Smart ebike electric bicycleEnlarge Photo
China might be one of the biggest car markets on the planet, but for makers of electric and hybrid vehicles, it's a tough one to crack.
The same cannot be said for electric bicycles, though.
The country's love of bicycles is well-publicized, but the market penetration of electric bikes still shocks. Navigant Research suggests there are as many as 2,700 to 3,000 electric two-wheel vehicle producers in the country.
That's producers alone, not a sales figure. Those are even more staggering, with over eight million sales when electrified scooters and bicycles are consolidated. In 2012, the Chinese market accounted for 81 percent of the global market for electric scooters and motorcycles.
Electric two-wheelers in China are popular for two main reasons.
The first is that they're the most accessible form of powered transport available. A rudimentary electric bicycle might not be quick and it might not do much for your image, but it's still one of the cheapest, least labor-intensive ways of getting around.
It works for the same reason any bicycle works in China too--it'll cut through the awful traffic of major cities like nothing else.
The second reason electric bikes sell in such vast numbers is because the rules governing them have been fairly relaxed, until recently.
China's government is trying to change this, with limited success. Currently, an e-bicycle in China only needs to meet fairly basic criteria. It should have pedals, a top speed of no more than 12.4 mph, and a weight limit of 88.2 pounds.
And that's pretty much it. As e-bikes they don't have to meet licensing laws, so they're much cheaper than scooters or motorcycles. Most are even built like scooters, with a step-through frame and virtually useless pedals--and many retailers will instruct customers on how to disable the speed limiter. It's easy to see the appeal.
New Chinese rules require e-bike makers to obtain licenses, have cut down on lead-acid battery production, and some regions have even tried outright bans. Eventually, suggests Navigant, it's likely that the categories for electric two-wheelers will be revised to make them easier to regulate.
If sales continue at their current rate though, annual electric scooter sales could top 12 million by 2018.
The future of electric cars may not be that rosy in China, but two-wheeler manufacturers will be laughing all the way to the bank.