The electric motorcycle market is growing at a phenomenal rate. With increasing pressure on consumers, governments and OEMs to reduce fossil fuel consumption and operating costs, the electric vehicle (EV) has quickly been taken up as the paradigm shift technology solution. But what is the true global picture on this emerging category, and it’s impact on markets? MMW explores the mass market electric scooter.
Shocking, not Disturbing
In 1995, the government of China declared the development and production of electric scooters and motorcycles to be a national priority, many years in advance of the current fashion for all things electric. The reason behind this bold initiative was not ecology in the idealistic sense, but economics. With more extreme population density mega-cities and exponentially increasing commuter traffic than anyone else, the Chinese were faced with an urban pollution problem of disastrous proportions. Respiratory sickness due to poor air quality and it’s subsequent negative effects on productivity and health care costs lead leaders to recognize that a newly mobilized Chinese middle class hungry for new motor vehicles would quickly undermine future growth.
Turning to wide scale electrification and zero emissions technology, was therefore a purely practical policy decision. Focusing on motorcycles and scooters came as a natural extension to a country with a long heritage of single occupant two-wheeled transport, bicycles, and the a nation with the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturing industry. As of 2010, China made more than 21M electric powered two-wheelers, including pedal assist bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, by far eclipsing production of all other countries in that area.
Net benefits of electrification are sometimes obvious, like increased energy efficiency, quiet operation and drastically lowered emissions per km traveled, but there is a much wider, more commercial benefit that often goes unnoticed by pundits. Encouragement of EVs has dramatically increased R&D spending on improved batteries and electronic propulsion, and tapped into the very advanced and developed computer and mobile electronics industries. The first truly practical EV car of the century is the Tesla roadster, a vehicle that leveraged this advantage by utilizing 6000 laptop batteries to deliver performance and range on par with its gasoline equivalent. The motorcycle industry, particularly in consumer electronics centers like China, Taiwan and South Korea will benefit tremendously by cross pollinating technologies in a similar manner, with the result being highly accelerated improvement in the EV space. Already today, these countries are the world leaders in affordable, high energy density batteries.
The original Piaggio Vespa, the archetype for the modern scooter, got its name for the sound its 50cc engine made, or so goes the story. The Vespa, like other iconic vehicles of that era, endeared itself to millions because in a post-war Europe with shortages of money, fuel but a quickly urbanizing economy, simple personal mobility was in growing demand. The modern scooter and its basic architecture has not changed since those early Vespas more than half a century ago. A compact engine is mounted on the rear swingarm, freeing space under the seat for storage, while the question-mark shaped spine connects handlebars, to protective shield, to the rear volume. It is a simple formula, one that is space efficient, comparatively light and very cheap and easy to produce. Copies of 1970’s Vespas are still in production today, a testament to the enduring quality of the basic design.
Electric scooters are currently derivative designs, utilizing for the most part identical frames and architecture, with only the gasoline engine substituted for an electric one. Some designs incorporate the electric motor in the rear wheel hub, freeing up more space for precious batteries, while others relegate battery storage to external luggage boxes.
The important development of authentically specialized electric scooters promises to make a leap forward in capability similar to that made by the first Vespa. By designing a vehicle from the start with batteries and electric components in mind, weight and cost can be dramatically reduced, the way the Vespa’s monocoque construction did 50 years ago. Several OEMs have presented prototypes of advanced EV scooters, while many others are forging ahead with incremental improvements.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
The first genuine attempt at making a ground up EV design was by American-Italian start up Vectrix. Utilizing nickel-metal-hydride battery chemistry, the same that powered the famous GM Impact electric car of the 1990’s, and drive most rechargeable power tools, the Vectrix V-1 promised a staggering improvement in range and speed over typical lead-acid battery powered scooters. The chassis was purpose designed to contain the batteries in a structural spine along the floor, while the rear hub motor freed space for storage. A top speed of 100km/h and a maximum range of 60km suggested that the Vectrix was on par with maxi-scooters in the 125cc class, a staggering achievement. The product was also handsome, with contemporary styling, seated two in comfort, and was backed up by tantalizing promises of even better future products, including a dramatic electric superbike.
However, faults quickly overtook expectations and sales stalled. Reporting initial shipments of over 700 units, customers discovered that range was highly variable, falling to as little as 34km when driven on motorways, and production problems surfaced with the assembly plant in Poland. Additionally, the roaring economy of the early 2000’s meant that inexpensive fuel and powerful maxi-scooters offering a superior value proposition completely negated many reasons for buying the expensive V-1, priced on par with premium, 160km/h 500cc scooters like Yamaha’s sales leading T-Max. The Vectrix story ended with inevitable bankruptcy, and the assets being sold off to various companies, hoping to revive the brand with newer technology.
EV Scooter 2.0
Today the market is flooded with cheap, Asian made electric scooters, powered by conventional lead-acid car batteries, often sold in supermarkets and department stores. Many of them feature pedals linked to the rear wheel via chain, making them in effect mopeds, despite styling and promises to the contrary. However, an ever increasing number of quality, innovative and realistic designs are appearing, often from global OEMs looking to capitalize on growing demand. This new breed of EV scooters utilize the latest Lithium battery chemistry to develop power and range that easily matches expectations for the 125cc class of gasoline scooters. At last year’s INTERMOT and EICMA trade shows, nearly every major manufacturer from the Japanese Big Four to European legacy brands showcased some type of alternative energy motorcycles.
Peugeot, Honda, Suzuki, BMW all boldly feature EVs in their respective automobile portfolios, and most have developed real world EV motorcycles s well. The specialty two wheel OEMs in the western world like Yamaha, KTM and Rieju have followed suit, and some companies are exploiting hybrid technology such as Piaggio with it’s ground breaking MP3, and Bombardier with its similarly three-wheeled Spyder.
The EV scooter will inevitably overtake it’s gasoline counterpart in the coming years, as fuel costs continue to climb, battery costs tumble, and more and more commuters discover that shifting noiselessly through traffic without ever arriving at your destination smelling of two-stroke fumes make more sense. The manufacturers, for the most part, have only to continue to feed the consumer with choice, style and performance that meet reasonable expectations, to reap the sales benefit.
MMW World Electric Motorcycle Comparison