Are Americans ready for electric bicycles? Some celebrated entrepreneurs, including Lee Iaccoca and Malcolm Bricklin, have lost their shirts in the category, but Best Buy is convinced that the electrification of transportation now extends to two-wheelers. It has started an experiment to sell several forms of assisted pedaling (as well as Segways and the Brammo electric motorcycle) at 20 stores in California and Oregon. One of its ebikes in a lineup that includes the Baja Motorsports moped and Currie Ezip is the $2,699 Ultra Motor A2B, which I recently borrowed for some memorable test drives.
Best Buy is serious about this, and recently invested $10 million in Brammo. Neither Ultra Motor nor Best Buy will comment on how many A2Bs the retailer has sold three months into the program, but Best Buy's Kelly Groehler says, "One of the things that's important for the future growth of [our company] is staying ahead of where technology is in people's lives." The Geek Squad has been trained in ebike maintenance.
Paul Vlahos, vice president of sales at Ultra Motor, isn't sure how big the ebike market is, citing competing estimates of from 20,000 to 200,000 sold annually. The line between ebikes and electric scooters is somewhat blurry, especially with the not very bike-like A2B. "Unlike more mature categories, there is not very good sales data on ebikes," said Vlahos. "Our distribution points continue to increase daily as more dealers and retailers see new trends, and as the category gains awareness and acceptance among U.S. consumers." Ultra Motor has 250 dealers in the U.S.--spread among traditional bike stores, green specialty retailers and motorsports locations.
"We have some strong independent dealers out there," said Vlahos. "We're unsure how the Best Buy relationship will ultimately work out, but we're excited about it. Will they expand into other stores? We hope so, but we're unable to speak to their plans for the category."
The private Ultra launched the A2B in warm-weather states California, Arizona and Florida in September of last year. It's now available in bike-friendly locations such as Seattle, Portland (OR). San Francisco and New York. The lithium-ion batteries are guaranteed for a year, and the motor for two years. The high price might be a deterrent for some customers, but the beauty of the A2B and its competitors is that no motorcycle license is needed--in most states, this scooter-like device is regulated as if it were a bicycle.
A very sleek design with the batteries enclosed in the frame and the electric motor in the rear hub, the A2B resembles a small scooter. It's somewhat heavy at 72 pounds, which makes unassisted pedaling uphill somewhat of a chore. But twist the throttle and it takes off with alacrity, offering 20 miles of cruising range. The With wide tires, the bike is extremely stable and easy to ride. Recharging is simple, and takes three and a half hours. A small box plugs into the wall and into a three-pin port on the bike.
Vlahos says Ultra Motors sells "thousands" of A2Bs annually, but he declined to be more exact. "We're evaluating expansion into the scooter category," he said. That makes sense, because the A2B is most of the way there already. And we hear Best Buy is selling what we might call "escooters."