In a time of a myriad of startups trying to bring super cool products to the personal mobility market, not all can be fine and dandy, but let me be perfectly clear about the point of writing this follow up on The Copenhagen Wheel: I want to shed some light on the exhausting challenges met by the parties in the manufacturer, dealer, customer chain. Having experienced the last two myself, my hope is to create some understanding and thus a momentum of moving forward as opposed to backward.
The Monster Of Non-Mass Market Products
A decade ago, the electric bicycle market was a typical non-mass market emergent space. Yes there were Chinese high volume manufacturers, but the quality was questionable, and the first models to reach markets like the Nordic countries simply did not survive the cold and rain for long.
I tried one of these motor systems on my own bike. A replacement front wheel with a tiny 250W planetary gear motor and a small 216 Wh battery pack. About 400 miles (644 km) later the motor snapped. I got it replaced, but I started to look around for something of premium quality.
This was a couple of years after the COP15 in Copenhagen 2009 where a project called the Copenhagen Wheel developed by the SENSEable City Lab at MIT was presented:
Controlled through your smartphone, the Copenhagen Wheel becomes a natural extension of your everyday life. You can use your phone to unlock and lock your bike, change gears and select how much the motor assists you.
If you are interested in owning a wheel, producing, licensing or distributing, please contact Superpedestrian for more information.
I contacted Superpedestrian to find out if I could get my hands on a kit, but I learned it would be a while before it would come to market. In the meantime I found the Canadian product BionX, which seemed like a high end product, so I decided to quit my day job and go all-in on a Danish dealership.
Now, this is where it becomes difficult to avoid offending anybody, but since BionX didn’t survive after a decade of trying very hard to make a strong and flawless product, I can be honest without an agenda to discredit the good people who really tried. In fact I still ride a couple of bikes with BionX systems, and they are still the best systems I have ever experienced, but the day they break down, and they will, it’s over.
You see, when you’re dealing with a low volume and high priced technically complex product there is of course the inevitable occasional fault of some component failing due to a statistical — albeit low — probability of error in manufacturing, supplier parts, or raw materials. In other words, no matter how well designed a product is, there will be faults once in a while, but despite of this fact there is usually no hassle for the customer to get the part in question replaced. In the case of electric bicycles, we are of course mainly talking about the motor and the battery.
However, if there is a design flaw of some sort that causes a failure to occur at a statistical high probability, then the monster comes out. Here is how it starts: A customer has a motor that grinds to a halt due to a magnet getting loose. The customer gets a new motor. The new motor grinds to a halt due to a magnet getting loose. Now, if this happens a third time, there is a very good chance we are dealing with a bad design. The monster is out.
The customer now might claim a full refund, which the dealer then claims from the manufacturer, which takes the loss. It goes without saying that if these situations cross the timeline of warranty things can get ugly, because then the loss shifts from the manufacturer (where loss is bad because it threatens its very existence) to the dealer (the frustrated middleman putting in hours nobody is paying for) and further down to the customer (who is not happy at all having spent the money in the first place).
I personally gave up in this business after a few years with too many “monsters.” I mean, I loved the products, I had a majority of happy customers, and the distributor and manufacturer people were really trying their level best. But I got very good at identifying whether a flaw in a product was just bad luck or a design flaw. I tried other brands, but never came around to find a product that really had the quality that was needed for all parties to be happy.
When things got tight economically due to the hours I put in trying to fix the problems my customers had and trying to get the manufacturer to take broken parts back for refund that where out of warranty, I realized that I had 2 options: Either quit, or become a multi-brand dealer of complete e-bikes instead of only doing retrofit systems. The retail electric bikes on the market had, and still have, the mass produced systems from Bosch and the like, and some well proven Chinese systems. But alongside the security of dealing with hardware of mass produced systems, there is the ruthless competitions among an ever growing number of dealers. I just wasn’t up for it. So I’m back in my old dayjob.
An Example Of The Copenhagen Wheel Dilemma
When the Copenhagen Wheel finally made it to market in 2017, it was presented here on CleanTechnica by Nicolas Zart, and I had the good fortune to try it out myself at the first Danish dealer in 2018. It was a very pleasant experience, and I only had high praise for the product on all accounts.
Since then I have not thought much about it, because I have been diving deep into the high risk adventure of another personal mobility startup that is making the almost impossible jump from low volume to mass market while trying very hard to design products that do not have inherent high probability flaws, which would otherwise kill the company in an a very short time.
But then just the other day I was approached by a Copenhagen Wheel customer who was quite unhappy with the product, and with the way the manufacturer had dealt with the issues. Again, I will not takes sides here, but I recognize the frustration from both sides, and all I can do is urge all parties to exchange as much detailed information as possible in order to find a solution to the problems at hand. I agreed to do this follow-up and reproduce the parts of the information given to me that I found relevant, in order to get some perspective on the matter.
On the one hand, I have tremendous respect for any startup to even try to bring anything to market with the notorious risks it involves, but I also urge anyone who manufactures any physical appliance that ends up in the hands of everyday users to address any high probability (more than 2) malfunctions immediately and find a fix for it so fast that the number of hours spent on the flawed design are minimized.
On the other hand, I have sympathy for the customer who spent a higher than average amount of money on a premium product, and the best that can happen to a loyal customer is to be met by swift action to remedy the problem, either by replacement or refund, regardless of warranty. I mean, don’t hide too much behind warranty, but try to make a superior product instead. However, I also think the customer has a responsibility to get acquainted with a brand before investing their hard earned money in it. A low volume, premium quality, superior functionality product is at risk of encountering problems no one could have anticipated. The risk of failure grows exponentially for every extra degree of complexity.
The only way to move forward in my opinion is to maintain respect for all parties in the domain of low volume products (below maybe 50,000 units per year?), because it is just risky business, people. And with that in mind, I give you an example of an owner of a Copenhagen Wheel who had various issues, and the response I got from Superpedestrian when I asked about some of the specific issues, and its strategy around the Copenhagen Wheel in general.
Sam Ribnick, Copenhagen Wheel owner, January 21, 2020:
I wonder if you’d consider updating your review of the Copenhagen Wheel. It’s the first result that comes up when someone searches, and is a very positive review.
Unfortunately, myself and others have found that the company, Superpedestrian, has a very poor level of support for the wheel. Further, many internal components of the wheel cannot be serviced, and the official response from support has been to buy a new wheel.
For context, I bought the bike second-hand from the first owner via craigslist, so I understand that the warranty would not apply to me (though other e-bike manufacturers do offer warranty transfer). The bike and wheel were in excellent condition when I bought it, but I experienced lower-than-expected range right from the start. On some days I could get close to 20 miles and other days as low as 15, even when using “eco mode”. This is much lower than the 31 mile range on their website and in many reviews.
I used the bike for my daily commute, including riding in light and medium rain. Within a month, the wheel developed a grinding noise on every rotation. I contacted the support team and you’ll see the whole exchange in the other chain I forward you. Ultimately, their only recommendation was that I buy a new wheel, and they refused to give a straight answer to the question of whether the bike can be used in the rain (the website and manual are not clear on this, using uncertain language like “take the Wheel inside (if possible) during downpours”). I found this example online of another customer who had a similar problem with the bearings, and also was told to buy a new wheel.
Also, I called 3 local bike shops listed as partners on their website about the issue, including the one where the bike was purchased. One said that they stopped supporting the wheel because the company was so unresponsive and hard to work with. A second said the shop can only handle repairs to the spoke and rims. The third said they can’t help and have had a bad experience with the support team – his recommendation was that I just keep emailing every day to get a response.
Overall, I actually really love the wheel when it runs, and it’s working well for my commute. But for the price of the wheel, the low durability and poor support are big concerns. I see a number of factors here that potential buyers should know ahead of time:
Range is likely to be lower than the 31 miles promised and will reduce over time.
Using the wheel in wet conditions risks irreparable damage, and the company will not confirm that the wheel can be used in the rain.
Some internal components (e.g bearings) cannot be repaired, so if you experience damage the only option is to buy a new wheel.
Bike shops listed on the partner website may not actually be partners, and even those that are can only repair the spokes and rim. There is no support network for the electronic components of the wheel.
The support team takes days to respond to emails, never gives a name of who you are working with, and there is no way at all to reach them by phone.
In my view, the wheel is a lot of fun, but buyers should be aware that it cannot fully take the place of their existing bike due to the likelihood of damage in weather. Further, the integrated design of the wheel means that it is much less serviceable than a conventional bike or even other e-bikes. Finally, the warranty period is only 1 year, lower than for other e-bike companies.
Sam Ribnick, Copenhagen Wheel owner, January 24, 2020:
Hi Superpedestrian Team,
I noticed a new noise while riding yesterday, and when I examined the wheel I noticed that one of the spokes had popped out of its seating and the wheel is slightly out of true. It also looks like the red housing is slightly chipped. I just examined the wheel thoroughly a couple of weeks ago related to a different issue, and the problem is new since then. I took pictures this morning, below.
Can you please advise on a few questions about this?
1) Is the wheel safe to ride in this condition?
2) Can this be fixed, given the chip in the red housing?
3) Can Superpedestrian provide any support in this case?
Chris Amory, Director of Operations, Superpedestrian, January 31, 2020:
Thanks again for reaching out about the Copenhagen Wheel. We are happy to address your question about the Copenhagen Wheel’s build quality, performance in the field, and customer support.
The Copenhagen Wheel is a premium product that pushes the boundary of ride quality compared to other drive systems on the market. We achieve this level of quality by employing exotic alloys in the chassis, novel torque sensing technology, and 3 proprietary on board computers. The result is a powerful drive system that has the industry’s fastest and most seamless power response (when measured by comparing the lag between pedal strokes and power output from the motor) and electronic braking experience.
Additionally, we offer the product at a competitive price through a direct sales model which reduces the 300% margin typically paid by customers for premium drive systems to under 20%, delivering the highest possible value to our customers. For that reason, the Copenhagen Wheel is designed as a retrofit. A complete electric bike integrated with the powertrain technology inside the Copenhagen Wheel would retail at over EUR 4.5K.
In a sense, we miniaturized a complex vehicle powertrain into a wheel, which resulted in a highly-integrated product in which some components are nested within others. This means that, for example, replacing bearings is a labor-intensive process.
With this in mind, we invested significantly in build quality to minimize requirements for service by deploying novel self-diagnostics and self-protection capabilities in each Wheel and through investing in high quality mechanical design and exhaustive testing. The results we have seen are very good. We have plenty of Wheels in the field that have been ridden for tens of thousands of miles, and electronic problems are the lowest in the industry. The only issues we have seen with electronics are in rare cases where users did not charge or store their Wheel as instructed for periods of several months, and as a result, damaged their batteries as would happen with any electric bicycle.
If any technical issues arise, Superpedestrian offers an industry standard warranty for original owners of the Copenhagen Wheel: one year in the US, two years in Europe. We have and will continue to honor all valid warranty claims including replacing Wheels with new ones whenever necessary.
Regarding riding the Wheel in the rain: the Copenhagen Wheel is designed according to the industry’s standard EN15194 spec. While the standard requires IPX4 rating (splashproof, but not fully waterproof), we have gone further and designed it to pass IPX5 (low pressure water jet sprays but not fully waterproof). Users are made aware of this. Our manual and online support center both mention avoiding riding in excessively wet weather – you can read more about it here.
Over the years, we have seen a very small number of cases in which users rode their Wheel in excessively rainy conditions and had water penetrate the non-drive side bearing. While this voids our warranty, we have worked closely with our customers to remedy the issue, and in several cases have replaced Wheels.
The issue you may be referring to is in a handful of cases where users rode their Wheels in extremely wet conditions or submerged in deep puddles. Superpedestrian is unable to provide replacement Wheels in such cases.
If you believe that the customers you have been in contact with have a bearing issue that did not result from abuse of the product, please have them reach out to us and we will do our best to resolve the issue with them.
We stand behind the Copenhagen Wheel 100%.
Regarding future products, as you may know we have recently launched an e-scooter sharing fleet product which incorporates the self-diagnostics and self-protection capabilities of the Copenhagen Wheel, and is tested to be the industry’s most reliable e-scooter. We are working on a new type of two-wheeled micro vehicle right now, and also plan to release a new electric-bike drive system in 2022.
The Superpedestrian team
Well, there you have it. It’s a tough world out there in the electric personal mobility space. I hope all parties find the strength to conduct a fair dialog and come to agreement on some of the issues on these amazing products. I want to thank Sam and Chris for being open to my take on the situation.