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An electric explosion waiting to happen

                                A report on China’s growing electric motorcycle industry


By David McMullan



The 2011 China International Motorcycle Exhibition saw Chinese electric motorcycles exhibit for the first time. Making their debut at the CIMA were Yadea and Qianjiang two of the biggest electric scooter manufacturers in the world; both companies reported successes with their new models attracting attention from foreign importers. China has an estimated 120 million ‘e-bikes’ (electric cycles, scooters and motorcycles) on its roads creating a huge EV manufacturing base with over 2600 separate companies producing electric vehicles and parts. Although a majority of these companies produce primarily for the domestic market a significant minority have produced EV’s of export quality. In 2010 585 thousand electric bikes and scooters were manufactured in China for export. Although export represents a fraction of total production the trend is changing with many of the top level EV manufacturers electing to spend vast sums on the R and D of lithium ion batteries to replace the lead acid batteries of previous generations.

With domestic technology requirement lower than that of export countries many EV factories have been forced to employ foreign technicians. One such tech guy American Terry Linebarger sums up the new attitude, “this thing (electric bikes) is huge, I mean really huge and where the Chinese have a chance here is that they are not as far behind the Japanese as they are in the regular 2-wheeler industry because the whole thing is relatively new! The scooters I am developing now are completely original, no question of cloning, and with the new lithium-ion battery technology advancing as fast as it is there’s no question that when electric scooters hit, and they will hit hard, Chinese producers like Yadea will be at the forefront in terms of quality and brand recognition.”

This Chinese electric scooter product enhancement is evident in a recent ‘world first’ development. Electric scooter manufacturer Tianjin Slane has produced an alternative to the DC brushless motor standard on E-bikes. The problem with a brushless motor is that it produces reverse magnetic resistance when the vehicle is accelerating affecting the speed and mileage of the vehicle. Addressing this problem Tianjin Slane has developed the world’s first ‘resistance free’ EV, the ‘Slane Glider.’ The Glider integrates a motorcycle’s unidirectional clutch and a magnetic resistance shield ring increasing the vehicle’s performance (speed and mileage) to 20% more than traditional EVs.

            Editor-in chief of China E-Vehicle Zoe Fu reinforces the growing optimism over EV technical breakthroughs. “Our magazine has been running for almost 4 years now and in the beginning we found it difficult to convince people that Chinese scooters would make an impact on world markets. You only have to see the buzz around Chinese exhibition stands at expos like the Canton Fair, INA Bike (Indonesia), Eurobike (Germany) and the electric vehicle expo in Las Vegas to know that this industry is about to take off in a big fashion. Over 90000 electric bicycles and scooters were exported to Holland alone last year and we’re hoping that the lead taken by Holland will be followed by the UK, Germany, France and other EU countries. This thing is getting the motorcycle industry excited with even giant motorcycle producers like Zongshen developing quality electric scooters as flagship products. In 2011 the competition between Chinese e-scooter exporting companies began to heat-up. I noticed at many exhibitions that Chinese exhibitors had erected signboards with ‘no photographing’ and ‘independent R and D’ which seemed to stimulate visitors’ interest.”

            The rise of the Chinese electric scooter industry has been encouraged by the demise in the domestic petrol 2-wheeler market caused by Government banning of motorcycles in urban areas. This is a trend that forecasters predict will happen in other countries. 

Managing Director of and Chairman of the global Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA) Edward Benjamin told me “It is my belief that, not only will battery electric scooters become a favourite with consumers on their own merits, but also that many Governments will ban fossil fuel scooters once acceptable electric ones are available. Given the clear trends my prediction is that there will be 130 million units outside of China by 2025. KYMCO the 5th largest motorcycle maker in the world and the nemesis of established brands worldwide has just established an electric scooter brand. The big mainland China builders of e-bikes and components are now reaching out to build their brands in the west. Some of the Chinese companies enjoy millions of units in annual sales. Companies like Yadea, 8Fun, Lishen and the iconic Flying Pigeon are significant and powerful international players.

            The billions of urban dwellers who will need and use battery electric personal mobility will inevitably shape the current products in to machines I might not be able to imagine today.  So my predictions may be wrong- since I am writing this in the age of the ‘electric bicycle’ which is strikingly similar to an old term for a car ‘horseless carriage.’ But I do believe they will have a battery and a couple of wheels!”