Enough technology to get the job done

I live on a hill. If I knew that I was going to get into cycling maybe I would have found somewhere else but it’s mostly hills around here anyway. After a couple of years of commuting by force of will (most of the time) I finally caved and bought an e-bike.

The electric bike is a technological unicorn. Usually we make better technology by using more resources—fancier raw materials, better manufacturing, more software, more home delivery, more energy consumption. A lump of metal and plastic in the kitchen can wash the dishes. A Google datacentre full of computers can process my voice recording and provide some information in return.

Most of the time the newer technology is also more complex and fragile. Perhaps it requires recharging every day or an internet connection, and when something breaks the only source of spare parts is overseas.

Without a doubt an e-bike is more complex and fragile than a normal pushbike. It has a lithium-ion battery with a limited life, an electric motor and a little computer that applies rotational power in proportion to my pedalling effort. I’d better be getting something good in return.

Here’s the payoff: now I can get to my home without excessive physical effort, and also without bringing hundreds of kilograms of extra weight propelled by fossil fuels. Until a few years ago this just wasn’t possible. This is something that I need to do almost every day of my life. It’s a huge improvement to my basic living efficiency and it’s now reasonably affordable.

Of course, self-driving cars are the future. Well, that’s what the media tells me anyway. They’re probably right. Human drivers are pretty bad, and there are lots of families and situations where bicycles are not an appropriate way to get around. But they’re complex: very complex computers and sensors using GPS satellites and the Internet. It will be effective but it won’t be elegant.

Nothing is wasted when I ride up my hill. The motor can’t quite propel me by itself. It gives its all and I provide the rest, which isn’t much. It charges with less energy than it takes me to cook dinner. It’s 21 kilograms of bike and a battery that I’ll have to replace in a few years.

It’s just enough technology to get the job done, and no more. This makes me happy.