Unchaining the bicycle

Mando Footloose

This is a guest post by Max Neupert. He is an artist and academic who is interested in contemporary social and technological issues. He has been living and working in Korea for three years. Max is a member of ExtraEnergy, a non-profit consumer organization for sustainable transportation with a focus on Light Electric Vehicles and electric assisted bicycles. He contributed his observations of traffic safety in South Korea to Kojects in a two part guest post 1 / 2. Views expressed are his own. You can reach him on Twitter @bauchhaus.
Full disclosure: ExtraEnergy association has tested a prototype for Mando.


Technological innovations for bicycles

Innovations in the bicycle industry rarely make for headlines. However, we currently see bicycles and Light Electric Vehicles (LEV) evolving in many interesting ways that have impact on how we move. And there are more exciting innovations to come in the near future.

A few examples: Hydraulic disk brakes are pretty much standard now for bicycles, giving reliable brake-power to cyclists even in wet weather conditions. Self balancing gyroscopic technology has taken a hold in various personal mobility products since the Segway. Hydroforming allows complex hollow shapes, previously not possible with welding and casting. LED lights bring the comfort of a proper illumination even to unlit bicycle paths.

Some of these technologies are adapted from the motorbike and car industries and applied to the design challenges of the bicycle. Often these innovations overwhelm the traditional bicycle industry. A few established companies like Magura serve both, the motorbike and bicycle industries, giving them an advantage in the proliferation of technology from motorcycle towards the bicycle. Other companies from the automotive sector just entered the bicycle industry recently, attracted by good profit margins and low competition. They are bringing their brand recognition and engineering knowledge to the bicycle industry. Bosch might be the most prominent example, producing drive systems for electric bicycles.

Mando is a Korean innovator and supplier for the automotive industry like Delfi, Bosch or Brose. It is part of Halla group, which is one of the big Korean family conglomerates and has private, but no structural ties to Hyundai-Kia. Mando presented a chainless electric bicycle under the name Footloose in 2012. The concept of a bicycle with electric power transmission from pedal to wheel dates back to as early as 2001, but Mando is the first manufacturer to go into production with it.


Going chainless

Removing the chain, which for some appears to be essential to the nature of a bicycle, is bound to be met with suspicion by bicycle enthusiasts. Yet, it might be one of the most momentous and groundbreaking steps in the evolution of the bicycle. The chain always has been one of the weakest parts of the bicycle and comes with many obvious issues: it stains your trousers and may break or jump off the gears. In addition, chains interfere with optimal suspension of the rear wheel. If the chain is eliminated, those issues vanish with it. A belt drive or drive shaft will eliminate the chain too, but an electric transmission is even better: It removes restrictions on the frame design, opening up interesting new possibilities (think of recumbents). It allows for multiple power sources (think of tandems or kindergarten group buses which cranks for each kid). As well as multiple drives (think all-wheel drives, anti-blocking systems, tracking control). But there is more; it enables consequential electronic innovations.

One of several stylish Mando Footloose cafes in Seoul, an attempt to circumvent the typical crammed bike stores and target a different audience for a lifestyle rather than a mobility product. Photo: ExtraEnergy

When electric drive trains are used on an electric bicycle, the technical term is “human-electric serial hybrid bicycle.” It consists of two power sources: 1. calories burnt in the human metabolism powering muscles, and 2. electricity stored in batteries or supercapacitors applied to the motor. These two sources are combined in a serial way, meaning there is no direct connection between the muscle and wheel, but an electric one. The muscle power is first converted to electrical energy by a generator, it can then be regulated to be either stored for later use or applied to the motor.

In this configuration a continuous automatic gearing can be implemented. While pedalling at your optimal cadence you could ride through mountainous terrain. When cycling downhill, not only can braking recuperate and charge the battery for the next ascent, but pedalling can too. Even a virtual track can be simulated electronically, optimizing your training (doing the Pyrenees climb along the Dutch waterfront). Combine this with heart-rate sensors and the topography will adapt to your exhaustion, giving you a virtual downhill ride on the way home, even if there is a physical mountain to climb.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this vision is this — with the capabilities provided by the serial hybrid, innovations may even be implemented solely by software, controlling the components in new ways. Say hello to apps for your bike.

Mando Footloose

Mando Footloose model on display in an electronics mall in Seoul. Photo: Nikola Medimorec

The Mando Footloose is a promise of this. Two models are on the market, one of them a foldable bike. A third model was presented in 2015 at the IAA, but still hasn’t made it to the consumer. While being a moderate success on the domestic Korean market, the Footloose stayed a niche product for novelty enthusiasts in Europe. Mando sold of a couple of hundred units in a market of 2 million electric Bikes sold in Europe 2016. Not a complete failure – but not the success that Mando has hoped for either. Korean consumers bought the Footloose presumably more as a design icon than as an actual means of transportation. For cyclists, the Footloose has such an unfamiliar feel when pushing on the pedals; it just wasn’t as much fun as the real thing. Mando understood this deficiency and went back to the drawing board. 2017 will be a busy year for the team, getting the model G3 ready for the market. I’ve tried a prototype, and it definitely has the potential to be a game changer on the international market.


The industry in Korea

Korean conglomerates Samsung SDI and LG Chem are suppliers of batteries for electric vehicles, including electric bicycles. But when it comes to complete electric bicycles or drive systems for electric bicycles, no Korean company stood a chance against the international competition. Neighboring Japan led the power-assist revolution over two decades ago, and took Europe by storm thanks to the Pedal-Electric-Cycle, or Pedelec for short. Japan’s Yamaha, Panasonic and Sanyo dominated innovation and business (Shimano was late, introducing their STEPS system in 2013 to the market, 20 years after Yamaha). While Japanese manufacturers can count on their domestic market as the backbone of their business, it is much harder for a Korean company to enter this market.

A Korean manufacturer has to conquer the export market to succeed, because the domestic bicycle market is not significant enough in the high-end segment. This is sadly due to the lost cycling culture in South Korea. The bicycle is not an accepted way to get around if you are old enough for a drivers license anymore. Cycling only seems accepted (and not suicidal) as a fitness activity for the retired and confined to bicycle paths. There are some administrative initiatives to change this, some are quite halfhearted.

Mando offering test rides at EVS28 at Kintex in May 2015. Photo: Max Neupert

Cycling as an everyday way to get from A to B has an image problem in Korea, where cars are still an important status symbol. Mando has developed the Footloose to fit in this situation. Its appearance is in stark contrast to a traditional bicycle, and designed to look fashionable. Mando sells it as a lifestyle object in special Footloose cafes and department store boutiques. This approach is somewhat working for Korea, but doesn’t translate well abroad.

It’s not by coincidence that it takes a company from the automotive industry to innovate given the described challenges. The Korean bicycle industry doesn’t have the vision, engineering knowledge and financial power for substantial innovations. Mando however has big plans. It takes a great deal of persistence to stick to development until the product becomes close to what the vision was. Mando is determined to bring the next generation serial hybrid bicycle to the market. It will succeed, under the condition that they don’t stop development before it is perfect.


A bike or a system?

Just like the competition, Mando had underestimated the engineering challenge of a bicycle drive system in its complexity. Up until now, Mando has still been building, branding and selling the bicycle. This is a new business model for them, because in their car segment they are a specialized provider for brake, steering, and suspension systems which vehicle manufacturers integrate into their products. Providing the drive system for bicycle manufacturers is also the successful business model of competitors Yamaha, Brose and Bosch. Given that the serial hybrid is an intriguing concept for all sorts of vehicle types from cargo bike to recumbent, it certainly would be interesting to see other companies experiment with the technology. If Mando will act as supplier, it could still continue selling their Footloose as a “sample integration”.


A Mando Footloose IM in front of a hip bakery in Yongsangu, Seoul. Photo: Max Neupert

We are looking forward to bicycle innovation from Korea. Mando is leading the way, and hopefully this will also encourage the national competition to innovate.

For more information on the serial hybrid and it’s development, get the ExtraEnergy magazine Issue 12 — its free and in English, German and Chinese. The article on the serial hybrid starts on page 33.

About This Author

Kojects brings you the latest news about transport and urban projects in South Korea.


You can post comments in this post.

  • A bicycle with any sort of power source other than the body of the human riding it is an abomination and not a bicycle. It is also a substandard scooter. Period. End of story. No argument can be made to the contrary.

    Rafal Pruszynski 7 months ago Reply

    • rafal, if you were to have taken the time to read the article in detail, you’d noticed it addresses your issue plainly, as it uses the human power to store energy, so don’t write like a luddite..-)

      salim serrano 6 months ago Reply

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