Opinion: Will Electric Scooters Ever be Viable in the USA?

Last week, we posted this story about a study projecting that sales of electric motorcycles and scooters will grow ten fold over the next five years. Being a bit of a smart ass, my first thought was “Yes, if they’ve sold one bike today, and sell ten bikes five years from now, then they’ve grown by 10 times.” The real question is though, will the American market ever really embrace electric motorcycles or scooters? For the sake of this discussion, let’s just stick to scooters. Will electric scooters ever be viable in the US market?

Fundamentally, I think it’s a question of positioning. Where would electric scooters fit in the US market? People buy scooters here differently than they do in Europe and Asia. That is, they buy them for different reasons. In the American consumer’s mind, all two-wheeled vehicles are first and foremost for pleasure. It’s as true for the $28,000 Harley Davidson as it is for the $2,800 Genuine Buddy. Practicalities of parking and gas savings are the proverbial icing on the cake — sales points that help consumers justify spending so much money on something they’re mostly going to use recreationally.

The principle advantage of an electric vehicle, in my mind, is lower potential maintenance costs and never having to put gas in it. This is particularly appealing in cars because the ongoing fuel and maintenance costs are significant. If I use a car as my primary commuting vehicle, converting to electric lets me cut my daily commuting costs down to mere pennies. In return for those lower operating cost and, in certain respects, smaller environmental footprint, I might be willing to put up with the higher initial purchase cost and limited range an EV entails.

Trouble is, these advantages don’t scale down well. A scooter — particularly a 250cc or smaller scooter — is already so cheap to operate that an electric version offers very little, if any, practical advantage. The value proposition simply isn’t there, and the trade-offs over a gasoline-powered scooter are significant:

Recharge time
Even if the range were equivalent (let’s say 100 miles on a full charge) I can fill up a tank of gas in 90 seconds and go the same distance. Putting a full charge on one of today’s most advanced EVs is still going to take a couple hours — and that’s if you can find a place to plug in to the kind of high-output charger it takes to charge even that quickly. So for anything short of commuting (presuming I can plug in at work), the range limit of a single charge is, for all practical purposes, as far as I’m likely to go that day. It wouldn’t make an electric scooter unlivable, but it does make it less appealing. We have to remember that scooter buyers are not purchasing for fully rational, practical reasons. No one wants to feel limited by their vehicle. What’s the point of limited transport? I can’t very well take an electric scooter to Amerivespa. I can’t compete in the Scooter Cannonball. Range limitations aren’t just logistical, they’re in conflict with the social culture of riding scooters in America. Sure, an electric scooter is viable for my commute, but is it really an object of desire if that’s the only thing it’s good for?

The relationship between performance and range is far more sensitive on an electric scooter. The real world fuel cost difference between a 150cc scooter and a 250cc scooter is pretty nominal, but the power output difference is significant. Giving an electric scooter a usable range means an automatic compromise on either power or weight. Both have a performance impact. Current electric motorcycles and scooters tend to have performance well below their relative size class. An electric scooter the size of a 150cc gas scooter will have typically the performance of a 50cc. Using Vectrix as a real-world example, it takes a bike the size of a 400cc maxi scooter to provide equivalent performance to a 200cc gas scooter. If performance is equivalent, it comes at the price of lots of extra battery bulk and weight, which makes the bike harder to handle and maneuver, especially at slow speeds.

The key detraction to current electric scooters is their cost. Not only are gas-powered scooters more high-performing and have an infrastructure supporting unlimited travel range, they’re also less expensive to purchase. It’s an unfortunate reality that American scooter buyers already think that most scooters are overpriced. Their perception of value has been tainted by $800, piece-of-crap scooters from mainland China that one could buy at auto parts and tire stores. While most of those vehicles are gone today, their impact on scooter perception remains. When you’re already thinking of a scooter as more of a toy than a tool of transportation, getting a significant number of people interested in paying even more for a vehicle with less outright utility and only marginal long-term cost savings is wholly unrealistic. On balance, going electric on two wheels is seemingly very little bang for your buck.

In the end, electric scooters are extremely interesting, and even appealing in a techno-gadget sense. What the are not, however (at least not yet), is a welcome disruption to the powersports market. They’re not the iPod of scooters. They’re not the equivalent of 10,000 songs in your pocket. They’re simply not revolutionary. Instead, they’re a slower scooter, with truly limited range, at a higher price point. Technological novelty isn’t enough. And while there may be very viable markets for electric scooters worldwide in the near future, America isn’t likely to be one of them until range and performance go up; and recharge times, weight, and price come down.

All that said, it would appear that the folks at BMW and KTM know something I don’t. Both OEMs are investing heavily in creating market-viable electric scooters. BMW’s C Evolution is set to come to market next year, and if BMW is able to live up to their range and performance aspirations, they’ll have a bike that should be about 75% the performance experience of the C 600 Sport. BMW is banking on a future where urban commuters use a suite of vehicles to handle their transportation needs. Via EVs like their upcoming i3 automobile or the C Evolution maxi scooter, BMW expects people to utilize electric vehicles to get to the office and other vehicles for longer distance travel. They’ve invested heavily in this ecosystem approach to “urban mobility” and it even includes vehicle sharing programs. Then again, they haven’t exactly stopped making the 7 Series sedan or the X6 on eco-minded principle or lack of market demand either. Are these electric vehicles ultimately just public relations exercises?

Obviously electric motorcycle makers such as Brammo and Zero are betting their futures on the growing adoption of electric two-wheelers. The real question, I think, is will there really come a tipping point where the technology advances far enough to where the per-charge distance one can travel on an electric bike would be further than one would ever travel in a given day? It would seem that only at that point will electric bikes truly disrupt the market. Or will electric bikes remain a niche curiosity until well in the future?

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  • Bryan Bedell

    The thing is, I wonder how much money BMW and KTM really put into things like this, versus the amount of press they get. Google “Piaggio Hydrogen Fuel Cell” and you’ll find over a million links, and most all of them are just rehashed press releases or reports from press events. They’ve been saying they’ve had a viable Hydrogen Cell scooter since the mid 2000s and announced partnerships and such, but how much money have they really put into it, and is it actual development of a product, or just good PR to keep the government and consumers off their backs? I wonder how many hybrid scooters Piaggio has sold after almost five years of hype between annoucement and release (and did they even sell them in the USA at all?)

    • That’s a really good point, Bryan. I’d forgotten about the hybrid version of the MP3, for example. Honda seems to do an electric concept a year, but nothing has yet to hit the market. Remember the two-wheel-drive Cub concept from a few years back?

      • Bryan Bedell

        And PGO’s electric front-wheel-drive Bubu that was announced a few years ago? If that was anything more than PR, you’d think it would be available from Genuine by now.

        • Maybe. I also know that Genuine is smart enough not to bring something to market just because they could. If it won’t sell, why sell it?

          • Southerner

            It’s all about the batteries. They have to be cheaper, smaller, have longer range, and recharge faster. The rest of the bike is conventional and electric motors are, well, what electric motors have been for a long time. I see all EVs as niche vehicles for the wealthy until the battery tech gets “there.”

            That being said, both Brammo and Zero have introduced remarkably improved products in a surprisingly short period of time.

  • Charlie Victor

    I Imagine that the concerns about range for electric scooters will be roughly parallel to the range anxiety in electric cars. While there definitely is a limitation, for many users it’s not as onerous as it appears. I say this from experience as the driver of an electric BMW Active E, which has a working range of about 100 miles. When I first got it, I was obsessive about plugging it in at every opportunity – after all, 100 miles isn’t all that far in southern California. But now that I’m into my second year with it, I find that I’m more comfortable with the capability of the car. I think people will have similar experiences with electric two-wheelers. Bikes/scooters offer the additional flexibility of being able to get to places that a car can’t reach, which will give some people more places to plug in and recharge.

    That said, I think electric scooters will be most likely to find riders in the same areas that are friendly to electric cars: Big, dense cities, where there is more infrastructure and generally shorter travel distances. Which is probably where most scooters are already found.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Charlie.

      There’s the reality of living with an electric vehicle, and there’s the perception. They don’t call it “range reality” — they call it “range anxiety.” I think that the perception, bundled with the early-adopter pricing of EVs definitely hurts adoption rates. I think a tipping point is possible, but unless gasoline prices get closer to Euro rates, wide spread adoption is a long way off.

  • WRXr

    They are a reality in Asia. THey make and sell over 18 million electric scooters a year in China alone. Range anxiety is overcome by two methods: A detachable battery that you can carry into home or work fro a charge, and PEDALS.

    However the scooters that you seem to be concerned with here, are decidedly costlier and, by design, less practical, as they are aimed at the pure leisure rider.

  • David Reese

    I hate to be the cynic, but I believe in peak oil. We are not at the end of oil, but we are approaching the end of cheap oil. Gas is going to increase, A LOT, in coming years. No one knows by how much, but the high price of oil in the future is going to be a game changer in the way Americans transport themselves.

    I expect to see many more motorcycles, many more scooters, and yes, a lot more electric scooters than we are expecting today.

    Let’s talk again in 5 years.

    • I think you’re right. It’s going to take something major before Americans will re-think their fuel usage. In Europe and other parts of the world, they tax the crap out of gas to help lower demand and finance infrastructure. As a result the landscape of transportation there is very different from here. While many might not agree with that from a political point of view, there’s no denying that the (some would argue) artificially low fuel prices in the USA are responsible for why scooters and motorcycles aren’t a bigger part of our transportation mix.
      The other big driver will be a major generational shift. The whipper-snappers of today pretty much don’t give a crap about cars. They want other, lower-footprint ways to get around. Electric vehicles of all stripe will probably be a big part of that future.

  • Don Hall

    I like this bike, as well as the Vectrix, and either would handle my 10-mile commute with ease. But I wouldn’t be able to do an Iron Butt Association ride, or visit my brother in San Diego on a whim like I can on my BMW or my wife’s KYMCO. That dashes my (rarely accomplished) dreams on the rocks of petroleum dependence, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Plus, neither of my existing rides cost more than $2K.