Does Japan's E-Bike Trend Portend a Greener EV World?

By EV World Staff

The numbers of motorbikes and mopeds powered by gasoline sold in Japan has steadily declined over the last decade and a half. In their place, electric-assist bicycles sales have grown, surpassing less-than 50cc moped sales in 2008.

The idea of putting a small motor on a bicycle is more than a century old. In fact, the very first 'electric car' was nothing more than an adult tricycle of the period. Early automobiles were essentially quadracycles: four bicycle wheels mounted on a crude carriage and powered by an electric motor, gasoline, or steam engine.

Those early powered bicycles eventually evolved into motorcycles, motor scooters and mopeds. But the original vision of a practical electric-assisted bicycle would have to wait until a century later with the advent of small, powerful electric motors, compact batteries and electronic controls.

One of the key developments in the history of electric-assist bicycles was the patenting in Germany in 1983 of the pedelec concept by German inventor Egon Gelhard. Unlike previous motor-assisted designs where power by controlled by a throttle, Gelhard's idea was to control the amount of torque delivered by the amount of effort the rider expended. The more effort, the more torque the motor delivered. Pedaling easily on level ground, the motor supplied little if any assistance, but climb a hill or fight a strong headwind, and the motor supplied sufficient torque to let the rider continue to pedal with the same ease as on level ground.

As brilliant as the concept was, no bike manufacturers would buy it, until Yamaha developed the first pedelec bike in 1993, giving Japan a significant technological head-start in this new category of personal mobility that wasn't a moped or a bicycle. Where traditional mopeds powered by two-cycle gasoline engines are noisy, smelly and the fuel expensive; and bicycles are hard to pedal up a hill, the pedelec offered the best of both worlds: the exercise, simplicity and low operating costs of a bicycle and the hill-climbing, headwind-fighting virtues of the moped.

This likely accounts for why sales of pedelecs now surpass, by significant numbers, the sale of mopeds and motorbikes in Japan. In 2011, the Japanese bought 470,000 pedelecs compared to 257,000 mopeds under 50 cc and 148,000 motorbikes over 50 cc.

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And while the Japanese bought ten times as many pedelecs as sold in the United States the same year, sales in Europe are starting to accelerate - the Dutch now ride a million of them - and sales in the USA are anticipated to increase as well. Don DiCostanza, the CEO of Pedego, one of the largest e-bike sellers in North America, reported recently to EV World that during December 2012, company sales tripled over the same period in 2011. We should know later this year how US e-bike sales fared in 2012, but it's probably safe to assume they too will show a positive increase, and that will bode well for cities that have the vision to begin to cater to the safety needs of cyclists as much as they do the whims of motorists.

Times Article Viewed: 3221
Originally published: 11 Jan 2013


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