Apparently Niche will be "the first drive system for electric bicycles with regenerative braking and a virtual gearbox." That's the headline from the Spanish-based company that is hoping to make a splash by replacing traditional bicycle gearing with some electronic wizardry hidden inside an otherwise pretty conventional looking mid-drive motor.
Niche have already patented what they call their Automatic Digital Transmission System (ADTS). Whilst it might look like a conventional mid-drive (albeit one with impressive claimed figures of 120Nm of torque from a 250W rated motor), it's the ADTS - or 'virtual gearbox' as they call it - that catches the eye.
In other words, forget derailleurs and hub gears. By somehow changing the flow of electricity to various parts of the system, based on speed, torque and gradient sensors, Niche claim to be able to mimic the effect of continuously variable transmission (CVT). This is done via motor circuitry rather than heavy mechanical parts such as are present in the widely used Enviolo system.
Other elements look more conventional and include a 450Wh frame-mounted battery, a colour display and app.
One element you certainly wouldn't associate with a mid-drive is regenerative braking - the ability to use the motor to slow the e-bike thereby putting energy back into the battery. It sounds a neat trick but in practice energy losses associated with bicycles mean it's never going to be a system that contributes a huge amount of charge to your battery (though some riders appreciate being able to use it as a drag brake on long descents, saving hand fatigue on the levers and brake pad wear).
So what are the real world advantages of the system? Internalising the gearing means it's a theoretically very low maintenance system and this could also save weight - though at 3.6kg it's certainly not light for a mid-drive. The latest generation of reasonably powerful mid-drives such as the Fazua Ride 60 weigh less than 2kg.
It's also worth noting firms have been trying to replace traditional bike gearing on e-bikes for some years now but none have, as yet, seen really wide uptake by the large e-bike manufacturers.
Front runners are probably France's Valeo who broke the news of their system that automatically changes gear mechanically within the mid-drive housing in late 2020. However, it's taken until spring this year for Fuell to be one of the first e-bike companies to announce they would be using the system.
Similarly, Finland's Revonte have hardly had the world's e-bike manufacturers flocking to their doors and though there was news of a 2020 partnership with the UK's EAV electric cargo four-wheelers, it's not clear if the company is currently using the Revonte system.
Who are Niche?
There is a strong electric motorbike flavour to the team at Niche. Founder and CEO Marc Barceló previously ran Volta Motorbikes and is joined by Chief Operations Officer Enric Delgado (also previously with Volta) and Francesc Queralt as Chief Business Officer.
Niche is currently selling shares in the business at Crowdcube. The idea certainly seems to have struck a chord with investors as they have already raised more than €346,000. Niche say the next 12 months should see a Beta prototype released for 'hard testing' plus more recruitment and investment. They hope that 2024 will see 500 units manufactured for European OEM customers with production ramped up thereafter.