Adam Vollmer, a former mechanical engineer at Ideo, has taken a big challenge with his new venture, Faraday Bikes: building an electric bike that people will want to ride.

Vollmer started developing the bike last year after Ideo was invited to participate in the Oregon Manifest, an annual bike design competition.

But the project posed some significant challenges. You won’t find many people in the U.S. who consider e-bikes a cool way to get around.

"There’s definitely not a product on the market right now that I think a whole lot of people really want to be associated with, as an extension of their identity, in the electric bike world," Vollmer says.

So he teamed up with expert framebuilder Paul Sadoff to create a beautiful bike--that happened to offer an electric boost.

The key insight was offering "just enough" electricity for rides around town. The team swore off the massive battery packs that defined earlier e-bikes.

"There’s something totally magical about hopping on a bike and having the experience be a little bit easier," Vollmer says, "worrying a little bit less about headwind or sweat or hills. Nobody manages to ride an electric bike and come back without a smile on their face."

The Faraday ended up winning the People’s Choice award at the Oregon Manifest competition, but since then they’ve worked to refine the ride, resulting in a product, Vollmer says, that’s "300% better."

It’s easy to write off a $3,800 bike as a luxury item, but it makes more sense when you think of it as an investment in personal transportation.

The Faraday Porteur cruised past its $100,000 Kickstarter goal this summer, with 46 initial buyers.

How To Build An Electric Bike That People Will Actually Want To Ride

The story of how Adam Vollmer left Ideo to make an electric bike Americans could love.

Up until last year, Adam Vollmer had been making a pretty good run of things as a mechanical engineer at Ideo. He was responsible for developing groundbreaking new instruments for spinal surgeries and had worked on solutions for improving access to drinking water in developing countries. Today, he’s the founder and CEO of a company that makes bicycles. Just one bicycle, actually--the Faraday Porteur, a handsome $3,800 ride with bamboo fenders, pistachio accents, and a cleverly hidden on-board lithium ion battery and front wheel motor. Yep, it’s an e-bike, a designation that’s at the heart of the challenge Vollmer’s facing with his new venture: how to build an electric bike for a country that just doesn’t really like the things all that much.

It’s a problem the designer first had to start thinking about early last year, when Ideo was invited to participate in the Oregon Manifest, an annual competition that challenges designers to build "the ultimate modern utility bike." Vollmer was informally known as the bike guy at Ideo’s Palo Alto office--the person you went to if you needed a flat fixed or a recommendation for a new ride--so he was the obvious choice to head up the effort. As an avid rider, he was enthusiastic about the new project, but he also knew that electric bikes, at least in the U.S., were perceived as a decidedly uncool way to get around.

THE PROBLEM WITH E-BIKES

To be fair, that’s mostly true; electric bikes overwhelmingly are uncool. It’s an unfortunate consequence of how they’ve been conceived by manufacturers here for years--namely, as something entirely different from regular bicycles. "I think electric bikes have been sort of dominated by a mentality of, 'this is not a bike--this is a different category: an electric bike,' Vollmer told me. That meant we got a lot of high-powered monstrosities that tried to set themselves apart from conventional bikes by being able to go longer distances at faster speeds. Vollmer refers to these as "do-all creations," overly ambitious bikes that were saddled with cumbersome battery packs, complex controls, and expensive price tags.

In some places around the world, the usefulness of such vehicles has won out over whatever aesthetic warts come along with it. In Europe, Vollmer says, if the utility’s there, so are the riders. "I think people there are a lot more willing to say, 'I don’t care what it looks like--if it gets me from home to work cheap, fast, and fun, I’ll take it.'" But in America, the birthplace of the automobile, we’re a little bit more sensitive about what we use to get around--and how we look while doing it. "I think Americans are particularly emotional about transportation," Vollmer says. "If you think about the importance of car culture to us--it’s like an extension of our identities."

In the last five or 10 years, bikes have become an increasingly popular means of doing that identity extending. People are getting on bikes not only because they’re cheap and environmentally sound, but also simply because they’re cool (perhaps in large part thanks to those factors). But another part of that coolness depends on companies making high-quality, stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful bikes. And that’s one place, Vollmer says, where e-bikes certainly haven’t had much to offer in years past. "There’s definitely not a product on the market right now that I think a whole lot of people really want to be associated with, as an extension of their identity, in the electric bike world."

"SOMETHING TOTALLY MAGICAL"

So the designer set out to make an e-bike that avoided these two common pitfalls: the "do-all" ambition and the general unsightliness it engendered. In this sense, at the start, it wasn’t so much about building a great e-bike as it was not building a bad one. But as Vollmer started putting together his first prototypes, he quickly discovered that a bit of electricity could do a lot to enhance a bike ride--without turning it into something else entirely.

"There’s something totally magical about hopping on a bike and having the experience be a little bit easier," he told me, "worrying a little bit less about headwind or sweat or hills. Nobody manages to ride an electric bike and come back without a smile on their face. I just wanted to add just enough of that to a beautiful, high-quality bike, that you could have that experience whenever you wanted."

The key insight here is recognizing that an electric bike could get by with "just enough" electricity. And not just get by, in fact, but benefit immensely from the restraint. Where earlier e-bikes had incorporated monster power packs that could last for the marathon weekend rides, Vollmer decided his bike could do with a battery that was good for 15 or 20 miles, enough juice for cruising around town during the week. The next challenge was making it all disappear, integrating the entire electric system "so seamlessly you just don’t notice it." That’s where Paul Sadoff came in.

THE FRAME BUILDER

Paul Sadoff is the founder of Rock Lobster Custom Cycles in Santa Cruz, California, and he’s built bike frames for over 30 years. He wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of working on an electric one. "If there’s a voice for the traditional purist--a stubborn voice, at times--it’s gonna be the conventional frame builder, and that’s Paul," Vollmer says. After having Sadoff ride a few early prototypes--crude, jerry-rigged contraptions that basically looked like "bombs on wheels," Vollmer told me--the master frame builder was enlisted as a collaborator, albeit a reluctant one.

But his guidance was indispensable as the Faraday took shape, making sure that the bike never sacrificed low-tech sensibilities for high-tech performance. "He kept us honest," Vollmer says. "He made sure we didn’t overlook things like the quality of the ride, or the geometry, or the attention to detail in the frame making. And those are a lot of the reasons the bike is still, first and foremost, just a delightful bike."

Maintaining that was about more than simply hiding the battery, though; it meant making the electric aspect a part of the Faraday’s character, not its defining trait. More than anything, the duo worked to preserve the 'get on and go’ simplicity that’s so central to the joy of riding a bike.

Vollmer says the team strived to "keep the experience so intuitive and similar to riding a bike that you really don’t notice a difference, other than the fact that you get on and you feel like you’re having the best day of your life." That meant getting rid of all the trappings that previous e-bikes had flaunted, things like whiz-bang electronic displays and elaborate control mechanisms. Instead, they focused their attention on genuinely useful features like LED headlamps and brake lights and a removable, front-mounted storage rack.

After a short three months of feverish development, the first version of the Faraday took the People’s Choice prize at the Oregon Manifest competition. Vollmer left Ideo, started Faraday bikes, and worked tirelessly to perfect the vehicle. The bike that won the competition, however, was far from ready for primetime. "When I go back and ride that now, it’s not great," he admits. "We were very happy with the external details of the bike, but since then we’ve gone back and re-engineered everything inside of it. The result is a 300% better product."

KICKSTARTING

In July, Vollmer put the Faraday on Kickstarter, where it flew past its $100,000 funding goal and found 46 early takers. It gave the bike’s designer a chance to step back from the work of nurturing his fledgling company and think about the people he was trying to serve. "You can get really abstract when you’re developing a company and thinking about pitching and marketing and who you think you’re selling to," he told me, "but getting the concrete stats on 50 people who bought the bike and what they’re all about and how they’re going to use it is really fascinating."

That initial wave of buyers was somewhat surprisingly diverse. It included baby boomers who were looking for a way to get more exercise as well as recent college graduates who were moving to cities for the first time and thought it made more sense to invest $4,000 in an electric bike than putting the same amount in some banged up used car. "Just seeing the breadth of it is really encouraging to me," Vollmer says.

THE BIG PICTURE

It’s easy to write off a $3,800 bike as an out-of-touch luxury item. And you might ask why someone who had found success in developing breakthrough medical technologies would make a clean break for the high-end bike world. But as Vollmer sees it, electric bikes like the Faraday could usher in a more sensible, more sustainable model for transportation in the next decade. And that’s something that clearly deserves the attention of our best design minds.

"The most appealing problems to me are ones that deal with making people’s lives better and making the world a better place," he says. "There’s a great case for a lot of innovative medical products that are doing that. And there are consumer products that are letting us keep in touch and communicate better and be more creative … but bikes are a sweet spot for me … because I’ve always just believed in alternative ways of getting around, getting us out of our cars and getting us more active and more healthy."

So you really can’t blame a lifelong designer for being drawn in by it all, for wanting to take on that irresistible challenge of creating an electric bike that people can get excited about. And by sticking to his aim of building a great bike that happens to feature a little electric magic, the Faraday Porteur might be able to claim that rare distinction. Whether the masses are finally ready to accept it is, of course, another question. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that over in California, the state where the Faraday was born, gas is hovering around $4.50 a gallon.

Check out more about the bike on the Faraday site.

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17 Comments

  • Brent McGillis

    Keep up the good work guys, our planet is depending on your ingenuity to save us from the Transnational Oil Corporations and their plans to pumpTar Sands Tar Glop across the North American continent in pipelines and then spreading it across Asia. Cooking (refining in Cokers) this heavy bitumess product produces heavy low lying pollution laden with toxins. We either develop alternative forms of transportation that is eco-friendly, or we can give in to Global corporations polluting the entire continent with heavy smog. If we fail we will be dialing back the pollution clock 40 years. We must succeed our failure is not an option for our children.

  • jason cobbs

    This seems like a really nice looking bike but with two big problems:

    1) it's way underpowered (0.25 kw of power? seriously)

    2) its outrageously expensive

    You could build a better ebike with twice the range and power for a quarter of the price with the guide from UltimateEbikeEbook.com. Why waste money when you can do things better yourself...

  • LILIANA V

    I thought I would add another note in case someone does read these comments. I am a full time rider for 10 years now daily. I don't own a car but lately I want something easier and faster as I am not always in the mood to be all sweaty yet want too be green and efficient in a City where traffic is a daily hell. So I am going to get an ebike and figure out a way to make it more powerful faster then say 12-15 mph and ride longer then say 20 miles. Plus I really want too figure out a way to make it where I can somehow give a person a ride. I know there is a way to do it. Even if the thing is not cool it will be cool just because nobody has it and it solves the car problem. If someone could do this and keep the darn thing in under 1,500 dollars you got yourself a very hot product. 

  • LILIANA V

    Beautiful bike but yeah the limited range for such an expensive bike is not something that would get me to buy it. Plus not swapping or having the option to remove the battery so you can take it with you while at a bar or coffee shop to charge is another down side. Plus its way to expensive and pretty in Los Angeles where bike theft is an epidemic this really expensive bike wouldn't last more then a week. Need something more practical for the average person. Plus one of the fun parts of an ebike is that you can use it sort of like a Scooter. I rented an ebike in my last trip too San Francisco from a place called plugz. Man that thing was fast and it just zipped all over town never ran out of juice. I rode it everywhere just charging it over night even took it from Hayes District to Daly City without a problem. This doesn't look like it can handle such a demand.  

  • Brad Sloan

    Nice looking bike, but for the price I expect to get a 500 watt geared motor. One draw back with the battery in the frame is that you can't remove it. That doesn't allow swapping out with a fresh battery or recharging inside. That is a real problem for an ebike with such a short range. If the price was $1500 less it would be a much more appealing ebike.

  • Marc

    Surprised it doesn't have a belt drive instead of the chain.  Nice bike though.

  • bionictorquewrench

    I want to love this, but it falls short as a good utility bike. 

    No chainguard means the rider has to find their own solution for their trouser leg.  

    The fenders are 'south Californian' fenders - largely decorative, but as they don't wrap around the tyre, they don't offer particularly good protection for real world wet weather.

    The riding position is still 'sport bike' style, leaning forward, head down, with the handlebars lower than the seat in all of the video clip.  Some upright handlebars and an upright riding position makes a ride so much more comfortable.  

     I really wish as part of the design process they had gone to Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where bikes are genuinely the popular transport option, and learnt a few things about why that works.  

  • waltinseattle

    much kinder wording than i might use. i have avoided approaching purists for colaboration with my " low kinetic human hybrid" concept. i see most e-bikes as aimed at a 'currently bike users' demographic. or closely to. what about those who have no intention of "biking" what about going for car drivers? nev drivers? . they dont bike for their own reasons...and a few are like comments here- fenders open chain...weather issues in short. motor cycles set in winter for some weather issues. there are ways to overcome this. only a paltry few have much following. but they still have shortcomings that dont address those who dont consider pedals in their futures. this is, like many shortcomings, more prevalent in the exceptional us of a...less in europe. and mostly not found in less fortunate (less spoiled?) regions like 3rd world. only in usa do i see touts for flashlights with computer interface...to supply readout....this is real. omg what!?!TF!!

    so again my prime question to you all: what is there for nonbikers that will get their hot living fingers off their cars' steering wheels? i welcome comment direct walt in seattle gmail. thanks for looking

  • Larry Pizzi

    Wonderful design is only one element of a successful product. With ebikes, its critical that there is a balance between functionality, power, operating range and selling price. While this may be beautiful and functional, its been my experience that in this price range, consumer will require more power and that takes more battery capacity. These elements are limited by the design, I'm afraid.

  • Tarek Elaydi

    For a handmade steel frame and lithium batteries, I think the price for this bike is in the right ball park.  If you go aluminum, mass produce in Taiwan, and use cheaper NiMh batteries you could cut the price in half.  Unfortunately the overall design will suffer with less ride comfort and a heavier, less durable battery.

  • Al

    I don't understand. 

    Simple low-key electric bikes not dissimilar to this have been massively popular in China for years. When I was there in 2008 maybe 3-5% of bikes I saw were electric - and that's a LOT of bikes. I'm pretty sure those guys aren't paying nearly $4,000 a go for them.

    I couldn't understand why they were so far ahead of us then, and I understand even less now.

  • Michael Aldridge

    Having done quiet a bit of research into the topic and even worked on designing an electric bike myself I have to say 'Well Done Guys'. Fantastic bike, simple and to the point. I know some people maybe put off by the price, but I would say look at the price and standard of the competition first.

    Only issues I see are battery connector filling with water/mud and don't like the idea of auto lights.

    Great name...

  • Al

    Eh? What would you call it? 

    If it looks like a bike people will call it a bike no matter what the label says.

  • BongBong

    $3,800? $3,800?! Compared to a scooter or moped, this is outrageously expensive. They'll find a market, certainly, but where is the cost-effective e-bike? I've yet to see one.