Four wheels good, 2 or 3 wheels better!

The future looks bright for two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles

By Morand Fachot

The electric power two-wheel vehicle global market is expected to grow significantly, moving beyond e-bikes as a number of large manufacturers will start launching new models of scooters and motorbikes that will appeal to a larger customer base that will include commuters, casual and commercial users

Motocycle made by Bultaco Spanish motorbike Bultaco is reborn with e-motorbikes

More convenience, lower running costs

As urban commuters find it increasingly difficult to get to work by car or public transport because of cost and congestion, they are turning increasingly to two-wheelers, so far mainly scooters and motorbikes driven by internal combustion engines (ICEs) or bicycles and electric bicycles, distance permitting. However, e-scooters and e-motorbikes are also becoming more common. This trend, observed mainly in Asia, China in particular, is set to spread to other regions, such as Europe and North America, as more advanced machines are introduced to these markets, with their different needs and expectations.

It all started with e-bikes

In most industrialized countries, the term EV means electric cars. Electric two-wheelers are predominantly e-bikes: bicycles fitted with a small electric motor and rechargeable batteries to boost the power the rider provides.

 In Europe, e-bikes sales have increased dramatically in recent years, more than nine-fold between 2006 and 2013. However, they still account for less than 5% of the total number of conventional bikes sold, with significant differences existing between countries due to variations in pricing and consumer habits. In 2013, sales of e-bikes totalled 410 000 units in Germany, 440 000 in Japan and only about 173 000 in the US (out of a total of about 15 million bikes sold there).

 One country that stands out is China, where it is estimated that about 200 million e-bikes are on the road, with some 32 million sold in 2013 alone.

All of these machines are built on systems and components – batteries and drives in particular – which rely entirely on IEC International Standards prepared by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 21: Secondary cells and batteries, for the former, or IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery, for the latter.

Battery chemistries dictate price points

E-bikes use different types of battery chemistries, the most common being lead-acid, nickel metal hydride (NiMH) or lithium ion (Li-ion). The price of e-bikes is predominantly determined by the battery chemistry used. Estimates made in 2013 indicate that lead-acid batteries cost about EUR 30/kWh, NiMH EUR 300/kWh and Li-ion up to EUR 600/kWh.

With Li-ion batteries being roughly 20 times more expensive per unit of energy than lead-acid batteries, the Chinese industry has concentrated its efforts on the production of e-bikes powered by lead-acid batteries. As a result, the cost of e-bikes in China averaged about USD 167 in 2011, compared to USD 815 in North America and USD 1 546 in Western Europe, according to a 2012 report by the Pike Research company.

From e-bikes to e-motorbikes and e-scooters

E-bikes may share the popularity of conventional bicycles, but they have their limitations for a number of users, such as impracticality over long distances or when carrying loads. These users may prefer a scooter or a motorbike, but until recently their choice of powered two-wheelers has been limited in most countries to ICE-driven machines. However a trend is emerging with the introduction of electric power two-wheel vehicles (e-PTWs).

 These can be found in large numbers nearly exclusively in China, where the market is likely to account for 96,3% of the e-scooter world market in 2015, according to a recent Navigant Research report "Electric Motorcycles and Scooters".

From China to the rest of the world

Asked about the main reasons behind the widespread adoption of e-PTWs in China, Ryan Citron, co-author of the recent Navigant report, told e-tech: "It mostly comes down to cost and policies. As far as cost is concerned, China uses very cheap lead-acid batteries. Over the lifetime of a vehicle you're generally going to spend less money on an electric vehicle than you would on an ICE-powered one, just because of the petrol cost. That's probably the number one factor. Policies play a big part as well; there are quite a few policies against ICE-powered two-wheeled vehicles. For example, Shanghai, a big city, is banning all these from 2016. So, obviously, policies like that open up big opportunities for electric vehicles".

However, Navigant forecasts that the European and North American markets will see a significant expansion when new and more powerful (i.e. above 30 kW) machines become available. It also expects India, Indonesia and Vietnam to experience significant growth.

Challenges to adoption

Batteries and charging are still some of the main obstacles to the widescale adoption of e-PTWs in many markets.

 The kind of battery chemistry that provides the best possible performance is Li-ion. However Li-ion batteries are many times more expensive than lead-acid batteries and represent a sizeable portion of the overall cost of an e-PTW. Alternative solutions do exist; one of them, put forward by US e-scooter manufacturer Z Electric Vehicle (ZEV), is a silicate lead-based battery (rather than lead-acid), which it claims gives its S-6000L e-scooter a longer range and higher speed than similarly-priced bikes produced by other manufacturers which use lithium batteries. Furthermore, these batteries cost about a third of their lithium equivalent, a significant advantage when batteries need replacing.

 Another challenge to the wide adoption of e-PTWs is the lack of easily accessible charging stations since e-PTW batteries cannot be easily removed for charging at home, unlike e-bike batteries. Unless users have a garage, the option of charging e-PTWs in streets is currently neither realistic nor practical. One solution that is to be trialled soon by Gogoro in Taipei is the rapid swapping of low batteries for fresh ones in specially dedicated stations.

 On the other hand, e-PTWs are less likely to be stolen. According to Darus Zehrbach from ZEV, “the theft of e-bikes or even their parts has never been an issue for us. Not one touched in 8 years. (…) No one steals a bike that does not come with a charger that they may or may not be able to get. No one steals batteries that only fit that bike”.

Fast expanding market foreseen

While today most e-PTWs are sold in China, they are of the low-power class (peak motor performance less than 30 kW). Prospects for wider adoption elsewhere, in particular in highly-developed economies, rest on the introduction of more powerful models (more than 30 kW). Few such models are currently available and their cost is still high, but this is changing. Navigant forecasts that some 7 800 powerful e-PTWs will be sold in the world this year, but that due to recent consolidations in the industry and anticipated models from leading Japanese and US manufacturers expected fairly soon, the market should grow rapidly. Navigant forecasts a 34,1% CAGR in the high-powered e-motorcycle market between 2015 and 2024, with sales expected to reach 108 142 units by 2024.

 Worsening traffic congestion in many countries (which will affect electric cars as well), and its cost to their economies, is also set to lead to a wider adoption of two-wheelers in general, and e-PTWs in particular. A recent study forecasts that "the combined annual cost of traffic gridlock in Europe and the US will soar to USD 293,1 billion by 2030, almost a 50% increase from 2013", and that "the total cumulative cost of traffic congestion for these economies is estimated to be a staggering USD 4,4 trillion". This economic cost may also encourage governments to introduce financial incentives such as tax breaks or subsidies for e-PTWs.

Early adopters

If private users riding large e-motorbikes and e-scooters are not yet a familiar sight in many countries, the presence of electric three-wheelers used for operations such as delivering post or providing taxi services is no longer unusual. Postal services have found that these machines allow quicker mail delivery than using bicycles or light ICE-powered scooters, as postmen no longer need to return to sorting offices to reload with more mail and parcels.

 One such mail delivery vehicle, a Kyburz DXP from Swiss Post, is a familiar sight outside the IEC Central Office. This Swiss-developed and built machine can carry over 250 kg when using a small trailer. Swiss Post ordered 2 000 of these three-wheelers in 2011 with options for thousands more.

High initial cost, but long-term savings

However, the unit price of these machines, reported at the time to be nearly USD 20 000, places them beyond the reach of many postal services with large fleets, but low long-term and hidden costs can be an incentive. These machines have much lower running, maintenance and overhaul costs than ICE machines. They are also more comfortable and safer to ride than the mopeds or bicycles used previously, especially on wet or icy roads and even in snow.

 Martin Kyburz, CEO and owner of the eponymous company, told e-tech that other postal services in Europe were testing or ordering Kyburz DXP machines.

Huge market

Swiss Post will have replaced its entire fleet of 7 500 scooters and three-wheelers with electric vehicles in 2016.

 France’s La Poste Group plans to deploy thousands of electric three-wheelers for its delivery fleet in 2015. Postal services in many other countries and regions, such as South Africa, Brazil and Japan, are testing or introducing two- and three-wheelers for mail delivery.

 Taxi services are also expected to represent a high-growth area for electric three-wheelers in regions such as Southeast Asia, where three-wheelers, also known as rickshaws or tuk-tuks, are a popular means of transportation, currently nearly entirely powered by ICEs. A number of manufacturers in Asia and in Europe are already producing electric three-wheelers for this purpose. Between them, electric two- and three-wheelers are forecast to represent a market worth in excess of USD 10,5 billion in 2015, according to the IDTechEx market research company.

Motocycle made by Bultaco Spanish motorbike Bultaco is reborn with e-motorbikes
Kyburz_dxp_org Swiss Post Kyburz three-wheeler with trailer
electro Tuk Tuk Electric "tuk-tuks" offer "green" taxi services (Photo: Tuk Tuk Factory B.V. )