This piece is modified from an article first published in 2009 in Malaysian daily, ‘The Star’, as ‘A Clean Cruise’.
It’s been called a transport revolution, a bolt of lightning on wheels, in fact, one of the quickest forms of inner city transport on the planet.
Best of all, it is environment-friendly.
Meet the eROCKIT, poster child of green mobility. Basically a motorcycle that you have to pedal like a bicycle to move, the eROCKIT is initially difficult to wrap your mind around.
Like the Superman dictum of “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, the nifty two-wheeler is neither bicycle nor motorcycle. Instead, its ingenious inventor has come up with its own category: the human-hybrid motorcycle.
That’s because you need human muscles to power (through pedalling) the vehicle’s electric motor. The motor multiplies your muscle power by a factor of up to 50, allowing you to accelerate astonishingly quickly – comparable, in fact to motorcycles.
The faster you pedal, the stronger the motor rotates and you can reach speeds of over 80 kph. That’s how fast a 250cc conventional motorcycle goes. If you stop pedalling, the e-bike will come to a stop.
That car manufacturers were heading in the wrong direction, was one reason behind this invention, said eROCKIT’s creator, 39-year-old Stefan Gulas.
“Over the years, they haven’t thought about what the driver needs. Everything’s computerised and they keep making cars faster, but it’s not about that: people want to feel they are an active part of the driving.”
There was more to it, though, and a hint of it was in the twinkling eyes and the big laugh of this tall, loose-limbed Austrian.
“There’s a pyramid of transport on roads in terms of power,” said Gulas. “The cars are at the top, and bicycles at the bottom.
“But morally, in terms of the environment, bicycles are at the top. It’s unfair. So I decided to bring something to the market that overturns the pyramid, and came up with an idea of a bicycle that can overtake cars.”
It was with glee that the BBC, for instance, showed the eROCKIT nonchalantly overtaking a Porsche using pedal power, a laugh-out-loud sight.
“It’s about resentment,” Gulas said. “And it’s not just me feeling this way. Many people long for revenge.” Many also long to lower their carbon footprint, hence Gulas’ loving attention to the eco-friendliness of his “personal contribution to fighting global warming”.
The eROCKIT uses no petrol. Therefore it exudes no carbon dioxide emissions. With no chance of oil dripping, you can even store it in your house like a bicycle. It is also surprisingly silent and you can use either a horn or a bicycle bell to warn people you are coming.
The high quality lithium-ion nanophosphate batteries claim to last approximately 50,000 km or 10 years, and a battery management system maximises their lifecycle. Batteries are recharged when you pedal and brake.
When stationery, the bike can be plugged into a normal socket and fully charged in three to four hours and as quickly as one hour. Battery disposal comes as part of the price you pay for the vehicle.
With a background that included automobile obsession, rabid environmentalism, mining engineering and multinational management consultancy, Gulas worked out that the human-hybrid concept was what would make the eROCKIT attractive to greenies as well.
“The biggest hurdle for electric vehicles is they’re very boring. Here, you’re not just adding a motor to a bicycle, you’re involving the human in the propulsion.”
Because it handles like a basic bicycle, the bike is also more manoeuvrable than a motorcycle. Anyone who can ride a bicycle will be able to ride an eROCKIT, bearing in mind only that it is heavier, tipping the scales at 110 kg. In fact there are no gears or even a clutch.
I kept testing the solidity of Gulas’ concept. I reminded him of the Segway, another mould-breaking eco-transport. It never lived up to its potential.
“If you want to sell something, you shouldn’t force people to change their behaviour,” said Gulas. The Segway requires user to shift their body weight to propel it. “And they took out the movement of walking, whereas we’ve put in the movement through cycling.”
All of which makes the eROCKIT very cool, but the thing that takes the cake is that it looks cool as well.
Its elegant, vintage lines won it a place in BusinessWeek’s 20 coolest bike design list in 2009, among others (its technology has garnered numerous other international awards).
To illustrate why looks are important, Gulas pointed to a green technology experience of an established car manufacturer.
The company had introduced a feature that turned off engines at traffic lights to save fuel.
“But people were not willing to pay for it because they looked at it as just being another feature, like safety.
“The eROCKIT is so cool to drive, everyone in the world will want to drive it,” said Gulas with his big laugh.
The eROCKIT turned so many heads that the promotional strategy simply comprised Gulas riding his prototype around. In 2009, he was in the enviable position of having media come to him for interviews. The eROCKIT appeared on global TV networks like CNN and on numerous websites world-over.
Interest even came from a Malaysian end-user, and many more from Singapore.
In Germany, Gulas was exploring three business channels: partnerships with businesses such as renewable energy utility providers; making a presence in the German Federal Environment Ministry’s 12 electric mobility regions (field-test areas for electric mobility); and developing dealerships for end-user sales.
His timing was great as Germany’s national development plan for electric mobility kicked off in 2009, aiming to have one million electric vehicles on German roads by 2020.
The last four months suddenly saw the mushrooming of dealerships specialising in electric vehicles, people who are not thinking the same way as car and motorcycle dealers, and were looking at that flagship product to come along.
Finally, car manufacturers were seriously going green. “There is a change in mobility,” said Gulas. “Now the 500-horsepower car builders want to be able to say, ‘We have a new green technology’.”
Unfortunately, I never got the chance to propel an eROCKIT, my too-short 163cm allowing me to merely perch on it, balanced on tip-toes. Gulas was profusely apologetic about this, but set a two-year target for a smaller, lower-horsepower, simplified model.
Investors were still hard to come by, but if he succeeded, the eROCKIT had the potential to be to human-hybrid transport what Coke was to soft drinks, and the face of urban transport changed to become way cooler and greener. ω
The eRockit has undergone changes since this article was published. Check it out on Facebook.