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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.