For e-bikes, no easy ride in tough times

Honda electrict scooter_0.jpg

This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

Europe’s motorcycle industry is having a tough ride in the current economic times despite being touted as one of the solutions to road congestion and pollution.

Sales of motorcycles and similar light vehicles have plummeted in the past five years, from 2.7 million in 2007 to 1.7 million last year, industry figures show, hampering efforts to roll out a new generation of hybrid and electric transport.

“The crisis has deeply, deeply affected the European market,” said Hendrik von Keunheim, president of ACEM, the European motorcycle industry trade group. “Many European suppliers are struggling.”

Sales of motorcycles and similar light vehicles have plummeted in the past five years, from 2.7 million in 2007 to 1.7 million last year, industry figures show, hampering efforts to roll out a new generation of hybrid and electric transport.

“The crisis has deeply, deeply affected the European market,” said Hendrik von Keunheim, president of ACEM, the European motorcycle industry trade group. “Many European suppliers are struggling.”

The European Commission’s 2011 transportation White Paper and roadmap for a low-carbon economy both promote development of electric and alternative transportation to gradually reduce fossil fuel consumption. The White Paper calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 60% by 2050.

Development of electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles that operate at a fraction of the emissions of traditional combustion engines is a central part of the shift away from gasoline. The EU executive says petroleum still accounts for 96% of transport needs.

But high initial costs of greener transportation and infrastructure needs – including fuelling and recharging stations – are putting the brakes on some developments, prompting manufacturers to call for national government and EU incentives.

“We need to get the consumer to change and they need to be encouraged,” Tim Meisner, manager of engineering strategy for Yamaha Motor Europe, said at an industry exhibit in Brussels.

Meisner, showing a visitor a new Yamaha Eco-3 electric scooter, said public subsidies like those provided for electric cars “would help, big time.”

Public purse

But subsidies are no certainty. “Tax incentives are not that easy a thing in today’s economy,” Paul Verhoef, head of research at the European Commission’s mobility and transport directorate-general, told an ACEM conference.

Yamaha – along with Honda, Piaggo, Peugeot and other producers – tout the environmental potential of electric and hybrid motorbikes and scooters even though their commercial roll-out is in an infant stage.

Keunheim said sales of two- or three-wheeled electric motorbikes were 15,000 in 2011 – less than 1% of overall motorcycle sales.

The biggest potential sales niche is for urban deliveries and commuters.

Alternative technology also has a long way to go to catch up to the fossil-fuelled road hogs featured in the 1969 film “Easy Rider”. Existing battery capacity cannot propel a full-sized motorcycle, industry representatives say, although manufacturers are developing hybrid and methanol fuel-cell models with similar ranges and speeds.

Meanwhile, the industry claims that its combustion-engine vehicles are greener alternatives to cars, citing their higher fuel efficiency, reduced impact on roads, greater agility in crowded cities and a smaller parking footprint.

The European Union has a number of laws and strategies aimed at cutting vehicle carbon dioxide emissions and shifting to more sustainable fuels (see Links below for more details).

In 2012, the EU executive plans to expand it strategy to reduce emissions in lorries and other heavy transport.

Among the goals outline a year ago in the EU’s Clean and Efficient Vehicles and the Transport White Paper:

  • Halve the use of ‘conventionally-fuelled’ cars in urban transport by 2030; phase them out in cities by 2050; achieve essentially CO2-free city logistics in major urban centres by 2030.
  • Low-carbon sustainable fuels in aviation to reach 40% by 2050; also by 2050 reduce EU CO2 emissions from maritime bunker fuels by 40% (if feasible 50%11).
  • By end of 2012: European Commission to publish an alternative fuel strategy for transport.
  • By end of 2012: Commission to propose legislation including maritime transport  emissions in the greenhouse-gas reduction commitment.
  • By end of 2013: Commission to release strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie:Transport [FR]

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