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Shimano takes aim at Bosch with e-bike drivetrain

Published November 10, 2013
Center-drive-motor system retains the name of its predecessor.

TAICHUNG, Taiwan (BRAIN) — Shimano’s latest entry into the e-bike powertrain market takes aim at Bosch with a center-drive motor that will be introduced in Europe in 2014. Called STEPS—the name given to the first group it launched in 2010—an acronym for Shimano Total Electric Power System, the proprietary design requires that bike brands that choose to spec the system build frames specifically for the motor.

Some product managers saw the new system at Taichung Bike Week, but Shimano Europe formally announced STEPS on Monday.

STEPS consists of a mid-motor drive unit and single-ring crank with output ranging from 250 to 500 watts, a handlebar-mounted controller and computer, rear rack- or downtube-mounted battery and reinforced e-bike chain. The system only engages when a rider is pedaling and doesn’t exceed 25 km/hr. At 6.8 pounds, Shimano also claims the motor is one of the lightest currently on the market. Pricing won’t be available until mid-December.

Shimano is taking a slow approach to the rollout. Two of Germany’s key buying groups—ZEG and BICO—will be the first to sell the STEPS-equipped bikes, serving as a test market. Both groups will develop and sell e-bikes equipped with the system. They will also have 50 models on hand for consumers to take on test rides. Shimano hopes to get feedback on the product, gain insight into sales potential and ensure that its service network can take care of any issues. The company plans to deliver its initial production to OEs in August 2014.

There are no immediate plans to introduce STEPS in the U.S., though Shimano’s Dave Lawrence, road product manager, said OEs have shown interest in the system. STEPS will work with Shimano’s external and internal rear hubs, but Shimano is focusing on Di2 internally geared hubs in the initial phase. It will offer 8-speed and 11-speed Alfine Di2 versions.

The system offers three assist modes, providing a range of 80 to 120 kilometers. The 418Wh battery, good for 1,000 cycles, can be fully charged in four hours. Shimano also notes that STEPS works with the company’s online configurator and diagnostic tool for its drivetrains, E-Tube Project.

Remaining a question mark, however, is its sales potential in the European marketplace. Shimano’s first effort with STEPS back in 2010 failed to gain significant spec in Europe or the U.S. It was too complicated and too expensive, one product manager explained. That system was built around a 250-watt front-hub motor, torque sensing bottom bracket, controller, a rear-rack mounted lithium-ion battery mated with a Nexus 8-speed hub. It could be spec’d OE or retrofitted to an existing frame.

While Shimano has always had an informal presence at Taichung Bike Week, this was the first time the company officially rented private meeting rooms at the Splendor Hotel to manage new product introductions.

It’s also the first time that Bosch, an iconic German brand, has exhibited at Taichung Bike Week. Bosch officials joined the RideOn group, a separate set of suppliers, and held its product manager meetings at the Millennial Vee. The Millennial is about a 15-minute cab ride from the Splendor.

Several e-bike executives have commented that currently Bosch is to e-bikes what Shimano is to road and mountain bikes—a clear indication of Bosch’s power in a rapidly developing market; that’s especially true in Europe, where the Bosch name is found on everything from kitchen appliances to power tools.

The e-bike market has changed dramatically in the past two years, particularly as Bosch has become a premier manufacturer of e-bike center-drive motors. Some 50 companies, including Cannondale, Trek, Giant and a host of European brands, are spec’ing it on some of their e-bikes.

Two other suppliers of mid-center motors include Japan’s Panasonic and Taiwan’s TranzX brand, part of the JD Group.

However, demand for the Bosch system has been so heavy that the company’s motors are back-ordered and Bosch has warned customers who placed orders in October or later to expect delivery in May 2014. Generally, Bosch has worked on a six-month lead time.

SRAM is also a player in the e-bike market with a simple system called the E-Matic. It uses a torque sensor, a rear battery and a two-speed system. Currently, Electra is selling models spec’ed with the E-Matic.

Topics associated with this article: Taichung Bike Week

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