Powering shared e-bike and e-scooter networks shouldn’t be hard for users, operators or cities. So why does it seem like it is? Re-introducing the station, the simple solution to the charging problem.
By: David Saint-Germain, Chief Technology Officer
In the past 18 months, we’ve seen demand for electric bike-share skyrocket. From Monaco and Dubai, which opted for 100 per cent electric, to the mixed fleets in Barcelona and Valence, e-bikes have been part of every deliverable in our recent history.
When we started developing our first e-bike system in 2016, after close to a decade as a human-powered, station-based, public bike-share provider, we had three priorities: safety, reliability and convenience. We also wanted our system’s users to have fun! The major question we faced: How do we stick to these priorities and power these bikes at the same time?
We nixed the idea of battery swaps almost immediately. Users and operators shouldn’t have to unnecessarily touch the battery. That’s why in both our BOOST and E-FIT e-bikes, the battery is encased in the downtube and only accessible to operators with specialized tools. It comes down to safety and our belief that bike-share should be ‘get-up-and-go’. Who wants to think about battery swapping when you’re trying to get from point A to point B quickly?
We considered induction charging (i.e. using electromagnetic waves), which we thought was cool, but ultimately determined it wouldn’t allow us to charge the bikes in a timely manner. So, we looked at our humble station (OK it’s not so humble; it can do some pretty nifty things) and realized, we already had the answer to the problem of scalable charging infrastructure for e-bikes.
How do we actually power our e-bikes? If you’ve ever seen one of our original solar-powered stations, you’ll know that from a user-perspective, there isn’t a high learning curve. When a rider is ready to return a bike, they simply line the bike up to the docking point and slide it in. When a rider takes one of our e-bikes and decides to return it to the docking point at an e-charging station, they follow the exact same procedure. The difference: once the e-bike is parked, it starts charging automatically. No plugs to plug-in, or buttons to push. This means, that because our bikes are constantly charging, it’s unlikely riders will encounter a bike with insufficient battery power.
Like with our solar-powered stations, the actual docks and kiosk that make up the e-station sit on raised metal plates atop the street surface. This gives cities maximum flexibility to expand their networks without significantly impacting infrastructure and traffic flow. Operators can also remove the stations easily — a requirement in our home city of Montreal where the BIXI bike-share system spends winter in a warehouse and snow plows need to clear streets.
Each e-station requires only one connection point, regardless of the number of docks. One connection point means one excavation and one wire — that’s it! We can also plug in our e-stations in to almost any power source like a lamp post. We think it’s an elegant, almost zero-impact solution that serves older cities, like ones in Europe with complex urban landscapes, particularly well. We’re working on solutions to remove even that last tether to the grid — so, stay tuned! Recently, we’ve seen the introduction of self-swapping battery stations in some markets and aside from user battery-handling, those stations still need to be plugged into the grid somehow, defeating the purpose.
A Ride for Everybody
E-bikes are a great way to bring more people into bike-share. The boost they get when riding one of our electric-pedal assist bikes means they can go further, faster, with less effort. But while some cities are only interested in the e-bike option, many want mixed fleets.
That’s why our solar-powered and e-stations are 100 per cent retro-compatible. Riders can dock their e-bike in a solar-powered station and while it won’t charge, it will continue to send information back to the operator about battery and bike health. It can, like the e-station, also lock bikes that fall below a certain battery percentage. This reduces costs for cities that want to build on existing deployments or those that only want to have a certain percentage of their fleet made up of e-stations. Our experience tells us that in a properly designed bike-share network, e-bikes docked at a non-charging station will find themselves at an e-station at some point in its daily lifecycle. It takes 4 hours for our e-bikes to fully charge, based on a 0 per cent battery but can go from 0 to 80 per cent in just 2.5 hours. In other words, every 30 minutes of charge gives you about 12 km of autonomy. In Montreal, our e-bikes reach peaks of 20 rides a day, while in Barcelona it’s 14 rides. Those bikes are constantly circulating and in a given day travel an average of 30 km.
We designed our e-bikes to have a 60 to 70km autonomy range. This means we had to put in a bigger battery than some other e-bikes on the market. We didn’t just do that for user convenience, however. We did it to be more sustainable and to maximize battery lifespan — under ideal circumstances we expect our battery to last an average of three years. Most electric bike-share programs are relatively new, including ours. By designing a battery that’s able to stay on the streets longer, we’ll have to change them less often, which means we’re creating less waste. And when the batteries are done, we’re not going to ship them abroad. Instead we’re going to work with local partners to recycle them responsibly.
First Thing’s First
It took us almost two years until we shipped our first e-bike system (to the city of Valence in France). In that time, we really leaned into our priorities. We put the bikes through field trials, environmental trials, electromagnetic interference testing and some of the roughest mechanical tests we could think of. We tested our e-stations for everything: floods, hurricane-force winds, car impacts, extreme temperatures; We sent the batteries to private labs to ensure that if their casing is ever punctured there wouldn’t be a fire and our technical manuals are peppered with certifications. Our e-stations, in fact, are certified once they leave the factory, which is another reason why they are so easy to swap for an existing station. While we are Canadian, we’re checking our humility at the door because we truly believe that when it comes to safety, we’re at the top of the game.
And it makes sense to place such a high value on safety because bike-share, at least in our worldview, is a public transit. We’ve been in some markets with our products for over a decade. Imagine if a city replaced a subway system every couple of years; there would be an uproar. Whether regular or electrical, bike share should be built to last.
The Power Struggle
In October, PBSC’s business development manager Tanya Castle participated in a panel on electric charging infrastructure at the 2019 North American Bikeshare Association conference. Her fellow panelists, who came mainly from the world of dockless micromobility, agreed that some kind of station infrastructure is necessary to build viable shared e-mobility solutions. The problem with stations isn’t the technology, it’s their demand on the public domain. For any station-based infrastructure to be successful, it has to be planned in concert with cities and evolve as part of the urban plan — a pillar of our business model and core to our DNA.
As we think about how the electric mobility space is going to evolve, especially when it comes to charging infrastructure, station-based infrastructure and the thinking behind it, has the potential to do more than just power e-bikes and e-scooters. Imagine connectivity hubs for smart electrical distribution that can power just about any mobility option. Yes, balancing energy usage is going to be more and more of a challenge, but companies that care about partnering with cities will account for that. Take our e-stations for instance. The maximum power draw of one station is 6kW (equivalent to four hair dryers working at full power), with each docking point drawing about the same number of watts as a large LCD TV. As our e-bike technology has evolved, we’ve implemented elements to help cities balance out energy usage. We can tell our stations to only draw an agreed upon amount of power at a connection point — this is what we did in Barcelona last January. But we can also dynamically regulate power usage when there’s substantial demand on a city’s grid, for instance during a heat wave when everyone’s cranking up the AC. By making our e-stations smart grid compatible, electrical companies can tell the e-station to simply consume less power.
While not all cities are yet able to take advantage of this type of technology, since we view our bike-share systems as long-term assets, we’re doing all we can to future-proof our e-bikes so that when they are ready, we will be too.
David Saint-Germain is the chief technology officer at PBSC Urban Solutions, which provides bike-share solutions and technology to cities around the world. He believes that innovation is forged through the convergence of multiple knowledge silos. Coming from a rich technology and engineering background, David strives for holistic system views where the best ideas prevail, not the consensus.