Growth in hot scooter market may be enhanced by hybrid technology

  • 28-May-2008 03:16 EDT

At the Taipei International Motorcycle Show, Giant Lion showed prototypes of its hybrid scooter, which shuts off at stoplights.

The Asian market is providing high-volume growth for the motorcycle industry as emerging countries such as Vietnam consume many scooters and low-power cycles. Though these low-end vehicles already boast high fuel-economy ratings, manufacturers are striving to reduce both fuel consumption and emissions with hybrid technologies.

Significant changes were in evidence at the Taipei International Motorcycle Show as global vendors attempt to gain share in the burgeoning Asian market. Keynoter Leonardo Caputo, Vice President of Italy’s Piaggio Group, said the Asian market dominated the two-wheeler industry last year, consuming 33 million of the 41 million units purchased worldwide.

China’s 16 million units led the world, followed by India, with 7.4 million. Customers in Vietnam acquired 2.5 million cycles, with Taiwan and North America each purchasing about 1 million vehicles. Piaggio, the largest scooter supplier in Europe, is among the many companies vying to gain share in this emerging market.

“We’ve created a new organization for the Asian challenge; that market is becoming more and more important,” Caputo said. Its $25 million facility will be located in Vietnam, where registration of two-wheeled vehicles is expected to grow from 2.5 million today to 3.5 million by 2013.

However, local manufacturers are also targeting the Asian market, and some governments have focused on motorcycles as a critical market.

“The motorcycle and ATV industries have been designated by government economic affairs as industries to be provided support including R&D help and international marketing support,” said Eric Chiang, Deputy Director General for the Taiwan Bureau of Foreign Trade. “There’s a lot of competition from other countries.”

Taiwanese suppliers feel this support can help them gain significant share. The mid-range niche could be a large segment of the market for locally designed bikes and for contract manufacturing.

“We have an extremely good opportunity in the area between the high-end motorcycles provided by Europe and the U.S. and the low-end vehicles produced by China,” said George Lin, President of Taiwan Golden Bee Co. “One way we try to differentiate from China is to respect intellectual property.”


Fuel conservation

Pollution reduction is a major driving factor for two-wheeler markets, along with traffic and safety, Caputo said. Though some Asian markets still consume two-stroke engines that have higher emissions than four-stroke motors, most companies at the Taipei show are developing electric technologies to reduce emissions.

Hybrids for two-wheelers require some changes from the technologies used in cars. “Systems for motorcycles have to be light and cheap, and they should be easy to maintain,” said Giant Yang, Director at Giant Lion Know How Co.

One of Giant Lion’s techniques is a start/stop system, shutting off the engine at stop signs and stoplights. It uses two batteries, one for conventional applications and a second, smaller battery that power the fuel injection system during startup.

“The voltage of the main battery may drop down, but the smaller one won’t,” Yang said. That reduces emissions about 20% and fuel consumption by 10%. Yang noted that the company is also designing hybrids that power the vehicle at speeds up to 50 km/h (31 mph).

Given the already-low expense of fueling lightweight scooters, hybrid pricing will be an important factor. “We’ll announce a hybrid scooter by the end of the year,” Caputo said. “It will have a street price very close to the cost of other products.”

Piaggio is finalizing plans for a parallel hybrid, with both the gasoline engine and electric motor powering the vehicle simultaneously. That increases performance by as much as 75% and improves consumption to 65 km/L when the scooter operates 65% of the time in hybrid mode and 35% in electric only.

There are also some efforts to expand the market for electric scooters. EVT Technology Co. has sold electric scooters for eight years using lead-acid batteries. However, those batteries have a mass around 60 kg (130 lb), nearly half the weight of some scooters.

A shift to lithium-ion batteries, which will trim mass by 45 kg (100 lb), is expected this year. EVT’s new systems will also switch to more efficient electric motors.

“On new models, we’re going with brushless motors. They’re rated at 3 kW, double the (power of) brush motors, so you get higher speeds and a longer range,” said Hawke Tien, Marketing Director at EVT.

However, electric scooters may see limited growth. “Today’s not the right time to go fully electric. There’s a lack of infrastructure, you can’t drive and recharge when you need to,” Caputo said. That’s especially true in urban areas, where many scooter owners live in high-rise apartments so they can’t recharge batteries at home, many manufacturers explained.


Gasoline engines

Reduced emissions for conventional scooters have also gotten plenty of attention from regulators worldwide. Taiwan, which has roughly 8 million scooters for a population of 23 million, curtailed two-stroke engines and tightened regulations for four-stroke engines.

“We’ve paid a lot of attention to minimizing greenhouse gases. In 125-cm³ motorbikes, Taiwan is a leader in this regard,” said Donald Lu, executive Director of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council.

Though European and American regulations don’t prescribe technology, Taiwan’s new emissions restrictions require the use of fuel injectors. That’s not always easy in small vehicles.

“Using fuel injection on engines less than 200 cm3 is difficult; you need high-precision fuel injectors,” said Craig Wang, Sales Specialist at Hartford Industrial Co. “Next year, all our vehicles will have fuel injectors.”

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