and a Nyon Bosch display to enjoy its advanced functions. At the moment such a scenario is just a dream.
Among those who work in favour of the creation of a standard is the german manufacturer EnergyTube. The name of firm already explains quite a lot: they produce a tube-shaped battery, with the aim of making it universal and usable on a wide range of products; not only ebikes, but electric scooters, cars, boats and so on. You may think of it as the big scale version of the AA batteries that we have known for decades, compatible with a wide range of products.
It’s 2016, and the EnergyTube could not lack some “smart” functionality, making this a very scalable system: when more EnergyTubes work together (from 2 up to dozens if not hundreds) they can communicate among themselves, optimizing the general performance or excluding possible broken Tubes from the system. Standardization should also lead to lower production costs.
Here are some pictures (from electricbikereport.com) of a Heisenberg electric bike powered by an EnergyTube. As you can see, the battery is on the frame’s down tube, a position which is more and more often chosen by producers. If EnergyTube were a standard, you could easily use the same battery on more ebikes (eg a city bike during the weekdays and an e-mtb during the weekend); or maybe do the opposite. buy 3 EnergyTubes for one bike, and optimize their usage during the various days of the week. Also those who rent ebikes would have their life made easier by such a system.
The idea behind EnergyTube is simple. Its realization is not. EnergyTube has still a lot of margin for improvement: a single unit is 18 x 5,9cm and weighs 700 grams, for a capacity of just 100Wh. Much more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to convince the actors of the ebike sector that they’ll need to use this standard.
Here is a video which better explains how the EnergyTube system works:
To sum up:
In favour of standardization are consumers, which can enjoy a wider choice and move more easily from the products of one producer to those of another, if they so wish. New firms are also generally in favour, because standardization makes it easier for their products to enter the market (think for instance of a firm who would like to produce a new display for ebikes, and which would like its display to work with all kinds of ebike systems already in use).
Firms who are already on the market are generally against standardization, because they wish to “lock in” consumers into their systems, making it harder to switch to alternative products. It must also be noticed that standardization can in some cases somewhat slow down technological evolution: if you can move only within some parameters (necessary for the standards to work) then you don’t have room for innovation.
You will have noticed that in this article we have actually talked about two different kinds of standardization: that of components, and that of connections between components. EnergyTube wants to standardize a component, the battery. More important however it would be to standardize connections between components – the way they “talk” to each other – so that you can use components from different producers (as in the e-mtb example we made above). In this way you could favour consumers without slowing down too much the technological evolution of the single components.
It must be said that periodically many of the biggest producers of bikes meet to discuss these problems. There already exists, for instance, the Canbus standard. It will be interesting to see if in the next few years the main actors in the ebike sector will want to spread the use of this standard, or go for a different approach.