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Chinese Cyclist commute on electric bicycle
The Chinese are building and buying millions of electric bicycles and scooters every year; this cyclist being one of tens of millions of riders. The small hub motor on the rear wheel is likely 180-250 watts, or about a quarter of a horsepower, but it makes commuting to and from work a lot easier. Photo credit: IEEE.

China's EV Future Is Now

Report from the front lines of the electric cycle revolution in China

By Forbes Bagatelle-Black

Why do most first-time electric vehicle (EV) buyers decide to make the switch to clean, reliable electric transportation? Are they trying to limit the amount of smog-forming pollutants they emit?

Nope.

Are they looking for the most energy-efficient vehicle available? No way. Are they searching for ways to reduce their carbon footprint?

Not even close.

In fact, most people who buy their first electric vehicle are increasing their carbon footprint when they do so. That’s because almost every electric vehicle sold in the world today is the first motorized vehicle the buyer has ever owned. Every day in China, thousands and thousands of electric bicycles and scooters are sold to people who are “upgrading” from bicycles or walking shoes.

I recently spent two weeks traveling all over China on business. The huge numbers of people traveling on various forms of two-wheeled electric vehicles were simply staggering. In Suzhou City, about fifty miles outside of Shanghai, electric bicycles and scooters outnumbered passenger automobiles by at least ten to one. At rush hour, the right lanes of the streets looked like rivers of electric vehicles. It was clear that when a worker in that area goes looking for a commuter vehicle, the default vehicle will be electric-powered. Buying something that is powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE) is outside the norm.

I saw a broad range of EV choices available and in use. The majority used lead-acid batteries, although use of lithium-ion batteries was on the rise. Most of the EVs had two wheels, although I also saw many electric tricycles used for hauling larger loads. Almost all of them used small motors mounted in the hub of one of the wheels. The smallest motors produced about 100 Watts (W) of power, but the majority of electric bicycles used motors in the 180-250W range.

Scooters had somewhat larger motors, but none of them produced more than one horsepower (746W). Compare that to American automobiles producing at least 100 horsepower, and you can begin to see why electric bicycles are such efficient vehicles compared to other alternatives.

Many people rode small folding electric bicycles with 16” or 20” wheels. This puzzled me until I talked to one of the locals. He explained that the average family of three (remember the “one child per family” law) lives in an apartment with about 300 square feet of floor space. In the cities, virtually all the apartments are above the ground floor because the street level is reserved for commercial and industrial space. So, all these commuters need to be able to haul their vehicles up one to ten flights of stairs and stow them in very limited spaces. An electric folding bicycle fits this need perfectly.

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