Electric cycles gaining ground worldwide

Fewer wheels, lower cost

By Peter Feuilherade

Sales of electric cycles are soaring in Asia and several European markets, with consumers attracted by the cheaper purchase and maintenance costs, absence of exhaust emissions and the reduced noise associated with these energy-efficient modes of transport in comparison with petrol-driven alternatives.

Velosolex ebike (Photo: Velosolex) Velosolex ebike (Photo: Velosolex)

While most electric bicycles (e-bikes), scooters and motorcycles sold globally are used for short-distance daily commuting, other uses include deliveries of post, food orders or other goods, meter reading, police and security patrols, and transport around large sites such as airports, warehouses, factories and hotel complexes. Purchases by leisure customers in Europe and North America are on the rise too.

In town: four wheels good, two wheels better…

The new generation of electric bicycles features small, computer-controlled electric motors built directly into the hub of the rear wheel, or mounted in the crank and pedal area at the bottom of the frame. Compact high-capacity batteries that can be recharged in around two hours are attached to the frame or rear luggage rack. The machines can be used as normal bicycles, operating only on pedal power, or the motor can be used to provide an extra boost, allowing the rider to reach speeds of up to 40 kph. Powered assistance makes it safer to pull away from busy road junctions, and easier when riding up inclines and into headwinds.

Weight is one of the main drawbacks, with even lightweight e-bikes weighing over 18 kg. Electric motorcycles and scooters are powered by Li-ion (lithium ion) or other chemically-based batteries that are charged from domestic wall sockets or by more powerful charging systems. They use significantly less energy than petrol versions, with some models reaching the electric equivalent of more than 200 km/litre. The range of travel per charge can vary from 40 to over 160 km, depending on battery storage capacity, vehicle design and riding conditions. Because they have fewer moving parts than petrol bikes, maintenance costs are relatively low.

The IEC plays a leading role in preparing International Standards for electrical drives and motors, and improving their efficiency.

Individual and collective mobility solutions

Sales of electric battery-powered mobility scooters have soared in recent years to meet the needs of ageing and mobility impaired populations, especially in North America, Western Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Prices have fallen correspondingly. There is a wide choice of basic portable three-wheeled mobility scooters, which are suitable for footpaths and shopping centres and can be carried easily in a car boot, while more powerful four-wheeled models are suitable for road use. Some countries, such as the UK, operate mobility schemes to subsidize purchase costs.

The US market research firm Global Industry Analysts forecast in a February 2012 report that the global market for wheelchairs (powered and manual) would reach eight million units and USD 5,5 billion by 2017, with the US dominating the powered wheelchair market. Battery-powered tuk-tuks, derived from the three-wheel motorized version of the cycle or pulled rickshaw commonplace in Asia and South America, are now on sale in Europe and the US. A Dutch company makes these using chassis parts from Thailand, engines from the US and batteries from Germany. Although the Dutch tuk-tuks' lead-acid wet batteries weigh a massive 400 kg, its designers say they can get up to 80 km of average city use from a single charge. The vehicle can be configured for carrying passengers, delivering goods, leisure or advertising/promotional use. Three models are currently on sale in several EU (European Union) countries, compliant with all EU safety regulations. 

In the US, another company offers an electric three-wheeled tuk-tuk with a stated cruising range of 200 miles per charge.

Storage: it's all about chemistry

The two main battery types are nickel-based or lithium-based. NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) is a well-proven battery type, and while it does not have the same energy storage capacity per kilogram as most lithium batteries, it is cheaper. Lithium-based batteries come in several variants, including Li-ion (lithium ion), LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate), LiPo (lithium-ion polymer) and Li2TiO3 (lithium titanate). Lithium-ion cells are powerful and light, with a higher energy storage capacity per kilogram than more conventional battery types (see April 2011 article in e-tech on tests for lithium-based batteries ). E-bikes using these are either lighter or the same weight but with greater range when compared with e-bikes that use other battery types.

Batteries for e-bicycles should last three years on average. While they are still quite expensive, prices are expected to fall sharply in coming years. Among the factors that restrict battery range are extremes of temperature, bad weather, headwinds, hills and rough terrain, heavy loads and repeated stop-starts.

The IEC works extensively on developing International Standards for Performance and Reliability and abuse testing for lithium-ion cells for electric road vehicles.

Environmental impact

With zero exhaust emissions at the point of use, electric cycles are more ecologically friendly than cars or motorcycles, despite the environmental impact earlier in the chain because of the electricity used to charge their batteries. Some owners go off-grid by setting up their own small solar or wind-powered charging systems. The most obvious benefits of electric motorcycles and scooters are lower emissions, fuel savings and reduced noise pollution. Their main current shortcomings are battery life and the limited range offered between recharging cycles, although major improvements are expected soon.

Concerns over faster bicycles equipped with electric motors have prompted the EU to restrict their current legal maximum assisted speed to 25 kph. At present bikes can be powered by 250 W electric motors, but proposals now going through EU institutions would allow 500 W motors and a higher speed limit. Outside the EU the law varies from country to country. In China the speed limit for electric mopeds is 15 kph but modified versions can exceed four times that speed, and deaths from e-bike accidents are rising. 

About 90% of the 30 million electric bikes made in China in 2011 use lead-acid batteries. The production, recycling and disposal of these batteries presents a serious public health issue, and the government has closed hundreds of lead-acid battery factories after a spate of poisoning cases.

Sales boom ahead

According to a January 2012 report from Pike Research, a firm that provides in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets, the vast majority of e-motorcycle and e-scooter sales in 2011 were in Asia Pacific (an estimated 17 million vehicles, compared with just over 30 000 for the rest of the world combined), but the market is "on the verge of major competitive changes over the next couple of years".

Pike Research also forecasts that around 47 million e-bikes will be sold in 2018, 42 million of these in China alone. Many key players are new manufacturers or new to the motorcycle and scooter market. Pike Research added: "One region stands out as an established market: China, where the market is highly fragmented with a large number of small manufacturers."

Chinese products range from rough-and-ready motorized bicycles to scooters that are sophisticated yet comparatively cheap in the West. But major motorbike and scooter manufacturers in Japan and European have also entered the market. 

However, most electric motorcycle development is still driven by niche companies. Pike Research's ranking of the 12 leading manufacturers of electric motorcycles and scooters in the world shows the first international brand is ranked only seventh. However, such global companies will gain market share because of their immense marketing budgets, according to Pike.

Regional trends

The explosion in sales of electric scooters in China itself is a result of legislation that has banned petrol scooters in some of the country's largest cities. Buyers get cash incentives from the state, up to a maximum of USD 470 for a 1 kW two-wheeler costing up to USD 1 600. China also has more than 120 million electrically-assisted bicycles on the road. Most of these are low-powered units of 200 W fitted with reusable lead-acid batteries, typically costing less than USD 400, the average monthly pay of a Chinese worker.

China is the world's leading producer of electric controllers, DC (direct current) motors, miniature circuit breakers, brushless motors, batteries and chargers. Its sovereign fund, China Investment Corporation, has invested extensively in lithium mining and processing units in China, Chile, Argentina and Australia, and controls 70% of the global supply.

In Europe, Germany was the biggest market for electric bicycles in 2011, with 300 000 units sold. In second place was the Netherlands, with 178 000 sales. Average prices in both countries were around EUR 2 000. European sales of two- or three-wheeled electric motorcycles totalled 15 000 in 2011, less than 1% of all motorcycle sales in Europe.

Requests from manufacturers of electric scooters and motorcycles for incentives to help promote the European Commission’s aims of developing electric and alternative transportation to gradually reduce fossil fuel consumption have gone largely unheeded in the current economic conditions.

The electric bicycle market in Eastern Europe is about five to 10 years behind Western Europe, as the region has a buoyant car economy that takes precedence over "the enthusiasm for bicycles that existed under communism before cars were available", says an assessment by Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports.

The North American market for electric motorcycles and scooters remains tiny. In 2012, it will be about 3 000 vehicles. Between one-half and two-thirds will be electric scooters, and the rest electric motorcycles. Pike Research predicted that electric motorcycles sales in the US would rise from about 1 310 units in 2011 to 32 000 in 2017. Sales of electric bicycles in the United States remain below 100 000 a year.

IEC activity

Many IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) develop standards for components and systems used in e-bikes, scooters and associated vehicles. These include:

IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, which prepares product standards for all secondary cells and batteries, irrespective of type or application. It forms part of the IEC's contribution to providing sound technical standards, upon which are based legislative decisions on the use and disposal of lead from lead-acid batteries.

SC 21A develops standards for secondary batteries for electric road vehicles. It also promotes the effective and economic use of material and energy during the manufacturing and use of secondary batteries and the disposal of spent batteries.

IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, prepares, among other things, International Standards for road vehicles, totally or partially electrically-powered from self-contained power sources, including charging infrastructure. TC 69 has formed two JWGs (joint working groups) with TC 21 and SC 21A to prepare standards for lithium, lead-acid and nickel-based systems for automotive applications.

TC 23: Electrical accessories, and its SCs, prepare standards for many accessories used in e-bikes, such as connecting and coupling devices.

Another IEC SC involved in preparing International Standards for components and systems used in e-bikes is SC 47F: Micro-electromechanical systems.


As electric motorcycles and scooters with greater range are developed, and prices fall as production volumes increase, sales are forecast to grow in most world markets, particularly if the cost of fuel continues to rise. Pike Research estimates that sales in Asia Pacific, Latin America and Western Europe will have a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 5%, 43% and 63% between 2011 and 2017 respectively.

"In 2010, the world produced 60 million motorbikes that ran on fossil fuel and 32 million electric and hybrid two-wheelers. With a near average yearly growth of 20%, electric-powered units will close the gap by 2015, both producing 70 million units individually," according to analyst Sandip Sen (The Economic Times, India, 29 February 2012).

An increasing number of global car and motorbike manufacturers from Japan and Europe are entering the market, but will need years to catch up with China, which has a developed infrastructure and huge domestic demand. China expects to produce 75 million electric-powered units per year by 2020.

Some companies have started offering kits to convert conventional bicycles or motorbikes to electric propulsion. More manufacturers of cars and four-wheeled electric vehicles are also set to enter the e-bike market, if only with concept cycles. A US car manufacturer has developed a concept e-bike using magnetostriction sensor technology from the world of Formula One to convert magnetic energy into kinetic energy, and vice versa. Other companies are developing fast electric motorcycles that can reach speeds of 280 kph on the racetrack. Advocates of sustainable commuting, meanwhile, foresee folding e-bikes running on renewable energy from solar-powered charging stations will form part of urban multimodal transit systems.

While the low-cost e-bike market prospers, rising fuel prices are boosting sales of more expensive electric motorcycles in affluent consumer markets such as the US. As major manufacturers get involved, prices should come down, but a great deal of consumer education is still required.

Velosolex ebike (Photo: Velosolex) Velosolex ebike (Photo: Velosolex)
Pride Colt executive mobility scooter (Photo: Pride Mobility) Pride Colt executive mobility scooter (Photo: Pride Mobility)
Electric "Tuk-Tuk" (Photo: Tuk Tuk Factory B.V.) Electric "Tuk-Tuk" (Photo: Tuk Tuk Factory B.V.)