The Estonian company Ampler Bikes produces some of the most accessible electric-assist bicycles on the market. They look exactly like regular, non-electric street bikes—the presence of a button and a charging port on the seatpost is the only hint that there might be some horsepower under the hood. Press the button, start pedaling and you’ll feel a silent boost of electric energy. If you didn’t know there was a battery helping you out, it would be an “I guess I don’t know my own strength” moment.
This electric pedal assist is generated by a lithium-ion battery that is hidden in the downtube and a small motor in the rear wheel hub. Yet, all this hardware doesn’t make the bike unmanageably heavy: it’s 31-37 pounds, depending on the model—about the weight of your average beach cruiser. Ampler does all the assembly in-house in Estonia, so when you get your bike, all you have to do is put on the handlebars and pedals. Simple as that.
I got to ride one of Ampler’s Bilberry bikes on a recent visit to my parents—they pre-ordered the bike through the company’s Indiegogo campaign. Like other electric-assist bikes, it has the potential to make cycling a reality for people with limited mobility or who live in hilly places. It’s also ideal for people like me, who’d rather not break a sweat on the ride to work. Unlike most other electric-assist bikes, Ampler bikes actually look cool.
I immediately wanted to buy one, obviously. And I wasn’t the only one: The Verge geeked out about Ampler’s bikes after test riding one, and Treehugger praised them up and down for their simple, clean design.
Unfortunately, it was this very simplicity that ended up being an obstacle to the company. After selling a handful of bicycles to eager customers in the States (and many hundreds more in Europe), the folks at Ampler discovered that shipping their bikes overseas wasn’t as easy as they’d hoped.
The restrictions on shipping lithium-ion batteries by air are stringent, and for good reason: Remember that whole thing with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 catching on fire? That was an issue of an improperly cased lithium-ion battery short circuiting. There’s dozens of other examples of products with internal lithium batteries being recalled for fire safety concerns.
According to Marian Ladner, a partner at Ladner Trade Law, “There has been an increase in regulations surrounding shipment of lithium batteries by air throughout the world, not limited to the U.S. The requirements depend on the method of shipment: whether the battery is packaged as part of the equipment or separate.” Within Europe, Ampler had been shipping their bikes over ground with the battery pre-assembled into the frame without a problem. But that wasn’t going to work for overseas shipping.
For the bikes that they had already sold to people in the States, they had to come up with an ad hoc solution: They shipped the bikes and the batteries separately to an enlisted bike shop, which installed the batteries into the frames, then shipped each completed bike to its new owner. As you can imagine, this approach was wildly expensive for the company, and meant months of shipping delays. After the first batch shipped, they decided to stop selling to the U.S.
While there is recourse for companies that want to ship devices with lithium batteries overseas, that costs time and money. Time and money that Ampler—a fledgling company still trying to iron out the kinks in its product and process—just doesn’t have.
“[W]e will focus on the regions closer [to Estonia] in order to get more bikes out there and optimize the production, handling and maintenance,” a representative from Ampler said in an email. “Hopefully, we will be able to consider overseas sales and shipping in the future, but for now we are concentrating on Europe.”
One has to wonder how many other cool battery-powered devices we’re robbed of due to finicky international shipping law. Although it’s certainly disappointing that we won’t be seeing any more Ampler bikes on US roads, I think it’s likely that an American company will get wise and start making bikes with a similar design. Until then, my parents will be the coolest kids on the block with their exclusive Estonian toy.