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Tern looks forward to smarter bikes

Tern's human-powered pedal pusher may be low-tech, but its old-school bicycles are slowly getting smarter.

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Tern's first electric-powered bicycle. Aloysius Low/CNET

TAIPEI -- Earlier this month, Taiwan was playing host to the high-tech action of Computex 2015. But across the Tamsui River, opposite to the trade show's exhibition halls, is the headquarters of Taiwanese company Tern. And unlike the high-tech devices found on the Computex show floors, Tern's products are on the lower end of the tech spectrum. Tern makes bicycles.

But Tern isn't your usual bicycle manufacturer. Instead of rugged mountain bikes or speedy road bikes, the company specialises in a product invented in 1817 in Germany -- bikes, but of the foldable kind. These vehicles have 20-inch wheels and fold compactly into half their size, making them a far more portable solution than your average bicycle.

Taiwan is home to renowned electronic manufacturers like Asus, Acer and HTC, so you might be surprised to learn that the cycling industry remains one of the country's largest exporters. Led in part by Giant, which makes all types of frames and parts for bicycles, exports reached a record high of $1.2 billion in 2009. And Tern has an eye on that export market.

Led by team captain Josh Hon, who founded the company in 2011 after a split with his father David Hon, the inventor of the popular Dahon folding bikes, Tern has been steadily growing. It's now taking aim at a more technology-inclined European market with its first electric bike, the Tern eLink.

"You can see the trend in the central European markets such as Germany and Holland where there's a strong growth in electric bikes," says Hon. "I think it makes a lot of sense. Five years ago, riding with a motor would be viewed as cheating, but views have changed."

Hon points out that while a short, flat commute to work is usually fine without motor assistance, users who have longer hilly roads to contend with will find such cycling a chore.

"If you add electric, all of a sudden it becomes a manageable commute. Our goal is to get people riding bikes. In the end it really comes down to getting more people out of their cars and on to bikes. If adding a motor will do that, we think that's great."

Tern eLink

ternelink.jpg
Tern

Tern's first electric bike may not be a smart bike, but the company has melded a motor with physical gears to create a vehicle that rides ridiculously smoothly. You can use it to quicken your commute with electrical assistance or climb hills with ease. Like Tern's other bikes, it even folds neatly in half, letting you store it in the under the desk or the trunk of your car.

It retails for 1,700 euro (which converts to $1,990, £1,220 or AU$2,465) in Europe.

While the eLink isn't as advanced as other smart bikes (like the Yunbike from China) Hon hasn't ruled out smartphone integration in the next model. And there's a high chance you'll see folding bikes becoming smarter before conventional road bikes, which still focus more on improving top speeds by stripping away the non-essentials.

Of course, Tern's not the only bike maker working on folding models. In the UK, Brompton is known for its foldable 16-inch wheelers, but those can be expensive with a starting price of £770 ($1,200, AU$1,550). On the other hand, Tern makes a wide range of designs that cater to most budgets, and Chinese-made alternatives can be cheaper still.

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The Brompton is a folding bike with 16-inch wheels, made in the UK. Brompton

Lifestyle choice

Bicycles are becoming increasingly popular with the more tech-savvy population. With the availability of apps and wearables for fitness tracking and action cameras to film the ride, more and more geeks are taking up cycling for exercise or as a hobby.

"Tech has definitely played a more significant role in the way people exercise and manage their health, especially when everyone is getting more data crazy. Apps like Strava and Mapmyride are already popular with cyclists," says Simon Siah, owner of Lifecycle, a bicycle shop in Singapore.

In the small island state, electric bicycles have been started making their way to the road, though it's not as popular as it is in Europe. Siah says the slower uptake is due to cost and regulation, as well as additional costs for imports.

"There's been some pick up, as people look for alternative urban transportation and "last mile" solutions that are integrated into public transport systems," says Siah.

Bicycles, too, make for a great way to get to places usually not reachable by by foot or car, and when you get there, use the smartphone that's been guiding you to snap a picture or post a message on social media about the awesome new place you've discovered.

But that's all putting both the smartphone and bicycle as separate things -- in the future, smart bikes will be able to communicate with your phone and provide diagnostics such as tire pressure, battery status and even lock and unlock your bicycle through an app.

The Copenhagen Wheel from Superpedestrian gives a battery-powered assist to cyclists going uphill and recharges its battery when they're descending or braking. Superpedestrian/Michael D Spencer

Car manufacturers are also getting in on the action. Ford's announced two electric bikes earlier at Mobile World Congress this year, the Mode: Pro and the Mode: Me, which are foldable and pack sensors to alert drivers of cars coming up too close behind. It also features haptic feedback to help with navigation, letting the rider know just when to make a left or right turn.

And if you don't want to just get a brand new electric bike, there are options available for converting your normal bike to an electric one. Take for example the nifty Copenhagen Wheel, which replaces the rear wheel with one that has a motor that uses regenerative braking -- converting your braking action into energy and storing it for when you need to use the motor to go uphill.

Re-Tern

At its heart, Tern is still a very old-school company that takes delight in getting things right at the basic level. Even simple items like its BioLogic AnchorPoint mount comes with little mechanical touches such as a clicky feel when you twist on the knob to give you a better feel for using the mechanism. The second version of its very cool-looking foldable helmet comes with a magnet clasp, making fastening the helmet a magical experience when it simply clicks together. The company also sells bike computers and has an app that tracks your ride on the App Store.

Still, Taiwanese bicycle manufacturers are in the right position to ride out on the smart wave of bicycles -- if they can find the right partnership with local electronics manufacturers, of course. To do so will, however, require a change in the way their products are designed, and companies like Tern will have to figure out how to integrate electronics into its bicycles to make them smarter.

"I think that's definitely coming -- a stronger, smarter electric bike with cellphone integration," says Hon. "I think that's the direction everyone is looking and interested in, it's just a matter of time. We're definitely interested."

"You have to have the systems written and the motors, batteries, controller and Bluetooth built-in. There are a number of companies who have systems like that, and the bike companies, like us, have to build it in."