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Is E-bike Battery Standardization a Pipe Dream?

Of course it is—this is the bike industry we're talking about.

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What if every e-bike used the same battery? Not just the same charger, but what if the exact same battery could actually be swapped between bikes? Sounds great, right? A universal energy product that could power a plethora of different motors. Sort of like gasoline for combustion engines, but with electricity. The “fuel” would be readily available, and anyone with the capability to do so could make and sell the “fuel”. Think of the convenience. Think of freedom a thing like that would provide. And what about the environmental benefits? It seems like the ability to throw any battery in any bike would create a scenario of overall less waste.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. It also sounds like a total pipe dream. Bike companies can’t even agree on a single axle standard or just one bottom bracket interface. Most industries are the same, always seemingly more concerned about edging ahead of the competition than agreeing on universal solutions for the greater good. It’s easier to market things as features when they’re proprietary. All this plus much more prevents this sort of idea from becoming a reality.

Except that it already is.

In 2021, several motorcycle manufacturers got together and formed a consortium to create swappable batteries for motorcycles and other light electric vehicles. The companies include motorcycle manufacturing giants, Honda, KTM, Yamaha, and Piaggio, who owns Vespa, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi and others. There is a very real possibility that a few years from now, your grocery-getter scooter and motocross race bike will be powered by the same battery packs.

The e-bike world, on the other hand, is headed in the opposite direction. I currently have four bikes equipped with the same Shimano EP8 motor, all of which have different batteries with different charging ports, and thus, different chargers.

2022 Santa Cruz Heckler
The new Santa Cruz Heckler takes advantage of Shimano’s more flexible battery sourcing policy. The full review is over on Pinkbike.

Shimano allows bike manufacturers to essentially use any battery of their choosing. The battery maker must go through an approval process with Shimano to ensure compatibility, but it’s basically an open system.

“We recognize that bike brands have different ideas of what is important to them,” says Nick Murdick Shimano’s mountain bike product manager. “One might prioritize making the battery easily removable, whereas another might focus more on minimizing weight.”

Others, like Santa Cruz, are looking for more capacity. Currently, Shimano’s largest battery is 630 watt-hours, so when designing the new Heckler, Santa Cruz decided to source a 750-watt-hour battery from Darfon, one of a few approved battery manufacturers. To read more on the newly released Heckler, head over to Mike Kazimer’s review on Pinkbike.

Yeti, on the other hand, chose Shimano’s battery despite the potential capacity concerns, because of Shimano’s huge global dealer base. Basically, they believe that it’ll be easier to get a Shimano battery or charger in some remote corner of the world than it would be to find third-party electronics.

Norco uses BMZ batteries, and offers three different capacity options from 540Wh to 900Wh, which vary significantly in price and weight. If a rider isn’t prioritizing range, they can opt for the smaller battery and save three pounds (and $450).

It’s all about options. Bike brands don’t want to be locked into one system. This was the most common theme among all the e-bike motor manufacturers I spoke to on the topic. Brands want to create a unique ride experience. They want to design the best bike they can, without design constraints. Sure, that sounds legit.

But it also sounds like a total cop out. It seems like even if we had a unified battery pack scenario, the market could still offer plenty of options for riders while simplifying the experience immensely for the end user. There’s no doubt that manufacturers would still figure out ways to be just as unique.

Let’s say all batteries were contained within a certain agreed-upon casement that could be installed on bikes in different ways. Brands that wanted to do open downtubes with drop-in style fitment could add a shroud to the battery pack. Others could do closed downtubes with slide-in packs. The same thing that’s happening now could still happen. Specialized and Rocky Mountain could still have their proprietary motor setups. Norco could choose to sell varying capacity battery packs separately, just like they do now. Only in this scenario, consumers get real benefits on top of all the marketing spiel.

Nope, they’d rather focus on puking out acronyms, hiring patent lawyers and staying in their IP bubbles, claiming it’s all for us. Tell that to the bike shop that has to stock 4,238,370 different styles of the same thing, or the rider whose $13,000 bike won’t turn on because they can’t find a charger.

It’s easy to complain. It’s fun, too. I take a look at the massive tangle of different chargers in the shop, hop up on my high horse, and start typing away. Just do it this way, I say. Here’s the solution right in front of you. You must be evil for not doing it the way that seems obvious now in the light of hindsight and perspective.

But it’s not that simple. Sure, Shimano might be happy to pass along fueling duties to other companies. But, that’s because Shimano isn’t in the lithium-ion business. Companies who make their living on battery tech want to protect their ideas.

“People have different ideas about everything from battery chemistry to charging techniques to even what they consider to be safe,” says Drew Engelmann from Yamaha Power Assist Bicycles. “There’s not even real agreement on what counts as a charge cycle. Let’s say you have a bike sitting on its charger over the winter. A lithium-ion battery will lose roughly 4 percent charge a month. After a certain amount of loss, the charger will detect it and kick on to top it off. Some manufacturers could count this as a charge cycle.”

That’s just an innocuous example, but Engelmann can’t dive too much into specific technical talk. He does speak a lot about safety and reliability though, which according to him are Yamaha’s biggest priorities, and at least part of the reason why the bicycle branch of Yamaha isn’t currently working on battery standardization. When they control the whole system, they can ensure the safest, most durable and reliable product.

For how much this was emphasized in our conversation, Yamaha does allow Giant to source non-Yamaha batteries for at least some of its e-bikes. When the largest bike company in the world says it’ll just be buying your motors, you take the money and run.

Bosch seems to be the strictest when it comes to battery usage. Manufacturers who choose Bosch systems currently must also use their batteries. “At Bosch, the charger is an essential component of the overall battery system and, together with the Battery Management System software, is relevant to its safety concept,” said a representative there. “Through a proprietary charging port, we make sure that customers use only a Bosch charger that operates in coordination with the overall eBike system.”

Just like everyone I spoke with, Bosch isn’t aware of any battery standardization. “As far as we know, there are no battery swap efforts for eMTBs. To provide such swapping across different system producers, the batteries—including their size, battery management system, charging ports, mechanical mounting, etc.—must be standardized.”

They go further, adding that, “standardization would be only possible in a very limited way and does not provide an advantage. Besides the different system voltages and different safety and communication concepts of the manufacturers, the huge variety of eMTB designs is not conducive to such standardization. At Bosch, for example, the drive unit, battery, displays and apps are designed as a system; the individual components communicate with each other and are harmoniously coordinated for maximum comfort and the greatest possible safety.”

I still don’t see why such communications couldn’t be part of the agreement. I’m sure the motorcycle consortium is working on solving those exact problems. But for now at least, there doesn’t seem to be any motivation from the manufacturing side of the e-bike market for this level of systemwide integration. Everyone’s doing their own thing because everyone else is doing their own thing. Nobody’s working together because nobody is telling them they need to. It’s easier for them that way. For us, not so much.

But at least Bosch did give one little nugget of hope concerning port standardization: “Early discussions regarding the question of standardizing the charging interface are taking place within the industry. Bosch actively contributes to this exchange.”

And in the meantime, there are people working on the environmental concerns regarding e-bike batteries. People For Bikes launched a program in late 2021 in collaboration with Call2Recycle for recycling e-bike batteries. The program is already in play for manufacturers, and is planned to open up to the general public later this year.