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Electric vehicles: what about Asia?

Greg Devine

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Closeup of charging port on electric vehicle

Across the western world we’re seeing the beginning of a full transition to electric vehicles. 2030 will see the end of new petrol and diesel cars being sold in the UK. But what about Asia?


When thinking about vehicles in Asia I instantly visualise carnage. Large roads full of vehicles whose drivers don’t have a care in the world. I also picture a mixture of cars and motorbikes. Asia accounts for more than half the world’s motorbike sales (worldatlas.com), which is clear to see as they move around the busy streets like a swarm of bees.


With its roads dominated by motorbikes, how will Asia adapt to the inevitable end of combustion-engine vehicles?


Perhaps electric motorbikes are the answer.


It’s easy to become confused when discussing electric motorbikes, due to the different vehicles the term is applied to. An electric motorbike isn’t an electric pushbike (which still has pedals but uses an electric motor to aid the rider) nor is it an electric push scooter (a thin board you stand on with an electric motor to propel you forward). An electric motorbike mimics the shape of a traditional motorbike, though they can also look like an electric scooter that you sit on, with your legs placed in front of you.


Now that you know what an electric motorbike is, why are they Asia’s solution, as opposed to electric cars?


It comes down to affordability. Disposable income in Asia, specifically outside of China, is very low. Cars are often out of people’s budgets. Motorbikes offer a great alternative for considerably less money.


Despite their size, electric motorbikes are used in Asia like a family car would be used in the UK, e.g. multiple family members occupying the bike at the same time is not an uncommon sight. The lack of boot space doesn’t stop large amounts of luggage being transported either.


Electric motorbikes aren’t new concepts. China has been manufacturing them for a while, but with large, heavy lead acid batteries. Now, more modern batteries, akin to those you’d find in a Tesla or other electric vehicles, are used. These lithium batteries are lightweight in comparison and allow for further innovation, thanks to their weight, capacity and performance.


The Chinese government looks to be backing electric motorbikes. They heavily promote them and offer incentives as the country attempts to tackle its urban pollution dilemma. In other countries, however, the electric motorbike industry is starting from scratch.


The same issues are prevalent as in the western world, when it comes to electric vehicles—the charging of them. The infrastructure isn’t there yet, particularly in more rural areas. China may have the budget to invest in charging stations, but other countries will struggle to afford a countrywide portfolio of charging points.

Black electric scooter standing on tiled floor against glass building in urban setting

Electric scooters like this differ to those found in Asia

Black electric scooter standing on tiled floor against glass building in urban setting

Tesla is the only new company to stem from the West’s focus on electric vehicles. Traditional car manufacturers have lagged behind, though they all now produce electric cars. Polestar is the only other manufacturer with a similar beginning to Tesla—only this isn’t quite true. Polestar is actually just another brand for Volvo in the same way Cupra is a sub-brand of SEAT.


This isn’t playing out the same way in Asia. Japan is home to huge motorbike manufacturers, such as Honda and Yamaha. Whilst these brands are now making their own electric alternatives, the Asian market is being led by newer companies.


One of these is NIU Technologies. Based in Beijing, NIU launched their first electric bikes in 2015. Joesph Constanty, Director of Global Strategy at NIU, described the company as ‘if Tesla and Vespa (the Italian scooter manufacturer) had a baby’. With NIU being the first electric motorbike manufacturer to sell bikes with modern lithium batteries, they’ve managed to create waves within the market. ‘We were the first in the market in China, and pretty much globally at that point. We were able to dive into the space,’ said Constanty.


Another company is Gogoro. Based in Taiwan, they have a range of different electric bikes. They’ve also developed an alternative to typical charging stations. One of the drawbacks when charging an electric vehicle anywhere other than your home is the need to wait whilst your vehicle charges; Gogoro appears to have solved this problem. Instead of riders heading to a charge station, they instead head to a battery station. There, free of charge, they simply swap their flat battery with one that’s already charged.


Electric motorbike batteries are slightly larger than a medium-sized Bluetooth speaker, and they’re stored in over 2,200 stations across Taiwan. The stations run 24 hours a day, and they’re also capable of withstanding Taiwan’s demanding climate, which features typhoons and scorching heat in summer.


Gogoro plans to make their battery-swapping technology available to other companies across Asia. According to their chief executive, they plan to become the ‘android’ of the electric motorbike industry, i.e. encouraging innovation by allowing manufacturers more freedom to customise products.


It’s not been plain sailing for the electric motorbike industry. Unfortunately, there have been some high-profile cases of bikes catching fire across the continent. In each case, faulty batteries were blamed. However, there’s no denying that electric motorbikes represent an affordable, effective solution in many countries.

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