The Augmented Reality of eBikes
The conversation about eBikes may boil down to accepting or rejecting them as a (new) augmented reality
Over the summer, I purchased a folding bike. The homework which led to that purchase has taken my thoughts a bit further than compact gear ratios in a neatly folded package. I’m interested now in more than just types of biking, but how the conversation around their influence on economies, livability, and various technologies are playing out in this age. I’m diving in and out of cycling conversations so much that Twitter is now recommending the entire cycling genre for me to follow. And I do because of what is and isn’t there. Part of what’s there is the back and forth about eBikes. I don’t mean to posture this as another one of those pieces, but in light of a previous piece (ironically, also talking about cycling), there might be another way to think about why eBikes are such a contentious topic.
The concept is actually quite simple, but perhaps I might be mixing a few genres more heavily than their leading discussions allow. The rise of eBikes speaks to a feeling of augmenting humanity in a way that we’d not seen in some time. If you will, the whole dispute about eBikes boils down to them enabling a kind of augmented reality that’s seems artificial, even if it is a logical extension of two technologies we’ve had for a little more than a century: bicycles and radios. Even if it is also the acknowledgement that our turn away from cycling towards oil and autos was a mistake we are blaming ourselves for, more than we are collectively learning how to address.
People much smarter than I have spoken about how efficient bicycles are. Even a badly tuned bicycle does something like take 95% of the energy put into it and propels its rider. Obviously, a well-tuned bicycle puts that in the 98–99% range (reference to these numbers). For all intents and purposes, that makes a bicycle an amazing human-powered machine. Probably the best ever. We put into it a bit of ourselves and are rewarded with motion (sweat, smiles, and more). From that motion we connect, transact, and sense our world more fully.
The technologies developed on top of bicycles have made even more efficient the energy we put into it. Gears and derailleurs enable more of that energy to be utilized across various changes in terrain. Suspension systems soften the blows to our joints, allowing more of our energy to reach the bicycle. While tires and paved roads extend our ability to travel faster and with more comfort. There are lighting systems, powered by batteries and our own movement, which enable us to extend the sunlight, or extend other’s eyes towards us, along with a host of other technologies. Suffice to say, the bicycle has generated such an extension of us, that it is hard to find people who don’t smile at just the memory of the freedoms and allowances cycling enabled.
These days however, we speak about connected technologies around terms such as artificial intelligence, sensors, and smartphones. Whether the radios and algorithms sit in a glass slab stashed in our pockets, or are extended towards plastic shells attached to our ears, wrists, belts, and shoes, we define these extensions of ourselves to the services these sensors are connected to. And to some degree they are augmentations of our own being also. Some devices serve as extensions to our memories, replaying routes traveled, transactions had, and knowledge left at the context of many intersections. Some devices are simpler, but extend our ability to touch and see one another — trading sounds for attention, repeated sounds for reputation, and improper sounds as invasion of identity. The connected technologies of this age have made us very aware of the senses we have, and the ones we don’t always use from within ourselves.
And now we have this confluence of the bicycle and these mobile-pioneered technologies. We have bicycles with small electrical motors, able to take the pedal energy we put into them, and magnify that strength exponentially. An eBike is like a super suit, enabling the rider to pedal 10 miles, but show the glisten of one who did barely two. This efficiency isn’t relegated to those who were gifted with athletic or superhuman genes either. The enablement of the eBike is that it makes anyone able to partake in its power. It turns the reality of cycling from “something I used to have the energy to do” to “that was easy, let’s go longer.”
Such a shift changes reality. For those who have ridden an eBike the sentiment is revelatory. The joy of cycling needs to no longer be accompanied by the pain afterwards. For those who might have been isolated from powered-transportation options due to physical, social, legal, or other circumstances, the eBike adds back the reality of traveling at your time’s discretion, not just at the schedules of public and shared transportation. In this manifestation of its power, the eBike grants time back. Another reality of eBikes is that the power of movement and the opportunities of non-wasted time are not limited to the licensed and insured. The eBike returns the human to what matters about connections and transportation, not the structures supporting the traveling.
So right now, eBikes are a kind of augmented reality. For those able to afford their own or who are in metropolitan areas where eBikes are a part of an accessible bike-share system, the view of this empowered humanity is easy to take hold of. The equation of “time to travel” isn’t as constrained by “will I get tired of traveling.” The eBike offers a kind of a flying cape to the prospect of getting across town and maintaining a healthy/fit life. The perception of “if I bike will they think less of me” instead becomes “why don’t I make my statement by biking instead of driving.” The eBike as it stands today offers a glimpse of what humanity can do — that is, until that which is augmented becomes the normal.
The wild thing about mobiles and smartphones isn’t that they happened, but that they went so fast from a novel thing to the augmented living thing so quickly. I bear the years of someone who started school with penmanship classes and finished with computer labs being taken down because everyone had their own computers (and I was writing papers on a PDA). They so quickly became a part of what it means to be human that many times we cannot bear to define life without them. And such could be the case with eBikes in time. I don’t know that a conventional bike will go away — the bike is a stubborn machine, much about it hasn’t changed at all even with all of the advances in materials, designs, etc.
But, what might go away is the perception, the stigma, that bicycling needs to require so much from us even as it does the most with what we give it. Electronic bikes seem to be a rolling advertisement that we aren’t done augmenting ourselves to be stronger, faster, smarter, etc. And that’s ok. Humanity is in part defined by the tools which has enabled it to grow and expand as it has. EBikes just may be the latest expression of machines which are the clearest mirror yet of what it is we want to become. We haven’t become that being yet; there’s more to being superhuman than putting on a costume and a cape. Just as there’s more to eBikes than putting an battery, electric motor, and computer on the handlebars. My hope is that as we gain a clearer view of what eBikes, scooters, etc. can do for us, we also gain and live out what it means to be truly humane.