MONTRÉAL — The friction drive — a motor-driven pulley or cylinder that powers a bicycle tire — is an idea that has been around since the turn of the century. The 20th Century.
In 1899, John Schnepf of New York was granted a patent for an electric-powered pulley that would bear down on the tire and drive it by friction.
Friction drives powered by small gasoline engines have been on the market for decades, and are still available on Amazon.
Now, a few startups are reimagining the friction drive. One is the Canadian company Alizeti, which is incorporating contemporary e-bike technology in a system that is easy to install and relatively inexpensive.
“It’s technology that’s been around for a long time. It’s kind of funny how it’s been overlooked,” said Tony Francischiello, marketing director for Alizeti. “I think the reason is that, until now, nobody’s been able to implement it properly. You can’t just slap a motor on the bike and expect it to do what you want it to do.”
The company will debut its first model at Interbike and expects to begin delivering products next spring.
Alizeti — the name means “sunflower” in Swahili, Francischiello said — was founded by veterans of another Canadian firm, Viconics Technologies, which makes thermostats and controls for industrial heating and air conditioning systems.
Viconics founder Louis Viglione had retired after Schneider Electric, a big French multinational company, acquired his company in 2011. But he soon grew bored and assembled several of his former Viconics colleagues to launch the new company.
Most friction drives are essentially a motor connected to a throttle, but Alizeti is focusing as much on the software and the controls as on the motor.
“There has to be some intelligence there, some programming and software capabilities built in, to be able to analyze what you’re doing and react,” Francischiello said.
The Alizeti software will allow riders to set a constant speed or a constant torque and adjust automatically.
The battery and drive are built into a rear rack that attaches like a conventional rack. When installed, it looks like a typical e-bike with a rear-mounted battery.
The 500-watt drive hangs down from the rack so its drive wheel — made of a compound that works well in wet or dry conditions — engages with the tire.
The battery compartment houses one or two batteries, and includes a built-in rear brake light and turn signals. There’s even a speaker that serves as a horn and a security alarm. Francischiello said riders can even play music through the speaker via a Bluetooth smartphone link.
Thieves can’t simply ride away on the bike, because the motor won’t start until the owner enters a pass code on the controller. The batteries are also linked to a special unit,
so they won’t work with other bikes.
The system, including battery and rack, weighs 11 pounds. When not in use, the drive wheel disengages completely from the tire so the cyclist can pedal normally without resistance.
“A friction drive motor, if done well, can give you a lot of benefits that you can’t get with a hub motor or a mid-drive motor,” Francischiello said.
At Interbike, Alizeti will show its debut model, the 300C, which is a low-end version for commuter bikes. The company expects to sell them at retail for $699 and will be seeking retailers and distributors at the show. Although many components are sourced
from Asia, Francischiello said the Alizeti systems will be manufactured in Canada.
Future models will be more sophisticated. Francischiello said the company is working on a system that combines a rear friction drive with a front hub motor.
A few other companies are also promoting new friction drive concepts. Rubee, a British company, sells a unit that clamps to the seat tube and sits over the rear wheel like a shoebox.
ShareRoller of New York attracted attention for its portable 750-watt friction drive that it originally developed for bike share systems. A rider can attach and detach the unit in seconds and carry it in a briefcase. It also fits scooters and folding bikes. The company raised $88,000 last December on Indiegogo, exceeding its funding goal.