Last year Shimano introduced an E-bike system on the European markets called STePS, as direct competition to the similar Bosch crank-based motor. Now a year later Shimano is taking it a step further and integrating the STePS drive motor with its Di2 internally geared hubs to offer a system with full automatic shifting. Shimano has rated the updated E-bike systems for “Light Off Road” use, which generally means trekking on gravel and forest roads but not actual mountain biking. But it is interesting that the bike they featured in the press release looks to have a true MTB tire and a low-riser bar. The system has apparently been beefed up for better shock absorption and has been updated to an 11-speed chain and chainring to add “compatibility for its 11-speed mountain bike rear derailleurs.” That sounds like something that could have more potential than Shimano is letting on.
Read on past the break for more info, and where we think it could lead…
As Shimano says by monitoring speed and cadence “the SHIMANO STEPS system automatically gives a signal to the Di2 hub to shift to the matching gear. The drive unit temporary reduces chain tension while pedaling, which allows the hub to change in the correct gear. This results in a smooth riding experience where a rider does not have to worry about riding in the right gear, because the system automatically shifts to the correct gear.“
Combining the separate compatibility talk of Di2 hubs and 11-speed rear derailleurs, it seems to us that there might be potential to combine the auto-shifting system with either road or mountain Di2 rear derailleurs for lightweight, wide gearing ranges, automatic shifting, and and e-bike boost. Update: Shimano confirmed that the previous generation drive unit can also control the Di2 hubs with a firmware upgrade.
Besides the new drive unit, which looks just like the one we found on the Raleigh Misceo a month back, there is also a new cycle computer head unit keeping track of the auto-shifting. It looks much more polished and functional than the more clunky one of the Misceo, with the curious addition of control of headlights too. We reached out to Shimano to see if those would be Shimano-only lights and whether they would be powered by the primary battery, but we haven’t heard back yet. Update: Shimano tells us that this will control either dynamo hub or battery powered lights, and apparently aftermarket lights will continue to function with the correct wiring connections. The shifter appears to remain the same, but the batteries and chargers get an update too, with new fast charging up to 80% in less than 2 hrs. (Total charge time of 4 hours to get up to 100% remains the same.)
With the STePS updates also come a few new Nexus 8-speed internally geared hubs. New coaster and disc-brake hubs fill out the Di2 group and double those that will work with the new auto-shifting. Shimano was a bit vague, but it seems that all of the Alfine Di2 hubs will also be compatible. While this is likely to be put to use on the commuter and trekking markets, we’ll be very curious once this becomes available (Update: Shimano officially tells us this is already out in the world with OEM customers) to see some more creative alternate applications. It is probably too late now, so let me ask for next year: please NAHBS builders, build some unique road, mountain, and commuting bikes with STePS integrated for next year’s show! (OK, so this was a bit of gauging interest before we had anything too concrete. We can confirm that Shimano has gotten the STePS system out to some builders, and we should see some nice solutions at NAHBS at the end of the week!)