Wai Won Ching is the enigmatic and offbeat founder and CEO of eZee Bikes. He was in Auckland for a few days so I took the opportunity to interview Mr Ching.
Learn why bigger is better with batteries, why power ratings are nonsense, why throttles rule, and why you should invest in Bitcoin (I just put that in for the search engine hits, but there is a mention…)
- Wai Won Ching (WWC)
- ElectricBazza (EB)
- Maurice Wells from Electric Bike Hub Auckland (MW)
- Jace Hobbs from Electric Bike Hub NZ (JH)
EB: Can you give us a short history on eZee
WWC: Well I had a big business investment in Shanghai making PVC pipes and that went bust. Lost all the money and I found a job in one of the local Chinese ebike manufacturers with investment from Singapore. I’m from Singapore. And then I worked there for about a year and I decided I can make a much better bike than the company I worked for. So I started eZee in January of 2001, so we are now 17 years coming to 18 next year. So of course we had lots of up and down over the years, we learned a lot. But over the last few years – 10 years – things have been going very well
EB: So which country do you manufacture in
WWC: We still manufacture in Shanghai. But we might be moving to Malaysia next year.
EB: And do you make all the frames yourselves.
WWC: No. We design the frames. We give it to a professional frame manufacturer that makes nothing but frames.
EB: And which countries do you sell the bikes into
WWC: I have very small numbers but I sell all over the world. Alaska, NZ, Europe, NA, Canada, South Africa.
EB: How many people are in the business
WWC: I have 35 people. I myself am the major designer of concepts. My engineers do all the details on Autocad, Solidworks.
EB: When you are designing ebikes, who are you designing them for
WWC: Ah, that’s a very important question, a very good question. From the beginning when I started I was never in the bicycle business. So when I started the business I did a lot of research; I went to all the bike shows. I picked up a lot of bicycle magazines, books regarding cycling, and I knew I had to design a bike for the user, the customer. And like 18-19 years ago I saw the ebikes, they were designed by the geeks at university, and they designed the bike for their own ego, not for the user. I had many firsts in the industry. One of the things was the battery. The Japanese are the people who first commercialised the electric bike. Although the electric bike has been around since the 1800s. Philips EMI was the first commercial electric bike but they disappeared when the internal combustion engine came in. Electric cars were there before internal combustion engine. Mr Porsche’s first car was an electric car.
So for battery the Japanese commercialised. But you know Japanese make electric bikes mainly for demographic reasons. All very old people the grandma and the grandpa needed assistance to ride. But the Japanese grandma and grandpa weighed less than 50kg and the ride very slowly, the Japan, they ride on the pedestrian pathway not on the road. So you can imagine the Japanese grandma who weighs 40kg, when they introduced the system into Europe it was a total failure, because the German guys average weight is probably 90kg, and they want to ride paths and go long distance. So the whole thing didn’t work in Europe. So I went in and say I want the biggest possible battery in volume in weight and what I fit into a bike. But it didn’t fit into a bike.
So I’m the first guy to make 36V 9Ah battery. At that time the market everyone was selling 24V 5Ah. I introduced batteries more than double the size – triple the size than the ones in the market. And then the rest of the people follow and when I talked to people they say people only ride 5km so that’s enough. I say no that’s not correct only 5km because they can’t go any more.
EB: Well I like the experience when we had that ginormous battery (34Ah) the test was to try to see if we could ride far enough before we ran out but we were unsuccessful.
WWC: Along the years our battery is getting bigger and bigger with the advancement of battery capacity and lower cost. I have one of the biggest battery packs in the market. And I say this, it’s never enough, the more you have its better. As long as you are fit enough, as long as the cost is reasonable, its never enough.
EB: Yeah, people often make the mistake of buying a battery that’s just big enough for their needs, then in a years’ time when its hit 90% of its capacity its then not enough. Ad also people don’t know often what they are going to do with their ebike when they first get it. They think they’ll just go straight but it’s often nice to go a different way, go longer.
WWC: Another very important thing In my design is when I did it I said the battery must be universal for all my models, and the customer who bought my bike 17 years ago still can find the same battery pack he needs today, and I’ll tell him in 17 years in future you still can get the same battery pack. And very often all the other brands they have fancy designs, they put the battery here, integrated into the bike, and they change the fashion. Two years down the road they cant find the same battery.
EB: That’s a frequently asked question: from people who say, if I buy this bike, will I be able to get a battery in five years time when I need to replace it, and with the generic bikes, often the answer is no, you won’t good luck, maybe even after a year.
WWC: Sometimes you may get it but you will wait three months. It needs to be shipped from somewhere.
JH: And not just the battery, we stock the parts for bikes going back 12 years. So the bikes can be used as a long term expected investment.
EB: Yes, because they are an expensive item.
JH: And there are people who will rebuild their bike after 12 years for a newer system.
EB: What do you think are the likely new developments we can expect in the next 2 or 3 years on ebikes
WWC: Well the major thing is its around gimmickry coming in but I don’t consider these developments. OK maybe I’m a dinosaur I’m not a new millennium guy, they’re putting all this app into the display. You need all your cellphones to communicate with your bicycle to see how many watts you have used.. after one month you know exactly what you are using. You don’t have to read that off. Then the other important thing of course the battery. That’s always a miracle new battery down the road. You keep up with all these new developments but often the development is only marginal. Its still the same thing but a bit improvement in chemistry or construction. But these miracle batteries, I’m often doubtful. Once I was contacted by a professor—I have this battery I can charge in 5 min. Do you trial? I say sure, let me have a couple and I’ll do a trial for you. But first tell me, do you have a charger that can charge in 5 mins, our current charger is 3A, 5A, do you have a charger for 20 or 50A? <laughs> so how are you going to do this?
EB: Always a miracle, it’ll be a Kickstarter project or something like that. It’ll be a miracle and won’t need a charger at all, it’ll charge itself. <all laugh>
Will you produce a mid-drive bike, given that they are the fashion?
WWC? No this is where we have a big argument again about the mid-drive bike. There’s no third wheel in the middle of the bike. They just put the motor in the middle at the bottom bracket so the chain is driving the rear wheel. So it’s a cumbersome rear wheel drive but not a mid drive, so to my sense of design, it’s not a mid drive. So on the mid drive you are pulling the rear wheel through the chain and that case it’s a problem because you have tension on the chain all the time, you have wearing on the chains, breakage, sprockets breaking, problems. And the size of the motor in a mid drive, I’ve seen, is a little motor may 2 ½ 3 inch diameter. I keep saying this is a motor for a sewing machine not a bike <laughs>
EB: So you new bikes are coming out with a torque sensor system. Do you think all bikes will come with a torque sensor?
WWC: This is something I’ve been working on for many years, maybe 8 years when toque sensors came out. First one from a German company called Tun want to charge me 100 Euros for one torque sensor in the bottom bracket. And that wasn’t very compatible with our controller it has this power surge, not running smoothly, fast and slow, trying to play with the programs. Anyway it was a bit complicated, so we have tried several other. In the early days there were some Chinese torque sensors that were a total disaster. And now of course there are a lot of people working on it this year now I have selected a torque sensor made in China. I’ve seen them in the last three years develop their prototype so I give them time to sort out all their bugs. So now over the years I’m a bit more confident of their system and its very reasonably priced.
EB: So the price point has come down to the point where its becoming economically viable to make it a mainstream product?
WWC: Yes because my cost is US$10 when the retail price is $30-40.
MW: He’s got a lot of kids to feed <laughs>
EB: My personal prediction is that in 2019 you’ll struggle to sell an ebike with a cadence sensor only. It’ll become normal to have a torque sensor, it’ll just be expected. Except for the very cheapest bikes. There will still be those around.
You mentioned before that the European bikes tended to have smaller batteries, and you’ve generally put on bigger batteries, why do you think the Euros are still putting on 400 and 500 Wh batteries?
WWC: Aha, because the design of the bike, where do you put the battery. It’s limited space, so that’s all they can fit. So before the standard battery size, the cylindrical cells, called 18650. 18mm in diameter and 65mm long . So the standard before is 2.2 Ah, not the latest is 3.4Ah. So in the same size now there is more capacity in it. Some of the more exotic designs start to have two batteries, one on the downtube, one on the top tube.
EB: I’ve seen that on the Riese and Muller ones, and I quite like what Focus and some others are doing having a big battery and small battery, particularly for the EMTBs, it makes a lot of sense ot me.
WWC: But we had that idea long ago, we had – we didn’t do it in NZ but in Australia – a second battery line connecting to the rear carrier. So we had a special rear carrier with a flat pack. We had double battery.
EB: I think that has some advantages, every time you use a battery you wear it out a little bit and not everyone wants to buy the biggest battery, but having the option of a small battery and a medium battery, sounds sensible.
MW: It’s easier to just have one big one. In terms of charging…
WWC: And with a big battery is the life span. The bigger the battery the longer the life span of the battery. Cos’ it’s less stress on the cells you are sucking less out, sharing the load. And also the battery deteriorates each time you charge it to the peak. You give a little bit of life away. So when you have a very big battery you tend to charge it less amount of times. Lets say a small battery you might charge it every day, with a big battery you charge it once every three days.
MW: We should have chargers that cut out before the peak
EB: Like the Grintech one?
MW: Cycle Satiator, as with all their stuff it does too much, but something like that
WWC: And because of course everybody likes to stretch their battery to the maximum
EB: Yeah, well there’s a cost thing, you buy the smallest one
WWC: With a big battery maybe we can cut out at 5% from the peak
EB: Yes, you don’t have to go to the top
WWC: I’ve been thinking of that long ago
EB: It seems at the moment the norm for batteries is 13/14AH, how big do you think they will get as a mainstream
WWC: I think what I have now is plenty. 34Ah is good for over 100miles on one charge. Its not how far you go its how long you put your butt on the bicycle <all laugh>
MW: I think past 34Ah there are diminishing returns
WWC: That’s a new battery size called 22710. Larger diameter and slightly longer. Of course, when you can pack everything the capacity the volume will be higher. So Sony is the first one to come out with that and the rest are following suit. Samsung, LG. But the cost of it not economic, I’m not going to use it until they bring the price down.
EB: And I’m often asked by people, are ebikes coming down in price. What are your thoughts?
WWC: From the competition, it forces the prices down. But my cost is going up all the time. So take this year – the last few years we had a recession, very slow economic growth, so the prices are stable – but this year in every order I place for every component the price has been up 10-15%. So eventually some of the competition will have to give up leaving only some big brands. Some companies, they blow $2-5m in a year, then they disappear. Plenty of them. Prices of batteries are coming down because of competition. Even some Japanese company have closed. Sanyo has been acquired by Panasonic, some of the smaller ones have disappeared. So two major Japanese manufactures now are Panasonic and Sony. Then there are two other Korean manufacturers LG, Samsung, and a bunch of cheap Chinese. I don’t use Chinese batteries, and I gave up on the Korean batteries so I’m only using Japanese batteries, Panasonic and Sony.
JH: What about the value for the money, the cost of bikes is going up or down because of competition, but what about the actual value you get when they are buying one of our newer bikes? I mean the performance is better, the components are better.
WWC: Yes of course, so I not dropping my prices, I keep upgrading the components. Even the head tube stamp I used to use one that’s $2 now I use one that’s $10. Every dollar is a lot to me, because my margin is lets say $100 if I spend $5 it’s a big percent of my profit.
EB: I always say to people when they ask that question, that it’s the same with other bicycles, a $3000 bicycle is always going to be a $3000 bicycle, so there are certain price points, and you might just get more. You might get slightly better componentry at that price point. Maybe you get 14Ah rather than 13Ah or something like that, little incremental improvements, but essentially the price points and price breaks have been largely the same in the last few years. Same will all bikes.
WWC: You can buy a bike in America at WalMart or Target for $100, you can also buy a bike for $10,000. But I always consider value for money. I do not like very fancy. Sometimes for a marginal improvement is a very high cost, it’s not worth it. So we always keep sensible.
EB: Yeah, I think that value thing is really important. People buy cheap bikes but they’re often not value. Someone posted something on one of the facebook pages the other day and asked Is this a good bike? Well my answer is if you’ve got disposable money and you want a cheap bike, you’re effectively throwing your money away
WWC: You asked me where my bikes made. My answer is my bikes are globally made. My tyres are a German brand, but made in Indonesia by a Korean company. That’s globalisation today. They give a formula and specs so made in Indonesia by a Korean company. My spokes for my wheels – the steel is from Sweden, but the spokes are made in Taiwan. Sandvik steel, it’s used to make specialty steel for saws and all these things. So the effective life for a spoke is 300,000 cycles, mine is well over a million. I pay a few cents more for each spoke I think it’s very good value.
EB: Yes, every time you need a spoke replaced a bike shop will charge you 50 bucks, if you have to do a wheel rebuild there’s 500.
MW: Entire brands have fallen down for not being able to have rear motor wheels that can’t stay in one piece.
EB: Particularly with a rear hub motor, because you’ve got a short little spoke, you don’t have the resilience of a longer spoke.
MW: Ezee Forza RWD, there were a few years where we had issues, but since 2013 barely a problem to mention and that often a model chosen by big dudes that ride a long way.
EB: Regulation in different countries seems to have a big influence on what bikes you can get where. Do you have a view on why such diversity in what each country is allowed?
WWC: The problem is the people who write regulation are politicians, they are not practitioners. They don’t know what they are writing in the regulations. That is the major problem. The on very important thing is motor power or watts, how is an electric motor rated? An electric motor is being rated on maximum power, maximum continuous watts. If you are a baker you need to stir your dough day in and day out all day, and you ask me, you need 200W of power to stir your dough. So the rating is 200W will mean that it won’t fail under that load. It doesn’t mean that is the maximum power, but people took that to be maximum power which is absolute rubbish. That is the minimum power not the maximum power. The same motor I sell in America I call it 500W. When I sell it to Australia I call it 200W.
MW: Let’s end the interview here <laughs>
EB: Well it is irrelevant, what I always tell people, is, its like if you buy a stereo system, you buy one thing that is 50W per channel, and you go into another cheap store and it’ll say 2000W. And the 50W one will sound louder and sound better than the one that’s 2000W. It’s meaningless.
WWC: So very often I ask them, so your regulation says that, tell me how to they evaluate it, how do they test that it’s 200W?
EB: Well they never put it on a dynamometer, no one’s ever done that
WWC: So that’s the first lesson I learned in making these electric bikes. I looked at the regulation, Europe was the first market I looked, so 250W, so I had engineers who design the controllers, 250W maximum, and we couldn’t pass the gate! <all laughs>
EB: No one would ever ride it!
WWC: Of course not! The moment you start a bike the amps go up to 5-600 Watts and it comes down if you are riding on a regular flat road, not hills, no head winds, and you are going at 25km/h. Average guy of 80kg will drop to 200-250W. Depending on tyre inflation etcetera. And the specification, the European norm, the motor rating is what the motor manufacturer says it is. So that’s why I say America 500, Australia 200, New Zealand 300…
EB: Well even if you look at the Bosch range, they’ve got three motors. They got the Active Line, Performance Line and Performance CX, they’ve all got 250W, and they are completely different. It’s impossible to have the same rating.
WWC: We measure it, I have a very good friend called ebikes.ca in Vancouver, he makes all these meters, we install it and we rate with a Bosch bike. Going up the hill we get 650W going up the hill, but they say its 250.
EB: To me it’s a meaningless thing. Throttles also are in some places getting a bad rap and in Europe they don’t allow them at all…
WWC: No Europe is allowed, it’s how you activate, as long as you move your legs the regulations say, as long as you pedal you have power, it doesn’t say how this power comes about. It can come from motion sensor, can come with a torque sensor, so the moment you move your legs you can throttle. But the moment you stop it will stop.
EB: Because even here there has been some talk about throttles are evil and should be banned.
WWC: All this started with Japanese regulations. Japanese – I told you earlier – are the first ones to commercialise electric bikes. So Japan makes some fancy items, so they called it the PAS, power assisted bikes. So they introduce the regulations. Early European regulations were written by the Japanese. 25km/h you must pedal, they say it is safer that you must pedal.. I say that’s nonsense! Your hand is much more sensitive than your leg to control the speed.. what is better, the hand or the leg to control the speed… your hand can control the speed better than the leg. So the Europeans followed the Japanese regulations with 250W Max, they probably had some wrong translations along the line and maximum speed of 25km/h, it must be power assisted, not just pure power. I say in that case you are discriminating against a guy that has a leg problem, say he has severe arthritis and can’t pedal, then you say he can’t use that bike. Just with the throttle, he can ride the bicycle.
EB: I’m with you there, I think throttles are great. And for in particularly for a cadence sensor and even for a torque sensor, taking off on a hill, a throttle is a necessary thing. They don’t work at all without it. One bike I was testing two weeks ago, they had taken the throttle off for some reason, and trying to get going on the hills was next to impossible.
WWC: That’s also a big advantage of a motion sensor, a cadence sensor over a torque sensor. The ratio of the leg power of the motor power can be very different. As long as you move your legs a little bit. So I have a lot of old folks who are not very good cyclists, who don’t know how to switch gears fast enough, so when they go up a hill they don’t switch gear fast, they don’t have leg power, so when more power is called for… there you are. A torque sensor is proportional to the leg power. When you are weak on your leg how do you get more power? But on the cadence if you move your legs a bit you can get more power.
EB: I quite like the way you’ve profiled the power curve on your Gen 3 bikes, they’ve done a nice job on that, some of them are far too linear and so you really have to work hard. If you want to get maximum power you really have to be pushing hard. And it’s kind of pointless really.
MW: Show up sweaty, on a summers day, in a suit… the whole point was to avoid that
WWC: The really strong guy it’s OK
EB: There’s pro and cons of each ones. The one nice thing of those Impulse motors is their zero RPM torque, so it does work like a little leg throttle.
JH: You’ve got a person who’s got one lame leg, if you have torque sensing bike it will surge. And if you’ve got people who are having a hip replacement .. they get to the point when they can’t pedal any further. So you’re talking ageing issues… there are reasons to have different things.
EB: Yeah, and I think having more power is wonderful, I don’t know why there is this obsession about only having a tiny bit of power available to cyclists, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Because you don’t have to use all the power, but it’s nice having it. It’s the same with a car, people like having a powerful car, because sometimes you just want that power. If we were to apply the same rules, nobody would ever have more than about 1200cc in their car engine. They’d be constrained horribly.
We’re starting to see share bikes becoming a thing. We’ve got these Onzo’s here, Sydney’s got their ones, Melbourne’s got theirs, China has full of share bikes, do you think we’ll ever see share ebikes becoming a thing?
WWC: I’m not a fan of share bikes. It’s a con game. For conning investors. They never make any money out of the operations. Just like Bitcoin. Big companies with multi-billion dollar investments in it, even Singapore sovereign fund invested in this Mobike. They have such a big capital, they invest it, it doesn’t matter if they make no money like Uber, they’re burning millions of dollars every quarter… but the share prices keep going up… just like Bitcoin, you don’t have to earn money, don’t have to do anything, just keep feeding and go get rich. It’s a nuisance this share bikes, it’s all over the street, it’s dumping everywhere.. You cannot make money from the operation, 2c and hour. You know in China, you’ve seen the pictures…. Mountains of it in the dump yard, throwing in the river, you can dump as much as you want, I keep making for you until your dump yard is full, you don’t have any more room, doesn’t matter. They have billions of dollars to throw away. Shared electric bikes is a little bit more complicated. I talk to many guys who want to do share electric bikes in Europe. Of course the cost of the electric bike is a bit more expensive. Then how you going to charge the battery. They have to have docking, and they have to have signals to the centre the battery is down and they have to replace. Either you have to have docking in fixed place to charge. Then it’s difficult for a share scheme to go to one, they like to dump it where they like. So you can have the bike send a signal for a guy to pick it up…
EB: Some guy in a car to pick it up, there’s an irony…
WWC: Just to swap the battery, charge the battery, put it on…
EB: So every bike needs a caretaker then effectively, so it makes it uneconomical.
WWC: Whoever wants to do that, I wish them luck, if they want to buy the bike from me, they want to give me the money <laughs>
EB: Anything else you want to tell the readers of the blog about ebikes?
MW: 1000 hits a day…
WWC: You should ask him (MW), he’s connected directly to the customers
MW: Yeah, the things Wai Won says are true, there’s a difference between a bike designed with the user in mind, and one that was designed, at time for the designers ego, but also at times designed to sell the bike off the floor, or from the supplier into the shop, because that’s their immediate return. But it’s different from the bike that’s designed for you to still be enjoying it several years down the track. That’s the long game. And these days there aren’t very many people playing the long game. With the eZee bikes we get a lot of long term benefits, people who have had the bikes a long time are very happy, if anything we just need to do a better job of getting people to know the advantages.
EB: Well think you very much for your time, I am sure my readers will enjoy this and I’ve certainly learnt something.