Dutch government pilots technology to cut e-bike road deaths

Digital system automatically reduces electric bicycles’ power in built-up areas

Electric bike motors will be shut down when entering residential or built-up areas of Amsterdam, under a government-funded project to cut road deaths from the increasingly powerful vehicles.

The digital technology, which has been successfully trialled on a 4km stretch of bike lanes at Schiphol airport, was funded by the Dutch ministry of infrastructure and water management.

The not-for-profit Townmaking Institute behind the concept is working with e-bike manufacturers and government authorities with the expectation that the speed-cutting technology and new regulations could be rolled out by 2022.

Sixty-five people died last year while riding e-bikes, which have an integrated electric motor to propel the wheels, up from 57 in 2018. The vast majority were men over the age of 65. The standard e-bike reaches speeds of 12mph (20km/h), but faster models, such as speed pedelecs, can reach 28mph.

Indranil Bhattacharya, a technology strategist at the Townmaking Institute, said discussions had been opened with manufacturers about how their bikes would interact with digital infrastructure built by local authorities.

He said: “When we first discussed the idea with manufacturers that you would cut off the power they said: ‘Well, we will put the intelligence in our own bikes, we don’t need the infrastructure telling us.’

“But I think we helped them to understand that where vehicles should go and how fast is not up to a private party, a business. In a functioning democracy, that is the job of citizens and of government.”

Discussions over the use of the technology are most advanced with the municipality of Amsterdam, but the provinces of Gelderland and North Holland are also said to have shown an interest.

“The whole narrative is about moving individuals from a self-centric mode,” Bhattacharya said. “You have been cycling through an empty stretch and you are mostly thinking of yourself and your experience, but now as you come into a built-up area it is about the collective good. By reducing the speed we are making it safer for everybody.”

The technology trialled at Schiphol offers policymakers a range of options. “Say the weather is really bad, there is a headwind of 40km and cyclists are at a standstill, then cutting off the power would be counterintuitive,” said Bhattacharya.

“We built it so you can detect the direction the bike is going, and a policymaker can say: ‘We change the regulation. We won’t cut your power off because the weather is bad.’ The intelligent infrastructure would then tell the bicycle not to cut off the power.”

The infrastructure could also inform an e-bike of upcoming obstacles or junctions, by alerting cyclists with a gentle vibration of the handlebars.

Bhattacharya said: “It’s a bit like turning your mobile phone on. As you arrive, the [bike’s software] makes a session with the digital infrastructure. A digital twin will be aware of a bump coming up and send an alert. It will talk directly to the bicycle.”

The Dutch ministry of infrastructure and water has provided €1.3m (£1.2m) of funding for the project, a sum matched by Schiphol, which wants to encourage its employees to cycle to work.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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