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Should Big Tech go pedal to the metal on e-bikes?

October 11, 2022, 5:40 PM UTC
A mechanic works on a Cowboy e-bike.
John Thys—AFP/Getty Images

I’ll be on vacation for a week starting tomorrow, heading off to finally get married after a 31-month, COVID-delayed engagement. So in the spirit of having one foot almost out the door, let’s keep things a little light today.

As any city dweller can tell you, e-bikes have arrived. They’ve been a staple of European and Asian markets for several years, and they’re quickly becoming a feature (some would say “nuisance”) of America’s urban jungle.

Despite the promise of continued growth—various estimates project global e-bike sales could reach $40 billion to $120 billion by 2030—the micromobility industry largely remains the domain of little-known startups, legacy cycling companies, and a few motorcycle powerhouses.

Which raises the question: Why haven’t Big Tech and Big Auto gotten into the e-bike business yet?

It’s a conundrum that’s become a mini-obsession for longtime tech analyst, Apple observer, and micromobility evangelist Horace Dediu. In a splendid little story by Bloomberg, Dediu makes a compelling theoretical case for the world’s highest-grossing company getting into the micromobility business. 

E-bike sales are booming domestically and internationally, outpacing electric vehicle unit sales. E-bikes help replace carbon-emitting vehicles, which would boost Apple’s climate-change bona fides. Apple could pretty seamlessly integrate its existing and future technology into an e-bike (think embedded AirTags to prevent theft). And Apple has more cash on hand than all the deities, making any investment easily palatable.

Plus, it’s exactly the kind status quo–rattling technology that Apple’s revered cofounder and chief visionary would have loved.

“I fundamentally believe there’s no better product for Apple in mobility than micromobility,” Dediu told Bloomberg. “It is so Apple, so Jobs-ian that it just smacks you in the face…Steve [Jobs] would have been all over this.”

The bones of Dediu’s argument could apply to most large tech and automotive companies. 

For example, Amazon, which is falling behind on its climate goals, could easily acquire a micromobility company and employ the outfit’s two-wheelers across its e-commerce logistics network (it’s already piloting e-bike cargo delivery in the U.K.). The tech conglomerate is taking a similar approach through its investment in electric vehicle upstart Rivian, which is expected to deliver 100,000 electric vans to Amazon. 

Auto industry titans, meanwhile, have manufacturing know-how, brand recognition, and a renewed focus on electric conveyances. Several automakers are starting to dip their tires in the micromobility business, including European stalwarts Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. 

“Carmakers have always, in my experience, had an interest in bicycles. But they have not been well equipped to compete in the very cost conscious, very quick moving, bicycle industry,” Ed Benjamin, founder and chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, told Cycling Industry News earlier this year. “Electric bicycles have changed that. Car companies have capital, a willingness to invest in engineering and technology, and expectations that they will deliver a level of quality that is not easy for the bike biz to match.”

In reality, there are numerous reasons why Apple and its megacap peers would pump the brakes on Dediu’s dream.

E-bikes aren’t particularly lucrative, especially when compared with higher-volume electronics hardware and higher-cost vehicles. Legitimate e-bike safety concerns, which Fortune’s Yvonne Lau detailed earlier this week, could deter investment in the industry. E-bikes could still represent a passing fad, especially if electric vehicle technology continues to develop quickly.

And perhaps most important, auto companies and some tech firms (Apple, in particular) don’t jump into new industries willy-nilly.

So while it’s fun to fantasize about an e-bike assembled by Apple or outfitted by Ford, micromobility looks like it’ll stay small potatoes to the world’s biggest companies for now.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions to Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Chips down overseas. Shares of chipmaking titan Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. sank 8% Tuesday, the first day of trading across much of Asia since President Joe Biden announced sweeping chip export controls targeting China, the Wall Street Journal reported. The export bans, announced Friday, are expected to preclude global chipmakers from selling advanced semiconductors to China if they are manufactured with American hardware or software. Another Taiwanese chipmaker, United Microelectronics, saw its shares fall 7%, while South Korean semiconductor giants Samsung and SK Hynix closed down 1%.

A spark of ingenuity. General Motors announced Tuesday the creation of a new division dedicated to much of the automaker’s energy-related efforts, including electric vehicle charging stations and home charging units, the Associated Press reported. As part of the division’s work, General Motors hopes to deliver energy from electric vehicles back to utility companies during periods of high energy-grid usage. The Detroit automaker hopes to convert nearly its entire fleet of new vehicles to electric engines by 2035.

All fed up. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash shares tumbled Tuesday on fears that a new federal labor rule proposal relating to gig worker classification could impact expenses at the three companies, CNBC reported. Labor Department officials said the proposal aims to clarify the process for evaluating whether gig workers should be considered employees or contractors. Uber and Lyft officials downplayed the impact of the proposal, noting that it does not reclassify drivers as employees. Still, Uber shares fell 8% in midday trading, Lyft shares slipped 9%, and DoorDash’s stock was down 4%.

A burn notice. Twitter officials ordered a high-profile whistleblower to destroy records as part of a separation agreement, according to Elon Musk’s lawyers, who made the allegations in newly unsealed court documents. According to a Bloomberg report on Monday, the court documents claim that former Twitter security chief, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, burned 10 handwritten notebooks and deleted about 100 computer files. The court filings, part of Twitter’s court case seeking to force Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the company, were submitted before Musk tentatively agreed last week to close the takeover deal at the originally agreed upon price.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Our dark, twisted future? Twitter and Instagram swiftly removed posts Friday by Ye, the musical artist formerly known as Kanye West, after he employed an anti-Semitic trope and made a vaguely threatening statement about Jewish people. In the future, though, social media companies’ hands might be tied. As the Washington Post reported Monday, the Ye episode serves as a timely example of the impact that new anti-censorship laws pushed by conservatives might have on digital content moderation. Under a statute enacted by Texas lawmakers, which bans censorship based on a user’s “viewpoint,” Twitter and Instagram likely could be taken to court for removing the posts. Federal appellate courts are split on whether such laws violate digital platforms’ free-speech rights, setting the stage for potential Supreme Court intervention next year.

From the article:

The uncertainty around whether a vague-but-threatening antisemitic post would be protected under the Texas law could prompt platforms to play it safe and leave it up, fearing legal repercussions if they took it down. Legal experts have warned that the dynamic could have a chilling effect on companies’ moderation efforts, and lead to a proliferation of hate speech.

Tech trade groups representing Twitter and other social media companies are challenging the constitutionality of the Texas law in part on those grounds.

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Korean gamers take to streets in horse and buggies to protest their treatment in popular title, by Chris Morris

CNN suddenly shutters its NFT marketplace and collectors are calling it a ‘rug pull,’ by Alice Hearing

Why businesses are embracing industry clouds, by Nick Rockel

BEFORE YOU GO

Help from above. Even disaster relief is going ultra-high-tech these days. Wired reported Monday that the nonprofit GiveDirectly is using Google’s A.I. and satellite software to identify people living in lower-income areas hit hardest by Hurricane Ian and send them a no-strings-attached offer of $700 in cash on their smartphones. GiveDirectly officials see the effort as a more efficient way to direct relief funds to the neediest victims of disasters, skipping application or in-person requirements. However, an early pilot after a smaller hurricane found that only one-quarter of message recipients took GiveDirectly up on the offer, likely because they suspected scammers at work. Google officials said the satellite technology provides more accurate snapshots of storm devastation in the aftermath of catastrophic events when compared with on-the-ground reporting.

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