First, electric cars. Now electric scooters. Would this be another class of vehicle to go zero-emission soon? I sure hope so, for the millions of motorbikes that are polluting the air in developing countries.
Here is a picture of Ho Chih Minh City in Vietnam during rush hour. I have tried crossing the street (there is no choice if you are a pedestrian there) and it is real scary.
Here is a picture of Taipei, Taiwan, with its motorbikes amidst its copious traffic. I have ridden in one during lunch hour and my eye stung from all the pollution. Literally watering and painful from all the SO2 and NO2 in the air. It is a sad reality in many parts of the world, ours included – think Los Angeles and any other big city -- that vehicular emission significantly reduces quality of life. Perhaps the electric motorbike will come to the rescue. Perhaps not. It has as much to do with economics, as its compelling environmental credential. Let's look at one such example on the market in the USA today.
The Vectrix Maxi Scooter electric motorbike has been in the news a lot in the past few months. It was approved for sales in California in Aug 2007 after ten years of development, generating a lot of excitement in the press. It looks a lot like the conventional gasoline scooter, except for the tailpipe. Its dashboard displays how many miles remain on its charge so you don’t have to worry about running out of juice. It also has an interesting customer service policy – whereby the scooter is delivered to your door and a technician comes to your door for service. Here is an interesting YouTube clip of the first delivery to the first customer in the United States where you can see how it rides, and hear the Vectrix sales rep guy talk about their V.I.P. Direct service.
In my opinion, electric scooters are a great GHG emission reducer, if sold in cities that are dominated by motorbikes. This is because for families that depend solely on motorbikes for all their commutes and errands, the gasoline usage will add up significantly. However, this offer will probably make less sense in an urban environment where the scooter is mainly a style statement and gets on small mileage. Gasoline usage in conventional model is already low enough. My friend who owns a conventional scooter tells me he gets 60mpg already. Each month his gasoline bill is about $5 as he uses the scooter to commute around San Francisco. So I think it will not be as compelling for him to switch to an electric version if the argument is about saving cost or reducing GHG emission.
Add to this the cost of a Vectrix. It is about $12K, twice as much as a regular scooter of similar specification, and one starts to see why the economics of this may not be the reason to switch. It is more of an upgrade, a luxury goods, which in my opinion, should appeal pretty well to the celebrity set. Now if only the electric scooter develops a more distinctive look too…. then perhaps folks will switch to it for the “cool factor”.
Perhaps all these reasons contribute to why the Vectrix has not been doing as well. Unlike the runaway success of the Prius though (which carried a rather distinctive look by the way), its sales figure has so far been disappointing. In 2007, Vectrix built 2,002 vehicles but sold just 123 of them. But don’t mark them off yet. And definitely don’t mark off the electric motorbike category yet.
This is just the beginning. In fact, Vectrix had recently started offering a 3-wheeler, and is continuing with its marketing campaign, include a Hollywood tour. Perhaps there are other entrepreneurs also working on this, though I am not particularly aware of any with go-to-market plans announced yet. In a world where eco-consciousness, and increasing personal consumption responsibility is driving the switch to more sustainable products, the electric motorcycle may yet to see its glory. I sincerely hope that the industry continues to innovate and that more versions of the electric motorbike appear on the market. I hope that the economics will work itself out and that they find markets that appreciate all the conveniences a scooter offers plus all the positive environmental benefits that an electric version offers.
Now for me, I think I will probably not really ever switch to an electric motorbike, or even a gasoline one. Firstly, I don’t have a motorcycle license. Secondly, I find scooters or motorbikes kinda heavy, especially on startup or backing up, so it is rather difficult for me to operate, for example, when parking. Lastly, I am quite worried about being on a vehicle without a shell on our car-laden streets… These mean though I am missing out on the joy of the wind in my face, and the thrill of driving along faster than those poor cars stuck in a traffic jam. Not to mention… I am spending much more on gasoline than I would if I were to own a motorbike.