Climate Change Pushes Auto Industry Into E-Bikes : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Auto companies needing to lower emissions while facing car bans in some cities, are turning their focus toward a familiar, two-wheeled competitor. Today on the show, the rise of the e-bike.

Gas Power To Electric Power To... Foot Power?

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

Last week journalist Emma Hurt was at the IAA car show in Munich, Germany. And this was not just any car show.

EMMA HURT, HOST:

Not just any car show - one of the oldest car shows in the world, actually. Germany is a big deal in the car world, as we all know. We have Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen. But Lutz Meyer, the conference spokesman, told me that this year was not your normal car show year.

So is this really a car show?

LUTZ MEYER: No, it's a mobility show.

HERSHIPS: A mobility show - like, moving around? Like, what (laughter) - like, are we getting mobile? Isn't that what you do at a car show (laughter)?

HURT: This is a very fair question, Sally. Basically, they were going for a complete rebrand here. And it's really a signal - I would venture to say maybe an indicator - of the kind of awkward moment that car companies are in right now. So even though they make most of their money from gas cars still, let's face it. Gas cars are not the future. So this year all the hottest new vehicles were electric, and some of the hottest new options at this car show were bikes.

HERSHIPS: Wait a second. Bikes, drivers and cyclists - they, like, famously hate each other.

HURT: But this year in Munich, I have to tell you the car industry is trying to heal the wounds. They invited those pesky bikers to their biggest party. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Emma Hurt.

HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships, in for Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, what we can learn about how we are going to move around in the future from a car show in Germany.

HURT: Or is it a car show?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: While some of us may never have heard of this conference, it is a pretty big deal. Guess who was there?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Dear ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Angela Merkel.

HURT: So this was actually one of Chancellor Merkel's last public appearances because she's about to retire. And through a translator, she kind of called the car industry out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) Well, in the beginning, obviously, our German automotive industry used to be rather reluctant to fully embrace e-mobility.

HURT: Two conferences ago, she said it was tough to find electric vehicles that you could actually buy because they were in early development stages. Historically, the big stars of these car shows are your fast, powerful luxury cars burning gas. But fast-forward to this year, and it was really tough to find gasoline cars. Actually, some people looked a little offended when I would go around asking, do you have gas cars here? They were like, of course we don't have gas cars here.

HERSHIPS: But 95% of American car sales last year were gas or diesel. They are still cheaper, but the writing is on the wall thanks to the climate crisis. And these companies are under intense pressure to remake themselves.

HURT: And actually, it's not even just pressure, Sally. They are being forced to do this. The EU has said that no new combustion engine cars can be sold on the continent by 2035, and President Biden says that half of all new car sales by 2030 should be electric. So, yes, this brings us all back to the bikes. Lutz, the conference spokesman, says that inviting them to this car show makes sense.

MEYER: The car was invented in Germany and the bicycle and the electric motor. And now we are bringing it all together here in Munich.

HURT: And was there any pushback from your automotive members? You know, when you said, hey; this year, guys, we're going to invite the cycling industry, how did people react?

MEYER: Well, of course, it was news for the entire industry. But all our members, all the members of the German Automotive Association - we took this decision together because we wanted to present mobility in our way.

HERSHIPS: Beneath this rebranding decision also lies the cold, hard fact that in some parts of Europe, some cars will not be allowed on the street soon. So, for example, in Paris, the city hopes to ban most cars from the city center starting next year. And in Amsterdam, gas and diesel cars will not be allowed after 2030.

HURT: But guess what's still going to be allowed?

HERSHIPS: Bikes.

HURT: Exactly. And I have to tell you even though electric cars still get most of the headlines, the highest selling electric vehicle in Europe is actually - drumroll, please - the e-bike.

HERSHIPS: What?

HURT: And Deloitte has projected that that trend is going to go global soon. So you know what some car companies put on display at this car show were actually their own bikes. So they're just dipping their toes into the market right now, many of them by working in collaboration with bike companies. But, yes, at this car show, you could, in fact, test ride Porsche's line of e-bikes. BMW had a new e-trike on display right next to its fancy new electric vehicles. I wandered into the cycling section of the car show to talk to Hans Retzlaff about what it feels like to be the bike guy there. He works with a big German bicycle company, Kettler.

Does it feel like you are sort of, like, the stepchildren of this conference? Or do you feel like you are the newcomer coming in and everybody's a little afraid of you? You know what I mean?

HANS RETZLAFF: Well, there are two answers on this. There's two possibilities to answer. You can say they took us to get an alibi or we agreed we are getting green. But from our point of view, I think it's a chance to be here. We do everything to promote the bicycle because it's a green product and because the end user are ready to use it more and more.

HERSHIPS: So wait a second. I love me a good German accent. But is he saying that the car companies are bringing in the bike companies, like, as a form of greenwashing?

HURT: That's been an undercurrent of the conference, right? And that's the question. Are they just using the bike companies? But from his perspective, you know, either way, we are really excited to be here because we believe that our bikes are the future.

HERSHIPS: But if you look at the data, that totally makes sense. In Europe and here in the United States, too, e-bikes have had a real moment during the pandemic. In the last year, Americans spent - get ready for it - $681 million on e-bikes. And that number has more than doubled from just the year before. And as motors get smaller and battery ranges lengthen, they are honestly becoming a much more reliable mode of transportation.

HURT: There are some downsides - I mean, weather. Also, they're expensive still.

HERSHIPS: In any case, car companies are paying attention to all of this.

HURT: They're also paying attention to electric cargo bikes. So this is a thing I've seen a lot as I've been living in Berlin for the last month. I am always biking in bike lanes with people on e-cargo bikes. And I have seen people carrying multiple children. One time, I even saw someone with a desk on their bike.

HERSHIPS: That's so European.

HURT: Totally.

HERSHIPS: Bikes have been a thing in Europe for years, but the electric technology has evolved. And thanks to some government incentives, electric cargo bikes are becoming a realistic replacement for a car in places, of course, where there are good bike lanes and I'm assuming good weather - not a lot of melting, freezing, snow and rain.

HURT: Although some of the cargo bikes have cover for the kids, I will say. It's only the rider you have to worry about. But one German bike company at this show had something that might solve that problem. It was a concept vehicle that they said was a bike that had pedals. But it had four wheels and a cabin around it, and it looked suspiciously like a car.

HERSHIPS: Wait a second.

HURT: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: This is getting a little - the lines in the road are getting a little blurry.

HURT: Totally. You have the car companies doing bikes, and the bike companies, like, maybe making a car. But Lutz, the car show spokesman, says maybe that's the future.

MEYER: The consumers will decide. Perhaps in five, 10 years from now, a traditional car company will be a full-service provider.

HERSHIPS: In the meantime, some consumers aren't buying the car industry's change of heart. Environmental activists have been protesting this car show for years.

HURT: And despite the mobility rebrand, they still did. Some 13,000 people showed up, and they actually blocked highways in Munich.

HERSHIPS: But as the car companies are trying to convince the world that they can turn their massive infrastructure and brands towards the future, their new conference neighbor frenemies, the cycling companies, are pedaling ahead.

HURT: Hans with Kettler, the bike company, says they can't make bikes fast enough to keep up with demand these days. And as he pointed out to me with a little bit of a smile, they don't have a brand problem like the car companies still do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Kaitlyn Nicholas. The show is edited by Kate Concannon, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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