What is the Future of Mobility?
Look to GM’s e-bike and suspension of Book by Cadillac for clues
General Motors announced last week that it's getting into the electric bicycle business, just as The Wall Street Journal reported that the automaker is suspending the Book by Cadillac luxury subscription service. This appears a coincidence, but the two bits of news are not unrelated. They illustrate how GM, like all its major competitors, is trying to figure out what the transportation industry is going to look like in the coming decade.
Book by Cadillac launched a few years too early, though it was necessary for GM's luxury marque to keep up with other premium automakers attempting to capture a new generation of customers. How do you assure that your small population of subscribers have a good choice of various models, without flooding the market with cars that could sit parked for months, doing nothing but lowering residual values?
While Cadillac PR indicates it won't be gone for long, I wouldn't expect much of a revived program until the Caddies can pick up and deliver themselves. It would also make sense to allow subscribers to go days or weeks between vehicles, especially in New York, one of three cities offered the all-inclusive (insurance, maintenance, car washes, etc.) subscriptions for $1,800 per month.
GM's new ebike is the fascinating yang to Book by Cadillac's yin. Like Uber and Lyft and Ford's Chariot, Book's model for motorized transportation did nothing to relieve urban/suburban traffic jams. The notion that fully autonomous vehicles like GM's Cruise AV will provide "last mile" transportation to mass commuters won't do much to ease gridlock, either.
These alternatives take commuters not only from taxicabs and personal cars, but also from mass transportation, according to the University of California—Davis' study, "The Adoption, Utilization and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States," published in October 2017.
Ride-hailing—Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar—attracts Americans away from bus services by 6 percent and from light-rail by 3 percent, though it complements commuter rail by 6 percent, the study says. Authors Regina R. Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra conclude in their summary "ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles travelled and in the major cities represented in this study."
So I find myself a bit surprised to say that GM has the right answer to "last mile" transportation from urban mass transit, both the real kind and the imagined mass transit somewhere in a utopian future in which affordable housing replaces downtown parking lots. GM has announced it will build an electric bicycle beginning in 2019, and in fact has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to find a name for it. Name the GM ebike, and you could win $10,000 (eBikeBrandChallenge.com).
Shifting able-bodied men and women from rideshares and autonomous vehicles to ebikes should help reduce traffic congestion, although these bikes take up street space, too. No one should be riding these on the sidewalk, and safe, secure bike lanes can take up most of a normal-sized motor traffic lane. I'm not sure whether ebikes can get along with electric scooters in the same lane with conventional bikes (me), but overall this appears to be a better solution for most modern cities.
GM isn't saying much about its new bikes yet, other than there will be two—one a folding bike, and the other not folding, but both with electric assist, to be marketed in 2019. The unnamed bike was designed and engineered in the U.S. and Canada, and you can bet it will be built in Taiwan or China, where the company Giant makes bike frames for the vast majority of mainstream brands. (The Trump Administration slapped a 10-percent tariff on these bikes in September, and it's set to increase to 25 percent in January.)
Considering the photos GM has provided, the new ebike has small, 20-inch wheels, making it easy to bring on to a metro or bus with a special carry bag. The Blix Vika+ is a similar-sized folding bike, for $1,649, with a detachable 11 ampere-hour Panasonic battery powering a 350-watt motor on the rear hub, and a 35-mile range. Extra-cost options include a 17.5 Ah battery upgrade (55 miles), and a case to carry the 49-pound bike.
The least-expensive ebike I could find online was the Ancheer 25-inch 21-speed e-mountain bike, with removable lithium-ion battery, for $431 at Walmart. I expect the GM ebike pictured will be configured and priced more like the Blix Vika.
On most ebikes, you get the electrical assist by pedaling fast and waiting for it to kick in, which is especially useful uphill, or you can turn on the motor full-time by flicking a button. Most ebikes have a small control screen to choose from these, or to choose 100-percent human power. Top speed under e-assist is typically 18 or 20 mph.
GM isn't the first of the Detroit Three to get into bikes. Ford Motor Company last year partnered with a company named Motivate to launch the Ford GoBike in San Francisco, San Jose, and the East Bay. But the GoBike is a human powered, Dutch-style shared bike like the kind you see in big cities all across the country.
With its new ebike, GM seems to be ready to replace the obsolete Sloan model of "a car for every purse and purpose" with "a transportation mode for every purse and purpose." While I'd be the last to suggest that GM needs to build up its collection of brand divisions again, perhaps this would be a good time to get back into rail, too (see Electro-Motive, which GM owned from 1930 to 2005, according to Wikipedia). A portfolio of bikes, cars, trucks, and trains seems the best possible mix to have for our imminent transportation revolution.