Brompton's Will Butler-Adams on the future of ebikes and the value of compromise - MrLiambi's blog


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Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Brompton's Will Butler-Adams on the future of ebikes and the value of compromise

From Will Butler-Adams' languid style you wouldn't know that his folding bike business Brompton has just been through an absolute rollercoaster of a couple of years, but that's been the reality for Britain's largest bike manufacturer.

Like so many workplaces it was rocked by a seemingly never-ending series of blows from the bureaucracy of Brexit and a succession of lockdowns and restrictions as the world grappled with COVID-19.

The storm might not be truly over, but Brompton looks like it's rising from the ashes, soaring in popularity and name recognition and continuing to iterate on its famous folding frames all the time. After a couple of predecessors, it's now electrified its P Line, a lighter model than ever before.

If that sounds like a simple process - stick a motor on your Brompton and start selling it - the truth is far more complex. As Butler-Adams says, "The easiest thing for us to have done is to go to Bosch and say, well, we'd like to put a Bosch or Shimano drive into a Brompton - but it's the most inappropriate thing you could do. Because it's not designed for our bike".

Instead, Brompton embraced its ethos of making things for itself and built a motor system of its own, bespoke. That meant years of work, but Butler-Adams reminisces that "even when you set off, you're only in the foothills. You've done all this research, you're so proud of yourself. You spent hours testing, you made hundreds of prototypes, and you think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Suddenly, 5,000 of your customers hop on it and use it in a way you didn't realise and [...] you know, all hell breaks loose".

Since that first ebike Brompton has, in fact, continued to refine and improve the systems it puts on its bikes, but not in ways that it wants to get boastful about. For its bikes, consistency is worth its weight in gold, ensuring that customers can rely on repairs decades after they buy the bike.

Butler-Adams and his team are entirely willing to compromise on major new developments in order to make sure that parts match up to better serve that goal. That's the sort of practical, marketing-second approach that feels laudable and rare in the modern marketplace, especially when electrification means that the tech sector is increasingly a competitor for bikemakers.

It also means that the Electric P Line's motor feels largely the same to use as a bike we tested a year ago - but that's fine, in Brompton's eyes, since that older model demonstrably worked and this one does, too. "We're not certain selling some latest fads, some, you know, 'it's so much better than anything before'. Therefore you need to sell everything and you have to keep buying more, buy more, buy more... the one you've got from four years ago is great!"

That approach certainly means that a Brompton from 20 years ago and the Electric P Line are identifiably siblings of a kind, but it doesn't mean that Brompton doesn't see the value of the new.

Its electric models are selling well, shifting over 15,000 units so far, and while Brompton's folding core means that Butler-Adams doesn't think they'll ever overtake the lighter, more portable manual models, he sounds more confident that ebikes will overtake manual bikes in the wider market at some point.

For Brompton, much of its work to improve its electric models is focused on weight. "You need it to take a 90-kilo person from a standing start with some torque up a hill, and you just can't do that with no weight", as Butler-Adams puts it.

That means that with current technology there's a limit to how light an electric Brompton can truly get. Brompton hasn't reached that point yet, though, so don't be surprised if it shaves another kilo or two off its bike at some point in the next few years.

While it works on that, though, the ebike market will continue to grow at an impressive pace, and the challenge of regulating an industry that deals pretty directly with people's personal safety will go on.

In the UK, as Butler-Adams makes very clear, the post-Brexit approach of using the EU's regulations without matching the bloc's enforcement capabilities is a worrying one. "We have standards because we copy and pasted European standards into the UK, but we don't have the infrastructure to administer those standards".

With the proliferation of cheaply-made no-brand bikes in cities like London, often used by delivery drivers and couriers, the risk that sub-par regulation throws more careful manufacturers like Brompton out with the bathwater is a real one.

"Unregulated imports that are just washing their way into the UK are not safe. But the solution is not to ban batteries from ebikes in buildings, it's to do proper enforcement of the existing regulation which will protect the consumer and society in general. But that's not happening."

That'll be a challenge for any government in the next few years, then, and your degree of confidence in any such initiative may well vary, but Brompton can only carry on ploughing its own furrow in the meantime.

From the sounds of it, that means we can expect more electric Bromptons down the line, lighter than the ones that have come before, or packing small but telling improvements elsewhere.

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