An Australian oleh wants Israel to get to know – and become known for – an electric-powered, shotgun-resistant folding bicycle
Inspector Gadget, your bicycle is ready. Andrew Hamilton has prepared it according to all your needs: It has an advanced battery pack to give you an extra burst for pursuing bad guys, and it folds up nice and small, too, like the impossible tools that you use to catch them. It can even survive a gunfight.
Of course, even those who aren’t fictional characters can appreciate the benefits of Hamilton’s bicycles. Based on a British-made folding model considered by aficionados the best of its kind, the Freedom E-bike offers a heretofore unknown commuting experience. The bike makes quick work of hills with a peppy electric motor, positioned in the hub of the front wheel, that springs to life with a flick of the wrist on the right handgrip, motorcycle-style. Then, it goes from basic transportation to suitcase-sized sculpture in about 10 seconds with a few easy snaps and folds.
It’s not a new concept. There are dozens of similar bicycles available commercially, some with integrated power systems and others with snap-on kits that can be assembled by buyers or by dealers. Hamilton’s combination of parts is unique, though – a package that he claims is stronger, lighter and even cheaper than the competition. And it’s made in Israel.
The Freedom E-bike was born, however, in Sydney, where Hamilton works as a lawyer specializing in IT and telecommunications issues. About two years ago, he explains, he was simply looking for an inexpensive way to get to work. And he had some very specific requirements for the vehicle that would make that possible.
“I wanted to ride a bicycle to work, but I didn’t want to break much of a sweat,” he says, “and since the weather can change quickly in Sydney, I also wanted to be able to take the bus if necessary. A folding electric bike was my holy grail.”
There were lots of options, though, and Hamilton wasn’t satisfied by any of them. So he went about putting together a bike of his own.
“I started doing some research into what was available in the form of electric bikes, to see if they were any good. I found that the Brompton was considered the best folding bike, and that there was a kit to put a motor on it. The kit was available in the UK, but it took a very long time to get to me [in Australia], and they didn’t supply a battery, so I had to come up with my own battery solution,” he says. “After a lot of research, I chose the latest in lithium-ion, nanotechnology cells. I put all that together and it worked really well.”
That might have been the end of the story, had Hamilton and his family not made aliya recently. But when he started pedaling around Jerusalem on his one-of-a-kind bicycle, and people started asking Hamilton where they could get one just like it, he saw an opportunity.
“I figured I’d try to get in contact with the people doing the kit in the UK,” Hamilton continues. “Well, they were out of commission. They had so much demand that they decided not to do the business anymore. Basically, the guy was one of those weird engineering characters who didn’t know anything about customer service or running a business.”
That setback, which forced Hamilton to source his own parts, actually turned out to be a boon. He was able to choose parts that better served users’ needs than the prepackaged kits then available.
“The kit I got was really quite complex to install for the customer, and it was more complex for the company that was doing it, which was why they couldn’t keep up with demand. It was too tricky,” he says. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.”
“Because it’s a folding bike, you want to keep the bike as free of stuff as possible. But most battery kits that you can buy for bikes, you can’t put on folding bikes because they interfere with the fold. So,” Hamilton says, “I thought, I need to take a minimalist approach. I asked myself, what absolutely has to be on the bike? The motor absolutely has to be on the bike and the throttle absolutely has to be on the bike. But [I realized that] the battery doesn’t need to be on the bike and the [output] controller doesn’t need to be on the bike.”
That’s where the Freedom E-bike’s design differs from others.
“Since the Brompton comes with an integrated, front-mounted luggage bag, and the battery I chose is small, I realized I could put the battery in there and get it off the bike. It doesn’t interfere with the fold, so when it folds, it folds perfectly, the way the Brompton is supposed to.
“But that wasn’t the end, because there are seven different wires that you’ve got to connect, and they’re taking a lot of current. So I managed to source a high-current, seven-pin connector, which was pretty hard to find, and it makes the connection a breeze.”
He swapped out the right hand grip for the throttle, changed the front wheel to fit the stronger-than-usual electric hub motor he had chosen, put the battery in the storage bag and plugged it in.
“Away you go!” as he says.
Indeed, away you go. Turn the throttle on the Freedom E-bike and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the silent push of the electric motor. That initial difficulty of starting to pedal is gone, making commuting and errand running a nearly effortless affair. You could refrain from pedaling entirely if you wanted to, letting the motor do all the work for you… but that would drain the batteries much too quickly.
When the battery is low on charge, Hamilton says, it can be fully recharged in about an hour and 20 minutes with a standard charger – a fraction of the time that the competition’s batteries require. And once fully charged, he adds, the Freedom E-bike’s power pack will provide enough juice for most people’s needs.
“In a city like Jerusalem, which is pretty hilly, a fully charged battery will give you about 15 kilometers of power, together with a moderate amount of pedaling,” he says. “Now, it all depends on how much effort you put in, it depends on the terrain, it depends on the wind conditions. But I find that I can pretty much get anywhere in Jerusalem and back home on a single charge. I’ve ridden to Yad Vashem and back [to the German Colony], to Mount Scopus and back… all sorts of rides, on a single charge.”
That’s a testament, he says, not to his legs but to his battery – a pack of A123Systems lithium ion cells, like the ones used in several electric and hybrid cars, that Hamilton assembles for his bikes. They offer more power in a smaller, lighter package than the other batteries on the market, he says.
“Because other companies use a battery that is less advanced than ours, they need a bigger battery to provide the same amount of ‘grunt’. Instead of carrying around a 3- or 5-kilo battery, you can use a 1-kilo battery and have it be sufficient for most urban cycling that you do. And it’s modular, so that if you want to add another pack to that, you can.”
The weight savings is not insignificant, Hamilton notes.
“In the biking world, people pay a whole lot of money to save a few hundred grams. Weight is very important – particularly in a folding bike, since you don’t just ride it, you also carry it.”
In addition to being light and powerful, the Freedom E-bike’s batteries are extremely resilient, as well.
“I’ve even had them shot by a bomb-detonating robot, a few days after I made aliya,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “I rode down to a mall in Talpiot, and I didn’t want to bring the bag, with the battery, into the mall, because with the wires hanging out I was worried it would freak out the security guards. I figured I would just leave the bag tied up with the bike…
“Well, when I came back two or three hours later after shopping in the mall, my bike was there but there was no bag – just little pieces of black plastic lying all around. Apparently, someone had called it in as a suspicious package and the sappers shot it with their shotgun.
“Eventually,” Hamilton continues, “I managed to track down the bag and get it back. The battery was still in there – and of 12 cells in the pack, six of them were salvageable, despite having taken four concrete slugs at point-blank range! So it’s very robust. That’s not something I’d recommend you do at home, of course, but it just goes to show that it’s very safe in a transport application.”
There are other, more conventional safety issues of electric bicycles to consider. In the UK and Europe, Hamilton notes, regulations require that the motor not provide assistance above 25 kph.
“The logic is that, if it isn’t helping you go faster than you could go under your own power, then it doesn’t require any different safety standards – sturdier brakes, etc.”
Bigger, more powerful motors allowed in the US are also heavier, which makes them more attractive to daredevil tinkerers than they would be for casual commuters, who are Hamilton’s target market.
“The way this motor works, its gearing makes it ease off as it gets faster. What this means is that, as you get tired and provide less energy, the motor helps you more, but if you’re feeling like you really want to ‘go for it,’ the motor pulls back and provides less boost. So it’s a self-balancing thing. It’s about the way most people use a bicycle for commuting, just a bit easier. It has all the advantages of a regular bike in terms of promoting fitness, and in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, without all the sweat,” he says.
“If you ask people why they don’t use a bike for getting around, they’ll typically answer that they don’t want to ride hard enough that they get really sweaty, that the hills are too hard and that they’re scared of traffic. This solves at least two of those problems. The boost makes the hills much easier and it makes riding much more pleasant in general. And since it accelerates to about 25 kph, you can merge into traffic or keep up with traffic to a degree. In fact, especially on inclines, I find myself passing some cars.”
So much for what the product can do. What does it cost?
A fully assembled Freedom E-bike will set you back about NIS 7,500, Hamilton says.
Now, that’s a hefty price for a lightweight bike. A brand new 50cc motor scooter costs about the same, and will easily have you zipping around town at 90 kph per hour.
“True,” Hamilton concedes. “But you have to factor in fuel costs, maintenance costs and insurance costs to that. You don’t get the heath benefits that you get from riding a bike, either. And then there’s theft. With a folding bike, you never have to worry about that. At home, you just fold it up, carry it inside and leave it by your bed. At work, you fold it up and leave it under your desk. You never have to worry about it.”
The price, although steep, is also competitive in its market. Most models in the US and Europe cost as much or more. In Israel, the options are extremely limited.
“One of the reasons that I started building these bikes here is that a relative ordered a folding bike with an off-the-shelf electric kit from a place in Tel Aviv. The kit wasn’t as good as ours, with a weaker battery, and it was mounted in such a way that it prevented the bike from folding. I knew we could do better. In fact, for almost the same price, we sell a better bike with a better kit.”
Still, the high cost means that Freedom is currently selling the vast majority of its bikes overseas, where folding electric bicycles are selling like hot cakes. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing markets in the world. In Europe, annual sales are expected to triple in the next two years; throughout Asia, sales figures are skyrocketing, and in the US, new models are being introduced all the time to meet burgeoning demand.
Hamilton, who has filed a patent in Australia for his unique combination of parts and design features, hopes to turn his tiny operation into an Israeli powerhouse. He imports all the parts – motors, batteries, plugs, etc. – from his various suppliers, then assembles the bikes here to be shipped around the world. Israel’s location and low shipping costs in general make this an advantageous place to set up operations, he says.
“The interesting thing is that it’s so cheap to mail from Israel. It actually works out cheaper to mail from Israel to New Zealand than it is to ship from Australia to New Zealand,” he says. “Even for shipping inside Australia, it’s cheaper to just ship everything from Israel.”
Hamilton also hopes to soon work out an agreement to import Brompton bikes to Israel, which would significantly reduce costs. And he is working with an Israeli company that makes small electric motors to fabricate one to the Brompton’s factory measurements – which would obviate the need for the stretching of the front forks that current hub motors require of all electric conversions – so that Israeli ingenuity can take its place alongside the Chinese power plants currently dominating the industry.
That dream is still far from becoming reality. But, Hamilton shows, hopping onto his gadget bike and speeding off with a quiet whirr, it’s quickly unfolding.