Karmic’s OSLO eBike Previews Micromobility’s Second Chapter
Micromobility has near-limitless opportunities to make the world a better place, but it’s also ready to be jump-started into its second chapter. Will Karmic’s OSLO do just that?
Every once in a while, a product comes along that changes how we think about everything: the iPod, the VW Beetle, the Tesla Model S (yes, really). In retrospect, we may worship their designers as secular saints but in reality there's more to this phenomenon than the product itself. Breakout products are as much about coming at the right time and the right place as they are about their looks or performance.
I have no idea if the Karmic Bike's OSLO is that kind of product. Though I've seen the prototype in person and spoken extensively with its creator Hong Quan (look for a MergeNow episode with Quan later this week!), it's too early to know how it will all come together. What I do know, however, is that the time is ripe for a product like the OSLO to reframe some of the faltering narratives around electric vehicles and micromobility... while also reminding the world that EVs don't need to be six-figure, 300-mile monsters.
The scooter boom was largely born of a minimalist form factor: light and cheap devices that could be affordably scattered across cities and provide a novel way to zip around. But that minimalism has also quickly proven to have real downsides, which are at the heart of the backlash described by The Drive contributor David Zipper at Citylab. Small, cheap scooters clutter sidewalks and break down in weeks, turning the virtues of cheap scale into the vice of "mobility litter." Their small size also lets people use them in inappropriate places, creating a nuisance, complicating traffic and even harming handicapped accessibility.
These problems suggest a return to bicycles, but these have their own issues: even with electric pedal assist you can get too sweaty using a bike to take one to a meeting, and at the cheap end they are heavy, clumsy things. Though eBikes are rapidly becoming mainstream in many European cities, in the US they remain tainted with a legacy of either a niche hobby or the domain of the young, poor and the conspicuously principled.
What is needed, then, is something that combines the best of the scooter and the bike while minimizing their downsides, all while presenting itself as a new kind of tech device. As it so happens, that is effectively the design brief for the Karmic OSLO which is debuting just as the value of micromobility as a last-mile option is coming into its own but shared scooter business models are coming under increasing pressure. If the product experience lives up to this opportunity, the OSLO could become a very big deal.
So what is the OSLO? It's a Class 2 eBike, the first from Karmic, which means that you can pedal it with electric assist or use a thumb throttle alone, but the top speed is limited to 25 MPH. A 48 volt, 480 Wh battery using Tesla-like 2170 cells can be swapped in and out of the seat post in seconds, powering a 250 watt motor (upgradable to 500 watts). Range will depend on which of the three assist levels you use, but is designed to provide 20 miles in the real-world, even using what Quan describes as the OSLO's "smile-inducing" (and more importantly, traffic-rivaling) off-the-line acceleration.
The OSLO's real weapon of mind expansion, however, is its stunningly minimalist design. Comparisons with Apple's products are inevitable, but so too is the perception that this eBike is an aesthetic product first and a functional device second. Though I can't yet report on the OSLO's practical usefulness, I can say that Quan is no dilletante techbro seeking to surf the Micromobility trend with a poorly thought-through product that happens to look like a tech device.
Over the course of several conversations, it's become clear to me that Quan is a died-in-the-wool cyclist who also happens to be self-aware enough to understand that his personal taste alone won't create a product that can reframe bike-based mobility for a new, more mass-market audience. Combining the supply chain and performance expertise gleaned while creating Karmic's more traditional eBikes with an understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the shared Micromobility market, the OSLO is a rare example of what can happen when an enthusiast breaks free from the shackles of their own enthusiasm.
The OSLO's clean lines create a new Instagram-friendly image for the staid bicycle, transforming micromobility from two-wheeled litter to a piece of infrastructure from a city of the future. Its sturdy thermoplastic body panels are also built to absorb bumps, protect critical hardware, and be easily replaced. They also conceal unsightly cables, gears and drive hardware which can still be quickly and easily accessed for repairs, solving another problem from the world of shared micromobility operations based on semi-disposable devices. Thoughtful touches abound, like an integrated kickstand, LCD display, always-on integrated headlight and a wraparound tail light that activates at the touch of the hydraulic disc brakes.
Karmic has launched the OSLO on Kickstarter, aiming at bringing in deposits from "true believers" who want to see it brought to life but there's no doubt that this is a device whose true calling is in a shared ecosystem. Though Quan is cagey about ongoing discussions, it seems that these involve everything from major multimodal mobility apps to local deployments in cities and on corporate or college campuses. With looks that advertise a premium and progressive culture, proven durability from Karmic's more traditional eBikes (which have crossed 10,000 miles in at least one case) and design features that bring together shared operational needs and user-friendly accessibility for non-cyclists, it seems likely that some kind of shared deal is only a matter of time.
Perhaps shared micromobility will prove to be a transient phenomenon, with neophytes either losing interest when the novelty wears off or converting them to private ownership customers. In any case, the OSLO exists to reduce the practical and aesthetic friction that keeps millions of potential users away from bikes, while offering a durable and visually pleasing alternative to the problems of scooter infestation. Perhaps some other device will end up writing the second chapter of the Micromobility Revolution, but right now the OSLO seems to have as good a shot as any.