Bring Your Own Battery: The Future of Bikeshare?
Summary: A Bring Your Own Battery (BYOB) model for bikeshare may enable dramatic price reductions on electric bikeshare, by reducing or eliminating the need for rebalancing, recharging, and by inducing higher utilization and better protecting batteries.
NB: ‘ebikes’ here includes scooters unless specified otherwise
The problem with electric bikeshare: it’s expensive. Or, it could be a lot cheaper.
The big cost in any bikeshare is rebalancing — making sure bikes are in places where users want them. Electrifying bikeshare can help, by making it easier to say, go uphill, and take a trip both ways. But even ebikes require rebalancing.
Ebikes have a bigger problem: they have to be recharged frequently. That means more logistics cost from paying people to grab and recharge the bikes, and higher user prices. Especially if you’re bringing them in nightly, like Bird does with its scooters.
And those higher prices may make the rebalancing problem worse — why pay extra for an ebike when you’re going downhill or downwind? So you get cheap pedal bikes at the bottom of the hill, and pricey ebikes on the top.
BYOB bikeshare may fix all that. With BYOB, there’s no need for the costly logistics of recharging. That means lower prices for users, higher usage.
JCDecaux’s model has a reported 6 mile range at a top speed of 15mph, and weighs 1.1 lb (0.5 kg), and is the size of a paperback, according to the Shared Use Mobility Center. A battery twice the size and range would work for many commutes.
The BYOB model could be geared towards both scooters and bikes, though scooters might have a smaller maximum battery size, consistent with their use for shorter distances than ebikes. An ebike would also permit users to conserve more battery by pedaling, as they see fit.
Some might fret that carrying and charging a 2 lb battery is annoying. But it’s no more annoying than walking 5 minutes to a bus stop on both ends of a trip, or parking and locking your bike. Plenty of people already recharge their cell phone both at work and at home.
Plus, the battery could have a unique ID that is transmitted to the vehicle, which serves to unlock it, replacing the need to scan a QR code to start a ride.
Walk to a dedicated ebike hub — or to the one you left outside your apartment — click in your battery and start your ride.
The daily user will appreciate the slight inconvenience of recharging the battery in return for great savings, of 50% or more. Limebike scooters appear to have a 23 mile range, based on their app — if the battery is entirely the green object near the handlebars in the picture below, that’s quite compact, and adequate to cover a day’s travel by scooter.
It’s plausible that, with BYOB, users are induced to use the ebike for both ends of a commute, and would be geared towards commuters. That would reduce the need for costly rebalancing.
Batteries are also notoriously vulnerable to extreme weather. Exposure to extreme temperatures can greatly sap their lifespan, and that would happen when ebikes are left out, especially overnight. A BYOB model might then be ‘greener’ and cheaper by following users indoors and better protecting batteries.
How much would BYOB bikeshare cost? Scooters used by Bird cost $470 (according to Michal Naka). Subtract the battery, and that’s competitive with the price of pedal bikes for dockless bikeshare, $400 or so each. Limebike has said its pedal bikes break even financially with 1 ride a day (and rides are usually $1 each). Edit April 16, 2019: This was almost assuredly a false claim from Lime, given their later abandonment of dockless bikes.
So $1–2 per ride for a BYOB ride, especially on a scooter, is plausible — and that’s cheaper than existing e-bikeshare (JUMP), or scooters (Lime, Bird, Spin). Electric bicycles will cost more, but they may see higher usage, and thus may have similar prices.
The more rides per day each ebike gets, the lower the price per ride can be, so long as there are enough bikes to be within close reach of users. Thus, cities have an interest in preventing low utilization of bikes — to make rides cheaper and speed adoption of greener, efficient mobility.
If BYOB works, cities would be wise to require vendors to have interoperable batteries (and 3rd party location aggregation), so that users would not be locked into one vendor. That would force services to compete with one another beyond just dumping lots of bikes on the street and relying on the customer ‘lock-in’ effect.
When your battery can work with any BYOB ebike, you won’t have to walk as far on average to get one, nor will firms be incentivized to dump lots of bikes. Standardized interfaces may help make the batteries cheaper, through greater volumes of production and the associated economies of scale.
Ebikes would have small permanent batteries, for the GPS and internet devices onboard, and these would charge from the user’s battery during the ride. Worst case, if an ebike gets no rides for a few days, these would be recharged manually by bikeshare staff.
Chicken or the Egg?
How do you get users to spend say, $100 on a battery on a vehicle they’ve never used? Firms could initially deploy models with BYOB-type batteries already on-board, albeit locked and secured to the vehicle. As the service becomes popular, the vendor starts to sell batteries and offer discounted prices to those who bring them.
Ebikes could even be dual purpose, with a slot for user batteries as well as a built-in battery, and higher prices for those who use the built-in battery. Users could even be given credits for letting the built-in battery draw power from user battery, as they ride.
An upfront payment of $100 is very similar to conventional bikeshares, where users pay $100–200 for an annual membership, and a battery would likely last two years or more. Alternatively, these could be partially* subsidized similarly to electric vehicles, albeit at a rate of $50–100 per person instead of several thousand.
*Partial subsidies, say up to 50%, would help ensure that the batteries actually get used.
Caveats: Bikeshare firms like Jump and Limebike are already at work getting landlords and retailers to charge the bikes at low or no cost, to entice customers for their service. But it’s hard to imagine that being as cheap and simple as thrusting the whole charging process onto the user.
Jump has also been experimenting with docks, where users would be rewarded for parking at. But those too are costly.
This is also not a model for occasional and spontaneous users, such as tourists, who won’t be lugging 1–2 lb batteries with them. Non-BYOB options would remain for them, albeit at higher prices, due to their greater rebalancing and recharging needs. These would require entirely different ebikes.
(Edited April 16, 2019, for higher cost per ride; cost per ride will depend greatly on utilization)