Are Chainless Digital Drive Bicycles The Way forward for Biking?

The concept of a “digital drivetrain” is straightforward. You have got an influence generator at your crankset, which converts your pedal energy into electrical energy. You’ve then bought a motor at your drive wheel. Two wires transmit the facility you’re producing straight to the motor, and some electrical parts type out the small print.

As sci-fi as this appears to be like and sounds, it’s not in any respect a brand new idea. The primary patent for a digital drive bike was issued way back to 1975 and the primary totally functioning digital drivetrain was proven in 1995.

The primary manufacturing bike with a digital drive was launched in 2012 (Mando Footloose), and at present, we’re seeing a handful of corporations engaged on their very own digital drive programs (Schaeffler, Pendix, Podbike, Bike2 & extra).

Notice: digital drive is usually generally known as “electrical sequence hybrid drive”, “serial hybrid drive” or simply “electrical drive”.

Thomas Müller constructed the primary totally functioning digital drive bicycle in 1995.

Present bicycles usually use derailleur gears and chains. These drivetrains have improved incrementally over greater than a century, and have effectively and actually confirmed themselves to be light-weight, high-performing, environment friendly, and low-cost to provide.

Extra not too long ago, gearbox drivetrains have come a good distance. Whereas they may by no means be as gentle or environment friendly as a derailleur drivetrain, they’re extremely dependable and really low upkeep. Plus, once you pair them with a belt drive – the element longevity is elevated and the upkeep is lowered even additional.

However are these drivetrains the head of what’s doable? Or will bicycle drivetrains of the longer term be digital?

On this article, we’re going to discover the world of chainless, digital drive bicycles.

Benefits of Digital Drive

The Bike2 digital drivetrain appears to be like prefer it is perhaps fitted to cargo bikes quickly. Picture:

There are numerous benefits to digital drive.

Firstly, you lose the chain. This implies no put on and tear on the drivetrain, no greasy fingers, decrease working prices, and fewer bike upkeep. A motorcycle with digital drive would primarily simply want its brake pads and tyres changed. This could be superb for these utilizing a motorbike in all climate situations and can be nice for fleets and rent bikes too.

Secondly, you find yourself with a totally automated bike with an infinite gear vary. That is significantly advantageous for inexperienced cyclists, because the digital drive would at all times have you ever within the excellent gear (a handbook override is feasible).

Prime-tier gearbox drivetrains with automated gear shifting are at present each advanced and really costly. A digital drive equal has a lot much less complexity and will feasibly be considerably cheaper with the identical options.

This idea bike has really been drawn with a hydrogen drive system, somewhat than digital drive! Picture: Alexander Forst

You may additionally add a battery (or supercapacitor) that you may cost whilst you trip. By selecting to ship a few of your pedal energy to a battery, you may use it later, for instance when taking off from the site visitors lights or to recover from small hills. And for those who have been utilizing a three-wheel cargo bike, you may even cost this battery whilst you’re ready at site visitors lights.

As well as, you may seize vitality on the rear motor whereas descending or slowing to a cease – this is named regenerative braking. The motor might combine {an electrical} anti-lock braking system, and once you’ve parked your bike, the motor might be mechanically locked.

A digital drivetrain might completely optimise your pedalling approach. The system would at all times have you ever driving at your optimum energy output and cadence, which might end result within the highest doable effectivity of your physique.

You may as well do fascinating issues with the pedalling traits, akin to electronically eliminating useless spots within the crank revolution. What I imply by that is the generator resistance might be elevated when you may have probably the most crank leverage and lowered when you may have the least leverage.

A Kalkhoff idea bike full with digital drive. Picture: Rik Maes

One other instance the place a change in pedalling traits might be helpful is for those who’re rehabilitating from an harm or have a incapacity. Let’s say it’s your left leg. You may program a digital drive to have much less resistance in your left leg pedal section and extra on the best.

Digital drive additionally opens up new bike design choices. For instance, you may have fascinating folding bike designs, completely different cargo bike layouts, and a number of individuals pedalling the identical bike at their very own excellent effectivity.

Alright, the benefits are sounding fairly candy, however there are in fact disadvantages too.

Disadvantages of Digital Drive

This digital drive idea bike was dreamt up by Daniel Frintz for his bachelor thesis. Picture: Daniel Frintz

The massive one is drive effectivity. Changing between mechanical vitality and electrical vitality after which again to mechanical vitality is very inefficient.

Whenever you put energy into your pedals, a single velocity chain or belt drive will put greater than 95% into propelling you ahead. As compared, a digital drivetrain will seemingly lose round 20% of the facility on the generator and one other 20% on the rear motor. With some step-up and step-down gearing to get the facility ranges proper, you may lose one other 10%.

In complete, we’re near half the effectivity of a sequence drivetrain.

To place this in perspective, a sequence drivetrain would have you ever* driving at 27kph/17mph on the flat at 150 watts whereas a digital drivetrain** would have you ever driving a full 17% slower (22.5kph/14mph). And on a slope, it will get even worse. A 5% gradient with a sequence would have you ever biking at 9.4kph, and also you’ll be biking 34% slower with a digital drive (6.2kph).

*80kg rider, 15kg bike

However be mindful, these numbers don’t take note of any vitality captured by the drivetrain by way of regenerative braking.

The Pendix eDrive IN is a digital drivetrain that seems very near manufacturing.

Digital drive would additionally add no less than 25% extra weight to a motorbike.

The lightest rear hub motor is a couple of kilogram heavier than a daily hub, plus you may add no less than one other kilogram for the entrance generator and wiring. And given there isn’t a mechanical coupling between the pedals and rear wheel, a digital drive motor must be particularly highly effective to make up for it. An appropriately highly effective motor might be 2.5 to 3kg, relying on the terrain.

All rear hub motors can’t benefit from your bike’s gears to function of their optimum RPM vary for each steep uphills and flat driving. Except you utilize very massive and heavy motors, digital drive can solely actually be geared for one or the opposite. Combining this with the excessive rear motor weight, it’s much less superb for a mountain bike software too.

Digital drive additionally depends very closely on software program and the controller. If the motor can’t be managed inside a few milliseconds, it won’t have the identical really feel as a sequence drivetrain.

Okay, so the benefits are huge, however the disadvantages have actually stacked up too, so let’s break issues down additional.

Sequence Hybrid Electrical Bikes

I’ve simply mentioned the professionals and cons when evaluating digital drive fitted to common bikes. However issues get method extra fascinating after we discuss in regards to the potentialities of digital drive e-Bikes.

When a digital drive bike is used at the side of a battery, it’s typically generally known as a Sequence Hybrid Pedelec. Digital drive bikes have already got the entire parts of an eBike, so becoming up a battery to not solely present some energy help but in addition offset the additional weight and transmission losses simply is smart.

The Mando Footloose makes most use of its design by folding in a singular method.

The one manufacturing bike you may at present purchase with a digital drivetrain is the Mando Footloose. This bike is no less than a decade forward of some other bike, so the drivetrain is just not a very refined product. From all experiences, it feels extra such as you’re strolling up a stair climber somewhat than pedaling a motorbike, and the lag between the pedals and wheel torque ends in a number of surging.

A part of the difficulty right here is the software program. If the controller makes use of fundamental algorithms and can’t management the motor rapidly sufficient, or present acceptable suggestions to the rider by way of the generator – the digital drive won’t really feel pure.

One cause why the Mando Footloose is the one digital drive bike out there is that the German approval physique for eBikes has till very not too long ago categorized digital drive bikes in the identical class as motorbikes and mopeds, somewhat than as a bicycle. German bicycle retailers making an attempt to promote the Mando Footloose even risked a €5,000 nice.

The EE-Speedbike is probably going probably the most superior digital drive bike up to now.

A extra superior digital drive system that by no means made it into manufacturing was discovered on the EE-SpeedBike. Utilizing superior software program simulation of a sequence drive together with particular management algorithms to control the parts, it has been described as driving similar to a daily bike.

The EE-SpeedBike weighs 29 kilograms (64lbs), can journey at 45kph, and get 80km of vary with medium help. It’ll be fascinating to see the place this expertise heads subsequent – it appears to be like like Schaeffler is perhaps utilizing a number of the patented management electronics from this bike of their new ‘Free Drive’ system.

Digital Drive Effectivity Evaluation

Okay, we have to discuss effectivity once more as a result of it’s usually considered as an actual sticking level for digital drivetrains – nevertheless it needn’t be.

Firstly, drive effectivity is a decrease precedence for some biking functions. Commuter bikes, bike rental fleets, and particularly cargo bikes are examples the place the doable additional weight and lowered vary are far much less vital. And in any case, you may simply set up a much bigger battery to realize the required vary.

However the distinction in drive effectivity to a sequence drive bike may not be as massive as we beforehand mentioned, given the best circumstances, and supplied you may have sensible methods to save lots of and use energy.

When the motor is doing nearly all of the work, digital drive e-bikes are closest in drive effectivity to chain drive e-bikes.

For instance, if we evaluate a mid-drive e-bike to a digital drive e-bike with 200 watts coming in from the battery, after we cycle at 50-watts energy output, we are able to theoretically obtain related drive efficiencies. It is because there’s solely a small quantity of vitality misplaced to the generator.

I discovered a nice thesis by Edgar Tournon, a scholar at Claude Bernard College, who defined that together with his digital drive system, efficient drive effectivity of near 75% is feasible on a 5km flat course, and it’s 62% for those who add a 50 metre hill within the center.

The rationale the effectivity is so excessive is that vitality could be recovered by the motor when slowing for site visitors lights or biking downhill. That is one thing that I didn’t think about my earlier effectivity estimate – in cease/begin conditions, digital drive bikes could be fairly environment friendly.

Edgar additionally decided that his drive system might even sustain with a common chain drive bike on a cease/begin metropolis commute, supplied his digital drivetrain had an effectivity of round 70% and he might use regenerative braking.

However maybe it’s not the bike that wants the effectivity optimisation, however somewhat, the human.

Bettering The Effectivity of Human Our bodies

One other promising side of digital drive is that the system could make you – the rider – extra environment friendly.

Our our bodies work most effectively at a virtually fixed load, somewhat than a extremely variable one. To take care of a continuing load, we have to at all times choose the best gear ratio and cadence for various driving conditions. We don’t at all times get this proper, however a digital drive might – providing probably the most environment friendly extraction of energy with the bottom ranges of physique fatigue.

Even Extra Potentialities for Digital Drive

Okay, I’ve bought just a few extra fascinating takes on digital drive and its potentialities.

Digital Gears

The EE-SpeedBike had 20 digital gears to decide on between.

Electrical motors have very nice management over how a lot torque output they provide, which supplies us the chance to deliberately restrict torque and mimic what it feels prefer to have gears!

There may be completely no cause to have ‘pretend’ digital gears, however hey, it might be enjoyable, and I like enjoyable.

Exercise Machine

You may use a digital drive bike as a exercise machine by programming it to supply outside interval coaching with no change in biking velocity. In truth, there are already very costly biking merchandise that deliberately sluggish you down so you may prepare successfully (Airhub Professional).

Alternatively, you may put your digital drive bike onto a stand, and prepare indoors whereas charging up a battery. And if the digital drive identifies that you’ve got energy imbalances between your legs, it might even apply extra resistance to the leg that wants further coaching.

Solar energy

Edgar Tournon constructed up a digital drive bike with solar energy. Picture: The Solar Journey

One other fascinating concept is that digital drive bikes can simply be coupled with solar energy. With a handful of panels, maybe you gained’t even should plug in your bike sooner or later.


It was not way back that skilled photographers have been sure that they’d by no means change to digital cameras. However by way of incremental modifications in expertise over time, digital cameras are actually the selection {of professional} photographers all over the world.

So, will digital drive comply with the same path?

When in comparison with a sequence on a motorbike with out a battery, I feel it’s unlikely. The low drive effectivity, additional weight, and incapability to effectively work on flat and hilly terrain make it an uphill battle (pardon the pun).

However in relation to bikes with a battery, I’m sure that digital drive will likely be extremely helpful within the coming years. With the totally automated mode that completely optimises your pedal effectivity always, that is going to be advantageous for anybody who swings a leg over a motorbike.

Digital drive will likely be superb in poor climate situations, given the shortage of wear and tear, lowered bike upkeep, and decrease working prices. The system will even be cheaper to fabricate.

The very best software at present is for cargo bikes, private transport, and rent bikes – count on to see digital drive on these bikes within the subsequent yr or so. I’m additionally actually trying ahead to the brand new bike designs that may come about in consequence.

So, what do you assume? Will digital drive bikes be huge sooner or later?