Dutch industrial designer Taco Carlier founded the legendary e-bike brand VanMoof with his brother Ties. We talked to him about his vision for urban mobility.
VanMoof was founded in 2008 by Taco and Ties Carlier. Since then, the path of the innovative Dutch e-bike brand has been steeply climbing: in each of the past five years, they have been able to double their production every new year. As Chief Executive Officer, Taco Carlier has been instrumental in leading VanMoof’s bicycles into the digital future. And with his vision for VanMoof, he has also succeeded in inspiring people for bicycles who were previously interested in completely different forms of mobility.
Mr. Carlier, you are the winner of the “Brand Manager of the Year” award. With your brand VanMoof, which you founded together with your brother Ties, you want to drive the transport revolution. What does a bicycle have to be able to do today so that as many people as possible switch?
My brother Ties and me founded VanMoof 12 years ago with the vision of the perfect commuter bike. As we expanded all over the world, across Europe, the USA and Japan, we saw that pedal power alone can’t conquer the wide distances of Berlin and the hills in San Francisco. E-bikes master these urban challenges. They shrink distances and flatten hills of cities worldwide – making the e-bike the ultimate commute. It’s our mission to get the next billion on bikes and free cities from gridlock, making them greener and cleaner. When we introduced our first e-bike, the Electrified S1 in 2016, e-bikes still had a stigma around them. Theft was a huge problem and the reason why many people wouldn’t want to own one in capital cities. We’re breaking the stigma by designing our sleek, secretly superpowered and fully connected VanMoof bikes, rethinking the cycling experience completely. From the keyless unlocking, smooth and silent riding, the instant power boost-button, integrated App experience, to our Kick-Lock, that’s making chain locks an item of the past. To solve theft issues we’re integrating a number of theft defence systems, like the alarm, a skull appearing on the matrix display and GMS tracking. Even if a thief overcomes these hurdles, our bike hunters will move out to get the missing bike back.
For the first time, the ABC Award jury has honored a bicycle manufacturer with its highest award. Do you represent the leap from the automotive era to the era of intermodal mobility? How will you use this signal in your communications?
Winning the ABC Award as a pioneer in the bike industry is a great honour. For me this is a big step not only for VanMoof but for the entire industry and reinforces my belief that the future of urban mobility is the e-bike. When talking about urban mobility, we should get comfortable with the thought of leaving cars in the past, live up to the mobility reality we’re already seeing across cities worldwide and move forward into the future. 2020 has shown the appetite of people to make the switch to a two-wheeled commute and this is only the beginning of the two-wheeled revolution.
“This is only the beginning of the two-wheeled revolution.”
— Taco Carlier
How important is the lifestyle theme in this context?
When it comes to e-bikes, we do see an interesting shift in people’s attitudes at the moment. Away from the old school stigma that used to be attached to e-bikes – with junky, heavy battery packs, loose cables and traditional designs, mostly ridden by people who simply enjoy using less energy while riding a bike. We’re shifting towards a wider, younger audience that’s discovering the advantages of e-bikes with effortless, faster riding and extended range as their daily commute – in utmost style. Our integrated design doesn’t give off the superpowered e-bike right away and comes in minimalistic aesthetics. I believe the modern design combined with high tech, for the ultimate user experience at an undeniable price point, is crucial to make e-bikes accessible for new, younger and wider audiences.
The sustainability aspect is also becoming more important. Bikes and e-bikes are sustainable modes of transport for inner city journeys, much more sustainable than the car for example. For normal bikes many cities are simply too big or hilly. And that’s where the true advantage of e-bikes lie. Our riders commute 10-20 kilometres per day, whereas with conventional bikes, most people stick to a range of 3.4 kilometres. E-bikes shrink distances and flatten hills, making them the ultimate mode of transport for any commute.
Your e-bikes are increasingly becoming IT devices. In your opinion, how much digitalization can the bicycle system tolerate so that it is still recognizable as such?
As long as it has two wheels, as the word bicycle suggests, and is set in motion by (wo)manpower I think it’ll be recognisable as such. Isn’t it ironic that the bicycle has been around for centuries but hasn’t changed much, whereas other gadgets and modes of mobility experience fast cycles of innovation? We took inspiration from the design and production process of Tech companies, with full control over supply chain and the design. We broke with the bike industry standards, for more agility with design, innovation and processes. We use high tech to rethink the cycling experience from scratch, making chain locks an item of the past, theft unnecessary and the bicycle a fully connected and integrated mode of transport.
Like Tesla, you develop all the components right down to the software yourself. What advantages does this offer you, and doesn’t this philosophy also entail risks? And if so, which ones?
We’re on the mission to get the next billion on bikes – that means making e-bikes as accessible as possible. Average bikes incorporate 80% of white label components which means being dependent on the suppliers’ quality and prices. For us the biggest advantage of taking full control over the supply chain is the great agility when it comes to innovation, design and price. It allows us to incorporate new, revolutionary Tech that changes the bike experience, making it smarter and smarter. Yet, we’re able to create modern design for an undeniable price that attracts a wider audience. Its the best way to create the seamless integration between hardware and software, and optimise the user experience. Just like Apple does. It’s key to get more people to choose the bike for these inner city A-Z journeys. As we’re only using custom components, it’s crucial for us to have a network of VanMoof specialists all over the world for seamless serviceability. That’s why we’re expanding across 50 cities with VanMoof Service Hubs and certified workshops – for seamless service across our riders’ cities.
Your bikes have a unique anti-theft system, for which you use Apple’s Find My service. How does your system work?
In many cities, bike theft is a serious problem and when it comes to e-bike purchase, it’s one of the biggest barriers. To get more people on bikes, all across the world, we’ve made it our goal to make bike theft simply unnecessary through a number of anti-theft defense systems. The kick-lock automatically activates the alarm system. If someone would come and try to move the bike, the alarm goes off and a scull appears on the Matrix display to scare off thieves. Our integrated VanMoof tracking system is based on GMS tracking. Riders can report their bike as missing, directly in the VanMoof app, and activate their GMS tracking system. Our Bike Hunter team will then move out and find the missing VanMoof back. We have our own YouTube channel where you can follow our Bike Hunters’ adventures. From Morocco, to shipping containers at the Antwerp harbour, to abandoned houses in Berlin. Our bike hunters experienced it all. This year we also introduced our new range of S3 and X3 bikes that are compatible with Apple’s Find My service which allows users to add their bike to their Find My app and track their VanMoof.
You are an avid cyclist yourself. When did you “make the switch”?
My brother Ties and I grew up in a small town close in the Netherlands, close to the German border. The Dutch cycling culture is very strong and we soon adopted cycling as our default mode of transport. Every time I visit another city I choose the bike to travel around the new town. It allows me to explore and get to know the city in a way a car or public transport doesn’t. You start to feel much more connected to your surroundings. I believe it’s a very authentic way to get indulged into the city’s culture. Whenever I travelled to New York, Paris, London, San Francisco and Tokyo I chose the bike to travel around town. Soon I realised, that for the wide distances of New York and London, the high hills of San Francisco, simple pedal power isn’t enough. That’s why we decided to introduce our e-bike range and now get more people on bikes in cities all over the world.
The success of your company proves that you do many things right and have a feel for the products and the market. Where and how do you get your inspiration?
We try to create a global company, based on local culture. When we expand to a new country, let’s say Japan, we not only bring our bikes to Japan, we also try to integrate Japanese culture in our company. Japan is known for its packaging and great aesthetics and focus on details. We try to infuse that influence into VanMoof too, for example with our VanMoof X3. We get inspired by cultures, by our riders, and our team. Here at VanMoof we’re all cyclists. We know the perks of cycling, the pain-points as well as the joys. Our R&D team is spending hours cycling around town during the development process. That combined with closely monitoring our rider feedback results in a continuous “the bike is never finished” work process. We’ll always continue to rethink and refine the cycling experience.
“We’ll always continue to rethink and refine the cycling experience.”
— Taco Carlier
You are an industrial designer, your brother is an engineer. How do design and development intertwine in your company and what strategic role does design play in your company?
VanMoof has one Headquarter in Amsterdam and one in Taipei, where our assembly manufacture is situated. The Taipei Headquarter is led by my brother Ties and I am leading our Amsterdam Headquarter. The R&D team is spread across both Headquarters with a big part working, testing, designing and developing directly in our Taipei Headquarter, right where our assembly manufacture is. This enables an agile and seamless design and production process. Design, developing, testing and production of our e-bikes are closely intertwined and run nearly simultaneously. It’s a crucial point in achieving the signature VanMoof High Tech and minimalistic Design. It’s a big advantage as we’re able to scale up production and phase in customer feedback within a few weeks.
And how important is brand to the overall success of VanMoof? What is the brand promise that has developed the brand to this relevance?
As I mentioned before, we’re on a mission to get the next billion on bikes, and ultimately add our part to moving closer towards having greener, cleaner future cities. On a product level that means to create the best cycling experience possible and make e-bikes accessible for a wider audience. Constant innovation, a fully integrated and connected experience with modern, minimalistic aesthetics is key here. On a brand level we want to inspire more riders to make the switch and emphasise that e-bikes really are the urban transport of the future. Cities worldwide are getting fuller, more people move around, the air is getting more polluted, and space is becoming rare. Very rare and valuable. We do see the urge to rethink urban transportation, to leave the car behind and move towards predominantly two wheeled urban transport. Our campaign “Ride the Future together” is capturing this mindset. Our TVC from last year shows reflections in a car surface of the traffic reality we’re seeing on a daily basis in metropoles all over the world. The car slowly starts to melt, and flows apart, giving space to a VanMoof bike. The future of urban transport.
Finally, let’s dream: What should the bicycle of the future be able to do that is still technically impossible today?
That’s a very good question, my kid-self could definitely talk for hours here. One of my favourite innovations was always the unstealable bike, which we did achieve. I think the next barrier is bike safety. Imagine a completely connected mobility network where all modes of mobility communicate with each other and avoid a crash situation from the start. We do already have hundreds of thousands bikes across the world that are highly connected with the App and its’ users. Thinking ahead into the future, we could use them as a sensor network to improve cities and cycling infrastructure. If we can add even more sensors, we could build a mesh network, in which the infrastructure nodes connect directly. I’m certain we’ll see many more interesting and solution driven innovations in the bike industry. There’s still so much to explore and it’s safe to say that we’ll never stop researching, rethinking and innovating the cycling experience.
First published in the ABC Awards 2021 catalogue. Article photo: Taco Carlier, Chief Executive Officer. Source: German Design Council.
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