Ride the China boom in electric bikes
A start-up is pinning its hopes on the niche market for the high-performance two-wheelers as a green alternative to petrol motorcycles
Like many commuters in Beijing, David Sawatzky, a Canadian who has been living in the city for three years, started riding an electric scooter a year ago because he was sick of traffic jams.
"With an electric bike, I can always know about how long it's going to take me to get somewhere," he said. "In a traffic jam, if I take a taxi, I am not sure how long it will take."
While the hordes of electric motorcycles and scooters on the roads are mostly inexpensive, mass-market bikes, the potential for the green mode of transport as an alternative to petrol motorcycles also brings hope to the manufacturers of higher-performance electric motorcycles.
Riding about 20 kilometres a day on average, primarily for commuting to work, Sawatzky, a teacher in Beijing, said he was saving a lot of money on taxi fares after buying a 3,300-yuan (HK$4,190) scooter and would be willing to spend more on a bike.
"If I would buy a new electric bike, I would probably spend no more than 10,000 yuan," he said, adding that he expected some people to be willing to pay even more for better performance.
Li Bin, secretary general of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers' motorcycle section, said demand for high-performance motorcycles had been rising for a decade.
"For example, sales of Harley-Davidson saw growth multiply in Beijing over the past few years," Li said.
Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle maker in the United States that entered China in 2005, said its annual sales on the mainland had doubled since 2006.
However, the current ban on riding motorcycles on highways and major thoroughfares in large cities due to safety and pollution concerns had limited their use, Li said, even though they were a good way to ease traffic congestion.
Although high-performance electric motorcycles could be a good alternative for riders of petrol motorcycles, Li said there was a lack of product diversity, with most mainland manufactures too focused on making low-priced models targeting the mass market.
"Actually, we see increasing numbers of electric motorcycle clubs gathering riders of high-performance bikes for leisure and travelling," he said.
Electric two-wheelers can be divided into two categories - power-assisted bicycles and motorcycles or scooters with electric motors.
The mainland was the world's largest manufacturer and exporter of electric two-wheelers, accounting for 92 per cent of the global market in 2012, research and consulting firm Pike Research said. The output in 2012 was 36 million units, up 26.3 per cent from the previous year.
ElectroForce Motors, a start-up founded by three engineers last year, is pinning its hopes on the niche market for high-performance electric motorcycles.
"In Beijing, there are a lot of inexpensive bikes, but the problem is quality," said Nathan Siy, one of the founders.
The company has designed two models, a "street fighter" e-motorcycle and a sports e-motorcycle, which are priced between US$4,200 and US$5,000.
A salesman at Xinri E-Vehicle, a dealer for electric bikes in Beijing, said the most popular electric two-wheelers were scooters priced at about 3,000 yuan.
"Electric bikes at that price level are equipped with a 20Ah battery, which is sufficient for riding 50 kilometres per charge, and that's good enough for daily commuting," he said.
High-priced models were rare as only a very few bikes priced at more than 10,000 yuan were sold in an average month, he said.
Siy said high-performance electric motorcycles were rare in Beijing, but there was a niche group of people who could be potential buyers.
He said the bikes were at a mid-level price point.
"We want to make something with better quality so it costs more, but they are reliable and safe," he said.
Siy also said ElectroForce's bikes would be launched in March with test rides in Beijing and Shanghai.
The company is currently working with a few Beijing electric bike dealers. Siy said things were moving slowly, but he remained confident.
"There are a lot of people who actually have motorcycles and spend upwards of 30,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan on them," he said. "I think there is a great opportunity for us to bring over people from the motorcycle community into the electric bike community."
Starting in Beijing made sense because the company could source parts and components from all around the country, said Brandon Ng, another founder of ElectroForce.
In the meantime, the company is looking to set up distribution channels overseas.
"We hope to start in Asia first - China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, all great motorcycle places with big populations of riders," Ng said.
The company has already lined up distributors in Brazil and Indonesia.