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UC Davis Study Concludes That the Ongoing Rapid Growth of Electric Two-Wheelers in China Could Drive Further Electrification of Transport Sector

Motorized vehicle sales in China. Click to enlarge. Source: J. Weinert et. al. (2008)

The market for electric two-wheelers (E2Ws) in China is booming; by 2006, the annual sales of E2Ws—which were virtually non-existent in the 1990s—almost equaled those of gasoline two-wheelers (G2W) (see chart at right). A new report from a team at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies analyzes the E2W phenomenon.

The authors—Jonathan Weinert, Joan Ogden, Dan Sperling, and Andrew Burke—conclude that the balance of forces driving and resisting E2W growth appears to favor ongoing E2W growth. This growth in turn will likely drive further vehicle electrification through continued innovation in batteries and motors, the switch from lead-acid to Li-ion batteries in E2Ws, and the development of larger E2Ws and EVs.

As a category, E2Ws in China range from two-wheel electric bikes that use an electric motor to supplement human pedaling to low-speed scooters propelled almost entirely by electricity, with a spectrum of styles in between. In most cities, E2Ws are allowed to operate in the bicycle lane and are considered a bicycle from a regulatory perspective (i.e. helmets and drivers licenses are not required).

The ITS authors used force field analysis (FFA) to assess the set of forces influencing future E2W growth in China and the relationships between these forces. FFA creates a descriptive model of a complex system that intersects many disciplines (technical, social, political, etc.). The analysis in the study has five steps: identify the system of focus and boundaries; generate list of driving and restraining factors; determine the inter-relatedness of these factors; quantify the forces; and chart the force field diagram.

Through this analysis, we conclude improvement in E2Ws and battery technology is a driving force that can be partially attributed to the open-modular industry structure of suppliers and assemblers. This type of structure was made possible by the highly modular product architecture of E2Ws, which resulted in product standardization and enhanced competition amongst battery technologies.

In an open-modular (O-M) industry, manufacturers act primarily as assemblers and source components produced by a large decentralized network of suppliers. This type of structure is typically found when a product exhibits high modularity, the authors note, meaning it can be divided into several modules that are copied, mass-produced, standardized, and easily bought on the market. This type of structure is also found in the modern computer industry and several other Chinese manufacturing industries.

Growing air quality and traffic problems in cities in part due to rapid urbanization has led to strong political support for E2Ws at the local level in the form of motorcycle bans, and loose enforcement of E2W standards. There are softer signs of national support for this mode in part due to national energy efficiency goals. Public transit systems in cities have become strained from the effects of urbanization and motorization, which has stimulated greater demand for “low-end” private transport.

However, the authors note, there are formidable forces resisting E2W market growth. These include:

  • The superior performance of motorcycles;

  • Bans on E2Ws, influenced by the spread of automobile use and the loose enforcement of E2W standards resulting in low-quality E2Ws on the market;

  • City policies of promoting public transit, along with investment in transit infrastructure.

Based on results of the FFA, we conclude that driving forces appear to outweigh the resisting forces for E2Ws. This may lead to accelerated adoption of EV. Growth in the EV market is dependent on continued improvement in battery cost and performance and the development of larger E2Ws vehicles. Two trends in the E2W industry may facilitate this development, namely its open modular industry structure and modular product design.

However, there are some major obstacles facing EVs that will not be easy to overcome in China. The largest is the issue of recharging infrastructure, which will need to be built since EV batteries are not portable like E2W batteries.

Other obstacles include battery cost and inherent complications with large battery systems.

...A shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to EVs in Chinese cities, like the shift from G2Ws to E2Ws in recent years, would have several concrete benefits including local air quality improvement and reduced dependence on imported petroleum. However, because of the high carbon intensity of grid electricity caused by heavy reliance on coal power, a shift to EVs could result in a net increase in CO2 emissions. Furthermore, if future EVs use lead batteries, lead contamination of soil and water could be exacerbated.

To maximize the benefits of electric drive transport, the authors suggest that policy makers in China takes steps to lower the carbon intensity of the grid and to encourage a transition to advanced batteries.



Rafael Seidl

A large fraction of the whole population of Chine (~1.2 billion) lives along the coast. Population density there is at least 4 times that of the US East Coast. Now imagine the congestion and pollution that would result from having every person in China drive a car.

Electric two-wheelers make perfect sense for China in terms of both road capacity and affordability. Tailpipe criteria emissions are zero, which is a massive gain relative to two-stroke engine. However, most of the electricity used to run these vehicles is produced at coal-fired plants built to antiquated designs.

In China, owning a car is very much a status symbol right now, something that millions aspire to trade up to at some point in the future. The authorities are investing $165 billion in rail infrastructure, much of it electric and some of it high-speed (~186mph). Perhaps the combination of E2Ws and high-quality electric rail service will persuade a new generation of big city dwellers in China that owning a home is more important than owning a car - let alone multiple cars per family.

Dan A

"Population density there is at least 4 times that of the US East Coast. Now imagine the congestion and pollution that would result from having every person in China drive a car."

Impossible. At some point you'd be better off walking the congestion would be so bad. China used to have congestion problems when everbody was using bikes.

country mouse

I find this pushback on electric two wheeled vehicles verytelling: "City policies of promoting public transit, along with investment in transit infrastructure"

Public transit has always struck me as a bad deal. It restricts choices, unduly influence is real estate prices (positively and negatively), and always requires massive public subsidies in order to function. I wouldn't be surprised to find if electric two wheeled vehicles were cheaper to operate and provided faster transportation than public transportation. That difference alone would account for the rise in popularity of two wheeled EV's.

one other comment made me cringe which was that the two wheeled TVs don't require drivers license or helmet. Bicycle accidents are frighteningly common, very damaging to the body and have very long lasting effects. One of the most significant forms of damage is to the head because the damage comes from a vertical drop of your head to the ground and not the forward velocity (although that doesn't help matters much either).

As they say in the big scooter community, "all safety gear, all the time."


These days I find myself seriously looking at a e-bike conversion kit. Or a full e-bike by itself. Unfortunately the cost is prohibitive, even for the conversion kit.


I lived in Shanghai last summer, with time spent in Beijing and Wuhan. The electric scooters were quite common in all of those places, although most common in Shanghai and least common in Beijing -- I suspect a function of population density in the downtown area [Shanghai density is much more than Wuhan downtown, which is much higher than Beijing which covers much more land area].

What's driving it? My bet is storage space and closeness. On the storage front, most folks simply don't have a place to park a car, either at their home or at their destination. Scooters, on the other hand, can be parked on the sidewalk under protected shelters.

As for the bike lane itself, I don't think that's as big an issue for driving choice -- the bike lane was often more congested than the auto lanes, and recent construction in places like Pudong favors the auto lanes over [all kinds of] bike and pedestrian travel.

Why 2 wheels over 4? Space. Why electric over gas? Dunno.


"Public transit has always struck me as a bad deal. It restricts choices"
Gotta love that short term memory; up until the 1930s any large North American city was built around public transit. It was an equitable system because anyone, rich or poor could use it to get around. Now these same cities are built around the car. You even need a car to get to work. If a poor person doesn't have a car they can't work, if they can't get a job they can't get a car - see now that restricts choices?

"and always requires massive public subsidies in order to function."
The car based system also needs massive public subsidies in order to function but these subsidies are hidden. Cars need roads and roads are payed for with property taxes because gas taxes aren't high enough, and oil security is payed by income taxes so even if you don't have a car you're paying for it. That's a subsidy. And those are just the first two that come to mind, the amount in tax credits, research grants, etc the oil companies get top of charging you an arm and leg at the pumps would blow your mind.


For city use electric is better than gas as:
You can charge it at home,
There may be simpler licensing requirements.
[ For longer range or "lifestyle" biking a gas bike would be better ]

From a city point of view, you get less pollution and noise.
From a national point of view, you reduce fuel imports.

2 wheels gives better use of space than single occupancy cars and can move through congested traffic faster.

The main problem is safety and weather - but you could mandate the use of cycle helmets - whatever about licensing.

The advantage over pedal cycles is that you don't get so hot and much of China gets V hot in summer.
Charging shouldn't be much of a problem as the power requirements for an e-bike are very low compared to a car or a plasma TV.

There is a spectrum of advantages and disadvantages between a push bike and a car, and e-bikes and e-scooters are two more points on it.

More choice has to be a good thing.


So this is basically is a disaster in the making.

There are no renewables that can deliver a baseload and peakload comparable to coal, used to generate more than 80% of China's electricity.

Except biomass perhaps, and luckily that sector is growing well in China. But neither solar, nor wind can fundamentally change China's reliance on coal.

The country's building more than 544 new coal-fired power stations...

It's really a problematic situation: without a radical overhaul in electricity generation, E-vehicles would be catastrophic from a CO2 perspective; and without a transition to E-vehicles China perpetuates its dependence on ever more expensive oil.

It's a messy catch-22.


No, it isn't, not if they use e-bikes of about 200-300w each.

The point of e-bikes is that they are very low power.
Very low power indeed compared to everything else.

An e-bike weighs about 25KG. Add another 60 KG for a rider and you have an all up weight of 85-90KG.

Compare this to the average westerner in his/her car - 1- 1.5 Tons or more.

Also, because they are battery powered, they can be charged when the grid is least stressed (at night).

But the main thing is the power requirements are very low. If it takes 600 WH to go to and from work, it doesn't really matter if the electricity is generated from coal or a renewable source.

If you go home and turn on the AC, to keep cool while watching a 42" plasma, that is a different matter, but if people used e-bikes for short (< 10 KM) urban travel, this part of the power problem would be solved.

The key is e-bikes, not e-cars, not even e-scooters: e-bikes which are very low power.

The problem is how do you keep people on them as their income rises ?

Hard problem.

+ there is nuclear for base load.
The problem is to build it quickly (and safely) enough.


Renewables can provide baseload power. Solar thermal power can provide power at night through heat storage in molten salts. Some wind resources, especially offshore, are close to constant (North Sea) and if you build up a big windpower grid it will be windy somewhere. There are geothermal resources in Australia that can provide all of our baseload power twenty times over and many other countries also have extensive geothermal resources.

On the other hand, even coal fired power stations must have down time for maintenance and can't provide constant power. The old chestnut that renewables can't provide baseload power is at best lazy thinking and at worst an investment in the self- destructive status quo.

Electric two wheelers are a good option for China. Bicycles with electrical assistance are even better than battery powered scooters. I'm not sure if the study differentiated between the two.

John Taylor

We hear lots about the Chinese coal fired plants, but little of the rest of the story.

Coal is cheap, fast and dirty. The new Chinese coal generators are being made as cheaply as possible, and as fast. They are not being built to last. They are a temporary energy solution.

Hydro projects are more costly, take longer, and must be very very well built. We hear lots about the Three Gorges Dam, built to make 18.2 GW. There is also the Yellow River Hydroelectric Development set to make 15.8 GW. A huge electricity transmission line is being built to power Tibet, but as soon as the rest of the planned hydro projects are built it will be able to carry power out of Tibet and into eastern China. These plans include huge dams on all five big rivers originating on the Everest mountain range. They will make power and control water flow preventing drought as glaciers retreat.

Chinese electricity sector also involves nuclear power, lots of it, but they are very very quiet about this because of other countries misuse of nuclear technology.

And what about wind generators? Last year the Chinese wind generating capacity increased by 95%. This compares well to the world increase of 37%.

Chinese President Hu is committed to building a resource-conserving and environment-friendly society. Electric powered transportation is a large part of achieving this.

Harvey D

Most e-bike owners don't even notice a difference in their electricity consumption. Older SEER 9 or 10 AC + a 500W plasma TV can use many times more power, and not much in return.

e-cars do not have to weight 1.5 T to 2.5 T or like our 3+ T Hummers. Future very light weight (less than 1500 lbs) e-cars will go 10 Km or more on 1 KWh.

Going to work in an improved e-car may not consume as much energy as watching TV in an air-conditionned room for 3 hours.

Of course, changing those older SEER 8 to 10 AC for recent SEER 20 to 24 AC and our Plasma TV for OLED TV could liberate more than enough energy for one and even two e-cars.

One of Two e-cars per home do not necessarily have to mean an increase in electrical energy consumption. Most home owners can easily reduce other electrical energy consumptions to supply the 2800 KWh to 3500 KWh a year required for a compact e-car.

Many e-car owners will eventually elect to equip their home with enough PV panels to supply 2 or 3 e-cars with free sun energy.

Sun power + e-bikes + e-cars have a bright future. Fuel at $10+ /gal would help to accellerate the transition. A progressive 5 cents/month/gal extra fuel tax is long overdue. Instead of that we have pink candy politicians offering tax free imported fossil fuel to win the next election. The days of $2+ (USD) for 1 Euro are not very far.


I would buy and drive an e-bike in a heartbeat except that I could only operate it for half the year due to cold, snow and ice where I live.

I need a four wheel drive, enclosed and heated, e-bike!


China is heading for a methane economy while we twiddle
our thumbs. Methane can generate a lot of juice and you
can get it from biomass.


On the other hand, the demand for bigger vehicles like SUVs are also increasing, as recently reported. Sigh.


Further Electrification of the transport sector would be a welcome move, whether it is spurred by growth of the EV in China or elsewhere.


IIRC, the segway patent was filed in 1994, so in six years it will expire -- and China will have a ready market for it.

[q->t to email]


A modern E-bike with a range of 45+ miles has a battery of 3.6 kWh. So one 5MW wind turbine could charge 1400 such bikes every hour, or 33600 E-bikes every day.
At a price of about 10M$ a tower (infrastructure included), that makes a price of about 300$ per bike for the infrastructure needed to provide the electricity to drive 45+ miles a day for at least 25 years. (25 years * 365 days * 45 miles makes 410000 miles, so it comes to 0.0007$/mile)


I can see how one day we might be buying vehicle "e" drivetrains from China for US vehicles, though I don't think an entire Chinese vehicle will be sold in the US any time soon.


"I would buy and drive an e-bike in a heartbeat except that I could only operate it for half the year due to cold, snow and ice where I live.
I need a four wheel drive, enclosed and heated, e-bike!"

What you need then is a Velomobile
This one- -has Edrive and this one- -didn't seem to have too much trouble in the snow (as one picture shows)

Healthy Breaze


Don't be so down on China and renewables. They are installing renewable energy faster than anyone.

If you look at under the section titled, "Major schemes under construction" you'll see China is slated to add 82 Gigawatts of Hydro power in the next 6-10 years.

I think electic-motor-augmented bicycles are preferrable to 2-stroke engine variants because they turn on and off more easily, don't smell as much when you wheel them into your flat, and since bicycle trips tend to be short, the limited augmented range is not as much of an issue.

country mouse

"""Gotta love that short term memory; up until the 1930s any large North American city was built around public transit. It was an equitable system because anyone, rich or poor could use it to get around. Now these same cities are built around the car. You even need a car to get to work. If a poor person doesn't have a car they can't work, if they can't get a job they can't get a car - see now that restricts choices?"""

in the 1930's, you purchased food and goods from local merchants operating without any competition. you pay their price or go without. the intro of supermarkets helped break the monopoly of the local food merchant and has been instrumental eliminating them from our world. returning to a public transit centered life would reduce the ability of people to get to big box stores for reasonably priced goods and services.

yes, I am biased against the local merchant concept because if my bad experiences. I have 3 hardware stores within biking range but I always drive to home depot because the local stores never fail to disappoint. If I'm not in a rush, I order over the net.

"""The car based system also needs massive public subsidies in order to function but these subsidies are hidden. """

never denied it. all transportation systems should be self supporting from user fees. why should I subsidize your light rail when I can't use it? conversely, if you never drive, you should not pay for the auto system. never pay for what you don't use.

stas peterson


You can't argue with a commiitted true-believer in antique technology. Most really think that mass transit is more "efficient" somehow, and good enough for "them", the proletariat masses. (Presumably keeping the auto lanes free for the exclusive use of the "Nomenklatura", as in Russia.)

Any simple study will show that even the most efficient, the auto Bus must carry 17 or more passengers for every moment it is in operation, in order to better theh mileage of a small compact car carrying a single driver, not to mention the operator costs.


John Taylor:

You might want to include the salient facts about the Three Gorges Dam and other hydro in China. It is a potential enviro disaster that will dwarf the Exxon Vladez

"...the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 kilometres (22 miles) had already caved in.

Landslides have produced waves as high as 50 metres (165ft). In July a mountain along a tributary collapsed, dragging 13 farmers to their deaths and drowning 11 fishermen."

Healthy Breaze

@ Warned,

China is going to continue building big hydroelectric dams. They will be ecologically disruptive, and some may even fail catostrophically. That said, think about the trade offs. If, as they say, they build 82 Gigawatts of peak generating capacity in the next 10 years, that could power more than 20 million US homes annually. This will displace a huge amount of coal fired power plants. Because so much of China's water starts up in the Himalayas, there's just a crazy amount of potential energy for them to tap with that much elevation drop along the length of their rivers. They would be crazy not to develop it. In the harsh energy calculations it's probably the only rational choice.

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