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Bike of the Future: Batteries Included

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It's an idea worth pursuing: Get people to give up their gas-guzzlers for a cleaner, more fuel-efficient type of transportation.

For most people, this means a new kind of car, perhaps an electric vehicle or an electric-and-natural-gas hybrid.

But Gary Starr thinks he has an even better answer: an electric bicycle.

Using some of the same technologies that are extending the range and lowering the cost of electric cars, some manufacturers are creating electric-powered bicycles that one day could take the world by storm.

"We actually believe we're getting people out of cars," says Mr. Starr, co-founder of Zap Power Systems in Sebastopol, Calif. And "the electric bike can be the catalyst for the entire electric-vehicle industry.... Once people get used to the idea of plugging in their vehicles, they'll want more electric vehicles."

The first step is a monumental one: getting consumers to accept an electric bicycle.

For the past six years, Japanese manufacturers, such as Yamaha and Honda, have made electric bikes for the Japanese market. At least a dozen companies in Taiwan are looking into the technology. In the US, the business is dominated by Zap (www.zapbikes.com), but it remains a niche market.

The Americans believe they have two advantages over their Japanese counterparts. First, their engines can be retrofitted onto most bikes, while Honda and Yamaha sell specialized vehicles. Second, Zap uses an auto-engage system, which powers the bicycle only when you turn the throttle on. That way, if you ever run out of battery power, you can still pedal the bicycle home without having to push against the natural compression caused by the engine.

Although a Zap system adds about 20 pounds to the weight of a bike, it can power a rider 15 miles at about 20 miles an hour. Many users prefer to extend that range by pedaling much of the way themselves, leaving the motor to power them over steep hills or through busy highways.

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