The End of Chain Drives? A New E-Bike Ditches the Classic Bike Design

Get ready for the next generation of e-bike concepts.
Chris Young

German automotive parts manufacturer Schaeffler unveiled a new device that removes the requirement for pedals to be mechanically linked to a bicycle's rear wheel. The new system, called "Free Drive", potentially opens up e-bike design to a new world of possibilities, a press statement reveals.

Typically, the pedals on a bicycle or an e-bike must be linked to the rear wheel by a chain drive. Free Drive, upends this limitation by converting the energy from pedaling into electrical power. This is then sent to a motor via electrical wiring.

Though the system allows for the standard distance of 5 inches (138 mm) between its two pedals, in theory, the pedals could be placed anywhere on the bicycle, as a thin electrical wire is much easier to install than a chain drive.

The Free Drive was developed as part of a collaboration between Schaeffler and a two-wheel electric drive specialist called Heinzmann. The machine is similar to an electric vehicle drive-by-wire system and Schaeffler even refers to it as a "bike-by-wire" system.

The new "bike-by-wire" system requires less maintenance

The drive system is composed of a small generator, a 250-watt wheel hub motor, a lithium battery, and a control unit on the handlebar. When the rider pedals, they power up the generator, which feeds electricity to the motor that powers the rear wheel.

The generator also regulates the resistance the rider feels when pedaling. This can be set to different levels of resistance much like normal gears on a bicycle. If the rider chooses to use a higher resistance than is required to power the motor, excess energy can be stored in the e-bike's battery. 

Schaeffler also says that its Free Drive system will require less maintenance than a traditional chain drive system as it has fewer moving parts. "Regardless of whether the system is used in 2-, 3-, or 4-wheel applications, the absence of a mechanical connection between the generator and motor means that Free Drive can provide maximum flexibility in the bicycle architecture and a freely configurable pedaling sensation, which is tailored to the requirements of the bicycle and the needs of the rider, while ensuring minimal wear," Dr. Jochen Schröder, President of Schaeffler's E-Mobility Division explained in the company's statement.

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Other recent chain drive innovations include BMW Motorrad's maintenance-free motorcycle chain made using diamonds. The same company also just unveiled two new two-wheelers, including an electric bicycle with a 186-mile range (300 km) that was designed for "maximum freedom", the iconic automaker says. Many promises have been made about innovative new urban mobility e-bike designs in recent times, and many more will likely be made in the coming years thanks to Schaeffler's Free Drive system.

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