You can grasp what a pedelec is intellectually but its essence can’t be imagined - only experienced.
Most people have learned to ride a bike, or at least, many of the currently around 7 billion have, because there are currently around 1 billion bikes worldwide (source: www.worldodometers.info).
Many people also have experience of motorbikes, but it’s still hard to imagine what it feels like to ride a pedelec. Most people think it’ll be a little like motorbike riding, but actually the magic is in the coupling of the motor power with muscle power. Car drivers could perhaps compare it with the feeling of power steering or using brakes with servo assist. You feel as if you’re steering and braking all by yourself, but in fact most of the force is applied by the servo system. It’s the same on a pedelec, so the satisfying feeling of having climbed a hill yourself remains, it’s just easier.
The German inventor Egon Gelhard invented and patented the pedelec principle in 1982. Unfortunately he could not find a cycle manufacturer willing to implement his ideas in a product. To be fair, at that time this would have been extremely difficult, because digital motor control and sensor technology were still at early stages of development, and could not have been manufactured at an acceptable price. So it took another ten years until the Japanese motorbike maker Yamaha developed the first pedelec, and launched it onto the Japanese market in 1993. Yamaha understood that with the pedelec they were dealing with a new category of vehicle which only intuitively had anything in common with bikes and motorbikes.
This was the only way in which the market could have developed continuously so that the pedelec is today made in numbers which exceed all other motorised two-wheelers. In 2011, 430,000 pedelecs were sold in Japan, against 257,000 motorbikes up to 50 cc and 148,000 motorbikes over 50 cc. Japan can be seen as a model for markets such as Europe, because, similarly, ongoing market development only occurs because of the product benefits, and from people experiencing these product benefits for themselves.
>> Diagram: demand by mode of transport in Japan
Copy: Hannes Neupert, prepared within the EU GoPedelec! project: GoPedelec! Handbook (German version)
>> Go Pedelec! Handbook in Czech, Dutch, English, Hungarian, and Italian
Translation: Peter Eland (www.electricbikemag.co.uk)
Diagram: Moritz Grünke (www.bueropluspunkt.de), source: Panasonic Cycle Technology Co., Ltd.
Online release: Angela Budde
9 January 2013