Electric bike offers green urban commuting option

Ultra Motor says its zero-emissions ride will appeal to people who want the freedom of personal commuting, but without the hassles and costs of cars.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
The A2B, from Ultra Motor, is an electric bicycle designed for the urban commuter. It has a range of about 20 miles on a charge, which can be done in three or four hours from any electric outlet. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

This feels very strange.

I'm riding down an alley in San Francisco, pedaling as you would on any bicycle. Each time I put my foot down, the bike presses on a little further. It's all very normal.

But then, with the flick of a switch on the bike's handlebars, it shoots forward with a strong, smooth, motorized thrust. Quickly, I've hit 20 miles an hour.

This isn't normal anymore.

This is Ultra Motor's A2B, a $2,500, zero-emissions scooter that just happens to also be an electric bike.

Watch this: Traditional bike with electric zip

The A2B looks very much like a regular bicycle, except that it has some very heavy-duty looking components, and a wide center stem in which its lithium-ion battery is enclosed.

But in fact, the Ultra Motor folks surely don't want the A2B called a scooter because one of their chief marketing points is that it doesn't require any kind of license or special permit, as does a motorcycle or scooter. And that means that a new buyer could jump on it and get going without any kind of bureaucratic runaround.

The A2B is expected to be available, most likely from bicycle, scooter, and motorcycle dealerships, in September. At $2,500, it seems somewhat expensive, but Amy Robinson, Ultra Motor USA's vice president of marketing, points out that the company is positioning the A2B against high-end bicycles--which can easily run two grand--as well as against gas-powered commuter vehicles like cars, motorcycles, and mopeds.

I also told CEO Chris Deyo that I thought the bike might cost too much to appeal to a large number of buyers, but he said that if you compare the one-time price of the A2B to the ongoing costs of commuting by car, moped or motorcycle--given the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance, parking, and parking tickets--it's not so steep. "We found, in talking to folks, that (at) $2,500, it's a considered purchase, but it's of value to them," Deyo said.

Ultra Motor is expecting the bike to appeal to urban commuters in their 30s and 40s who want an alternative to their car or any other form of transportation that requires them to find parking or buy gas.

"We call it the Mini Cooper of electric bikes," Robinson said. "It's sturdy and solid, but nimble like a bicycle. And it's a great alternative to getting in (a) car."

Plus, she added, the company hopes to attract commuters who like the idea of riding a bike to work, but who hate the idea of being sweaty on arrival. And the A2B's smooth, lively motor lets them do just that.

The A2B's battery is stored inside the main stem of the bike. It is a lithium-ion battery capable of running for more than 700 charges. The A2B is expected to retail for around $2,500. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Even on hills, which require a bit of pedaling to ascend, it's not really anything like the kind of sweat-inducing power pumping required on a regular bike. Rather, it's more like pedaling that regular bike on flat surfaces. And that, combined with the power of the motor, gets the A2B up a hill rather nicely.

Doing so is very strange. As a longtime bike rider from San Francisco, I'm very familiar with what it's like to pedal up hills: painful, slow, and grueling. Yet when I took the A2B up a hill near CNET's offices Monday, I had the odd sensation of pedaling normally and smoothly, as if I were on the flats, yet zipping up the hill way faster than I should have been.

Pedaling the A2B has a secondary benefit: it reduced load on the battery, allowing for a longer range. And with an auxiliary battery that's available, the bike's range can be stretched to 40 miles, Robinson said.

Of course, there are other electric bikes on the market. Among them are some that cost less than the A2B and which offer similar specifications. Some, like the iZip Express, from Currie Technologies, can go up to 25 miles an hour.

Robinson said that the A2B stands out because, "there's no other electric bike today built from the ground up as a commuting solution."

Perhaps. It's hard for me to say how the A2B's competition stacks up to it because I haven't ridden them.

I do know, however, that the A2B is a show stopper.

"One of the main attractions," said Robinson of the A2B, "is the reaction when people see it and experience it when they ride it."

Ultra Motor is counting on word of mouth and viral interest in the A2B, and it seems to work: as CEO Chris Deyo was showing how the bike worked, a crowd gathered and peppered him with questions. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Indeed, as Ultra Motor USA CEO Chris Deyo was straddling an A2B outside CNET's headquarters, a crowd gathered around him and began peppering him with questions about the bike. He hadn't even started riding it.

And, while I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical of the bike before I got to my meeting with the Ultra Motor folks, seeing the crowd clustered around Deyo and the A2B, and then riding it myself made me think that maybe this whole electric bike thing is a good idea after all. I even started to feel like I might really want one.

Of course, like another passion of mine that I can't afford, the Segway, the A2B is a substitute for driving a gas-powered vehicle that offers little more in the way of exercise.

On the other hand, because it does have pedals, it is possible to ride it like a regular bicycle, and Robinson said that, based on feedback the company had gotten, some A2B buyers might well choose to do that on their way home from work when arriving sweaty isn't a problem.

Ultra Motor is ramping up to the September launch of the A2B. So far, Deyo told me, the company has taken paid orders for the entire pre-production run of the bikes--a number in the hundreds, he said. But he wouldn't tell me how many A2Bs the company plans to have ready at launch.

As for me, the A2B did indeed generate a new round of techno-lust. But at that price, I'm just going to have to sublimate it and keep on taking my morning bus to work.