E-bike Early Adopters and the Australian Potential – Interview with Dr. Bennini of Bosch eBike Systems
- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 18 October 2016
The future of cycling is electric and if you buy an e-bike in Australia today, you’re an early adopter. You get to tell everyone “I told you so” because the e-bike segment is the fastest growing segment in the bike world and rising global sales are proving that this is not just a trend, this is the future of urban transport. I spoke with Dr. Fouad Bennini who has been charged with building the Asia Pacific market by Bosch eBike Systems – Bosch has solidified itself at the helm as the most popular e-bike motor for pedelecs.
Dr. Bennini has been in and out of Australia over the past month and I spoke to him over the phone to find out how strong the e-bike market is in Australia and where the journey e-bikes will take us. Bosch launched the eBike Systems business unit in 2009 and focused solely on Europe before opening a North American office in 2014. Last year, in 2015, Bosch eBike Systems formally launched in Asia Pacific with Australia locked in as their first target.
2015 launch of Bosch eBike Systems in Australia during the Bike Industry summit
While Australia is the focus, the Asia-Pacific office is located in Suzhou (near Shanghai) in China which you might guess was been selected because of the proximity to production. Bennini explains that the decision was “not for the production but simply because it is closer to the supply-chain and manufacturing – the center of the bicycle industry is there.” Suzhou is a pivot-point for distribution to the production facilities for most of the world’s bike brands.
But what about the potential of the massive Asian market? Considering the population alone, the Asian nations would appear to be a logical starting point. When queried about the potential for eBikes in the Chinese market, Dr. Bennini says “in Asia we discovered a different market. In China we are talking about 35 million e-bikes sold per year but these e-bikes are totally powered, they are not the style we know, they are not pedelecs.”
David Geen, Fiona Tao, Fouad Bennini and Cameron Burke of Bosch eBike Systems
Bosch eBike system is clearly defining itself as a pedelec brand which, in comparison, is a premium market. Currently, most Asian nations are not the right markets for pedelecs by virtue of their culture and laws. Japan however, the birthplace of the pedelec, is one of the worlds biggest markets, second only to Europe in terms of sales volume. Despite Japan trumping Australia in sales, Bennini notes that “Australia will be one of the main markets after Japan, we started with Australia because we are quite confident. This is the right time to be in this [Australian] market.”
Bosch has directed all of its attention to Australia and part of their strategy was establishing a local service center, they became the first e-bike brand in Australia to do this. Shimano is another player in the market and recently established local support for the Shimano STEPs e-bike system. Together, the two brands are the only brands who formally offer national service for their motors and batteries.
Australia verses Europe
There has been a boom in dedicated e-bike shops across Australia but the average Aussie bike shop serves customers who want sporting or recreational bikes. This explains the knowledge gap and even animosity against e-bikes within the bike industry in Australia. On a recent visit to a local bike shop, the owner showed me their first (and only) e-bike; a virtually unknown brand. I was told that it is “the best e-bike on the market” though the shop owner admitted he didn’t really know much about e-bikes except for what the brand rep told him.
Dr. Bennini confides that it is still early-days, “if we try to describe Australia, we are really in an early adopter phase. The early adopter phase means that you have a low volume and there is not much awareness. The dealers in the retail channel are not even aware of the definition of the pedelec and difference between e-bikes and pedelecs. We are still talking about basic things.”
“Awareness of what a pedelec is,” continues Bennini “is one of our biggest challenges in comparing with Europe.”
The market is so young that Bennini’s team hasn’t yet gathered sufficient data to provide a reliable overview and outlook for the size of the Australian e-bike market. Bicycle Industries Australia estimates that 15,000 e-bikes were sold in Australia last year although this doesn’t distinguish between pedelecs and others bikes such as throttle-powered e-bikes or high-performance (off-road) bikes. “We see ourself currently, in terms of volume, as the brand who is supply the most pedelecs,” says Bennini. “When we started we had four [bike] brands, currently we have 20 brands in the market”.
Fouad Bennini continues, “The main differences that we see between Australia and Europe is how the markets are organised. In Australia it is more state related (based) and much more fragmented in comparison to Europe and this is a question of industry. What we are doing with our partners; the bicycle manufacturers and the industry in Australia in cooperation with BIA (Bicycle Industries Australia – the cycling trade body) is to get all of the industry partners together and have one voice for the bicycle. This is the main difference that I see with Europe.”
Dr. Bennini discussed the three pronged approach to building the Australian market; firstly the support and cooperation with bike brands and importers, second training and support for retailers and thirdly, marketing to consumers. Cameron Burke, previously with Sheppard Cycles managing Scott Bikes, joined the team as the Regional Technical Manager and a dedicated service center was established in Sydney which is managed by Eurocycles. The service center staff have the training and parts to support the bike brands and bike shops with Bosch powered pedelecs across Australia and recently a series of dealer camps have been conducted across Australia to educate shop staff.
eMTBs – a Trend or a Segment with Future
In Europe, cycling has traditionally dominated as a transport option rather than as sport. But electric mountain bikes (eMTB) have captured the imagination of the bike world and at the recent Eurobike (the world’s biggest bike expo), almost every brand had an eMTB. I asked Dr. Bennini about his view of eMTBs in Australia.
“To predict the future we have to understand this market. Currently what we see in Australia is that the MTB is highlighted and this is where people have emotion. For me this give me confidence as it tells me that in the future we have more opportunities. We don’t have this awareness in the city and urban bike target audiences.
“There are two views; that eMTB will grow and, that the city bikes continue to grow faster even though there is less awareness. eMTB is currently the main focus of every brand and it is a growing segment – it is growing faster than every other segment.”
Competing for E-bike Sales in Australia
Tax incentives for e-bikes used for work has made headlines (the e-bike leasing company E-stralian has sought a ruling on e-bikes with the Australian Tax Office) so I queried Dr. Bennini on incentives to create more interest in e-bikes, “We are aiming that the pedelec is a natural bicycle – we don’t need incentives, we don’t really need tax deductions you are just convinced that this is the right product,” says Bennini. “In Germany we have 2.5 million pedelecs on this roads, this happens without incentives. This is why we say that we are convinced that this product is consumer orientated and the customer wanted to have in the past and now they find it.”
Besides Bosch, Shimano Australia has increased their activity for the Shimano STEPs e-bike motor with dealer workshops and service center. Does this position Shimano STEPs as the main challenger to the Bosch motor? “I would not say today that we would see Shimano as the main competitor in the market. Currently there is no-one committed to this market as we are. If you say that Shimano is currently our main competitor, well we don’t see it”
“Of course, Shimano will become one of the main competitors if they are committed to the marketplace. In Europe we have other competitors and when the markets are much more attractive for them, they will be here in Australia. As Bosch, we took this opportunity and we are currently setting the pace in Australia and I hope that we will be successful in the long term. Our real competition is ‘how to generate awareness of the pedelec’.”