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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