Today, I got to ride the Flit Electric Bike! It was great fun!
Actually, it was much better than that; I was invited to visit their office in Cambridge and got to spend quite a bit of time meeting the team and distracting them from what they ought to have been doing. But they were great people, and very patient as I quizzed them endlessly to find out more about what I think is a really nicely-designed product.
A bit of personal background: I own an elderly (non-electric) Brompton folding bike which I got from my parents, and there’s a story behind why I’m particularly fond of that brand. My father had bad arthritis in his ankles meaning that, from an earlier age than one might expect, walking any distance was difficult, but he could cycle just fine. Some of us got together and gave him a Brompton, little knowing that it really would prove to be quite a life-changer. He could take it with him almost everywhere he went, and it allowed him to join in on family walks, get exercise, and see new places in a way he never could have done without it. For him it genuinely was a mobility vehicle, and I think it kept him out of a wheelchair for probably 10 years longer than might otherwise have been the case. My mother also got one soon afterwards, and until fairly recently, their car always had two bikes in the boot. So yes, I have a soft spot for this brilliant bit of British engineering, designed by a Cambridge engineer and finally brought to market after a long hard struggle.
To be fair, almost everybody loves Bromptons, though for most people the value is that you can cycle at all on something that folds away so ridiculously small; it’s not really the bike you’d probably choose to ride just for the joy of riding. There are compromises in rigidity, in cycling position, etc., which are apparent when you compare it to any regular bike (though I gather newer models may be a bit better than my ancient and well-travelled example!). And when Brompton came to build their battery-assisted version, they didn’t want to change too much of the basic design which had been so successful for so long. They did an ingenious and careful job of electrifying it, but it was always a retrofitting exercise to an existing layout.
The Flit bike, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up as an electric bike, yet it folds almost as small as a Brompton, and weighs a bit less than their electric model. At present, it’s also cheaper, because Flit are selling direct; you can’t yet walk into a dealer and buy one. And in fact, even buying direct, you’ll need to be patient; they expect the first batch to ship in July. So the one I was trying was a pre-production model, but they’ve managed to sell quite a number through their crowdfunding campaigns, initially on Kickstarter and now on Indiegogo, which is impressive given that very few of those people, presumably, will have had the opportunity to go and try it out just a few miles from home, as I did!
But I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I found it great fun and comfortable to ride, a good weight to carry, and easier to roll along the floor than any other folding bike I’ve tried. I can definitely see that if you lived a few miles from your nearest train or bus station, this would be a great way to get there. Or, say, to carry in your motorhome or yacht for trips to the nearest pub or grocery shop. OK, so it doesn’t fold quite as small as a Brompton. And it doesn’t have the load-carrying capacity of, say, the much larger and heavier Tern Vectron. Both of those are fine machines, but the Flit is noticeably cheaper than both of them at the moment and (in my opinion) nicer to ride than either.
I shall watch with interest as they ramp up production, and follow their blog, and I hope they have the success they deserve!
My thanks to Alex Murray, the Managing Director, for the invitation. (I first heard of Flit, by the way, on this excellent podcast, which I recommend for anyone interested either in bikes or startups or both!)
A recent BBC article is entitled “Electric cars: Best and worst places to charge your car”.
The government has published new league tables showing which regions of the UK have the most charging points for drivers of electric vehicles. The most per 100,000 people are in London, followed by Scotland, while Yorkshire is the worst by that measure.
Outside London, Orkney and Milton Keynes have the most. But Barrow-in-Furness and Scilly each have none.
There’s a nice map showing the current state of play.
A bit later, though, the article starts to introduce some rather worrying numbers:
The government wants the UK to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Scottish Power estimates that in order to achieve this, the UK needs to have 25 million charging points for electric vehicles – the equivalent of installing 4,000 a day – and 23 million electric heat pumps to replace domestic gas boilers.
This is a topic of great interest to me, and the underlying data is useful, but the article is somewhat flawed almost from the start. The first thing to notice is that it never distinguishes between public and private charging points. In fact, if you look at the source, the league table is talking about public charging points, where Scottish Power are talking about public and private ones.
Nonetheless, it is indeed a lot of charging points, though the article’s second error is in ascribing the figure of 4000 installations per day to car chargers: in fact the numbers are about 2000 each for chargers and for heat pumps.
Then they hammer home the size of the challenge with this:
And all at a cost of nearly £300bn.
Wow! Another big and scary number. How on earth are we ever going to do this?
But let’s think about it for a moment…
Many numbers are not quite so scary when you consider them rationally and in context.
25 million is approaching the current number of households in the UK, and, yes, if we don’t have petrol vehicles, most people will probably want to charge their cars at home. That’s also why the heat-pump number is on a similar scale.
But remember, we’re talking about a target which is 30 years away.
According to this article, the UK installed 1.7 million new boilers in 2018! This makes sense, if you think about it: how many households are there, and how long does a boiler last? If that rate continued, then between now and 2050, 51 million new boilers would have been installed anyway.
Switching to heat pumps may be slightly more involved, but it sounds a bit more plausible now. And installing charging points only needs to happen at half the rate of central heating boiler replacement!
But that, of course, does not make for such enticing journalism.
Wait, though – what about that enormous £300-billion cost?
Well, there are about 70 million people in the UK, and that cost will be spread over 30 years. So that’s £142 per person per year, or about 39p per person per day.
Would you pay that for a carbon-neutral future? I would!
Let’s get on with it!
On Saturday, our research group had an outing to Haddenham Steam Rally, which turned out to be a wonderful gathering of a huge range of old equipment, most of it steam-powered, from tractors to cars to pipe organs to merry-go-rounds to fire-engine pumps. It was, of course, a wonderful photo opportunity.
Amongst the mighty machines, there were also many scale models, fully functional, and (to my eyes) just as beautiful.
Some of them, I felt, must be feeling under some… ahem… pressure… to perform, under the watchful gaze of their larger colleagues.
The amount of care that had gone into building and maintaining these was extraordinary.
It’s only natural that some of them were closely guarded.
As we walked around the fairground and numerous exhibits, some of these would come puffing by, large or small, at such a pleasingly low speed that one could talk to the drivers and passengers quite easily. And always, everywhere, was the relaxed, almost hypnotic sound of slow, rhythmic puffing.
When they all got together, it was a wonderful sight. I call this photo ‘Heated Discussion’:
Anyway, a surprisingly enjoyable day. I went along mostly because of the social nature of the trip, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last visit.
Fancy some fast, green, silent, smooth, aquatic transport? Me too. So the approach taken by SeaBubbles is really attractive.
They’re making electric hydrofoils which, once you get above about 6 knots, rise up and lose 60% of their drag.
They’re about the same size as a car, and the battery has the same capacity as my BMW i3. This would give you enough range, on their figures, to get you across the English Channel.
Here’s some nice footage of their tests on the Seine; they’re keen to promote them as water taxis. As they point out, many waterways have speed restrictions that wouldn’t allow you to get the most out of your SeaBubble…
They haven’t announced pricing yet, but I fear they’d be well beyond my reach, especially since I’d also need to buy a cottage by the side of a fjord to appreciate it fully.
But I hope I get a chance to ride in one!
The bus services that connect the little hill towns around here with the larger settlements on the Amalfi coast are quite remarkable. The bus drivers not only manage to squeeze their special, shortened buses through the sometimes tiny gaps on these small mountain roads with less than an inch separating them from the nearest wing mirror, but also to negotiate the tight hairpin bends without making the passengers feel sick. All the normal jokes about Italian driving don’t apply here. I have nothing but admiration for them. The ticket pricing is also pretty good.
But there’s a problem.
They’re too punctual.
We missed the bus back up the hill from Positano this evening: we arrived about 30 seconds late and so had to wait another hour. But we had also missed the one going down in the morning, when we arrived about two minutes early, to see the bus just departing about two-and-a-half minutes early. We didn’t want to wait for the next one, so we walked down by the steps. All 1700 of them.
What I want to know is, why can’t they be more like other southern-Europeans and take a more relaxed approach to timing? Me, I blame Mussolini…
I’ve been test-driving electric and hybrid cars recently. I’ve tried the all-electric Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf, and the plug-in hybrid Golf GTE. All of these are excellent cars, and a pleasure to drive. I’d recommend anyone thinking of a second car to have a look at them; a used Zoe with very few miles on the clock will set you back about £8000, and since Renault have a battery-leasing scheme you need to add about £4000 to that if you keep the car for five years. I enjoyed driving it. The Leaf is even better, but a bit bigger and more expensive – it’s a really nice car. The manufacturers have gone out of their way to make sure that driving one of these has as few surprises as possible for anyone used to any other vehicle. We’re thinking about a replacement for our main car, though, and we’re not quite ready to go all-electric for that. In 5 years’ time, that will be completely viable, but not yet, not for us.
So, ever since I heard first about the Golf GTE, I thought that might be the answer. Our current Golf has been probably the best car I’ve owned, the local dealer is very good, and this would let us venture into the hybrid/electric world while keeping our feet safely on the ground. And VW have some very nice extras like automatic parallel parking, and a good adaptive cruise control. When people talk about cruise controls I tend to think about motorway driving, but what’s possibly even cooler is its ability to keep you a constant distance from the car in front while crawling through slow-moving traffic. I really liked that.
But there’s a problem.
The problem is that in the middle of this process, I drove the BMW i3. For those of you not acquainted with the i3, it’s an electric car designed from the ground-up, built with various lightweight, innovative (and often recycled) materials, in a factory powered almost entirely by renewable energy, and so on. It’s quirky, and great fun, though it also comes with a BMW price tag. Ouch. Still, there are some used ones available now, and at least it’s not a Tesla.
But the i3 has an optional extra that almost everybody buys: the range-extender (known to the cognoscenti as the ‘REx’). This is a little 30HP 600cc engine tucked away below the boot which can charge the battery from a two-gallon petrol tank and extend the roughly 90 miles of normal electric range for another 90 miles, or, in fact, for as far as you like if you don’t mind stopping to fill up every hour and a half! So I could, if wanted, drive from here to the Lake District in the opposite corner of Britain with just a couple of stops even if all the (increasingly plentiful) electric charging points en route were full or inoperative.
So it’s not a true hybrid, in the sense that the engine is never intended to be the main thing driving the car. In fact, many owners use the REx so rarely that the car will switch it on briefly every few hundred miles just to keep it happy. But, for me, it’s the thing that lets you have an innovative and almost all-electric car and yet bridge the next few years until the charging infrastructure is more fully developed. And after driving it, other hybrids like the Golf seem, well, rather compromised: packing two full engines into a car that therefore only has an electric range of around 30 miles, when the 90 electric miles or so available from a more thoroughly-electric car would almost cover me for a typical week on a single charge. (This may be important, since I have no off-street parking at home.)
I like living in the future – or at least, trying to. (Shaw was right.) Even Rose, who’s an historian and likes living in the past, can see the attraction of this. Imagine you’re thinking of buying a boat. The sensible thing to get is a motor yacht, because it can go anywhere in almost any weather. But it’s so much more romantic, and beautiful, and pioneering, and quiet, and environmentally friendly, to get something with sails instead, even if you then have to plan a little bit more about where you can go, and when. Well, this is a sailing boat, but with an outboard motor, for when you need it, but with the added interesting twist that it can out-accelerate almost any other speedboat in the harbour.
So yesterday I went (with my friends Michael and Laura, who have one) to a gathering of i3 owners near Milton Keynes to find out more. There were about 34 i3s there, and a couple of i8s, which means the combined battery capacity was approaching a megawatt-hour. Your physics assignment for this morning is to work out what kind of fun things you could do if, say, you discharged all of that over five or ten minutes. (I’m thinking about, for example, using some wind-turbines as fans…)
It was a happy gathering despite the yucky grey weather, and some very helpful, knowledgeable and cheery BMW staff had turned up from the North Oxford dealership (thanks, guys!) even though they probably guessed they weren’t going to make many sales, since everybody but me already had one!
Still, who knows, they might make one more sale before too long…
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser