Two wheels good: Electric scooters are here now
Dr Chris Jones, AEVA National Secretary and electric motorbike devotee, explains that there’s a lot more to the electric vehicle scene than just cars.
When most people talk about electric vehicles (EVs), they almost always mean cars. I’ve never had much of an interest in cars, but anything with two wheels certainly interests me. This article is about the affordable two-wheeled EV most of Asia has taken up with glee, yet that’s been slow to catch on here: the electric scooter.
Scooters are awesome. As an urban commuter, they really are difficult to beat. Parking is free or at the very least convenient, and scooters are typically very miserly on fuel. So an electric scooter has yet more going for it—silent, cheap, emissions-free and, most important to anyone who has owned a two-stroke scooter, maintenance-free.
In the mid-2000s, Australian company Vmoto brought in the E-max 110s electric scooter—a 48 volt scooter with AGM lead-acid batteries. The scooters themselves weren’t all that bad. They had a claimed 60 km range and the low-maintenance, single-sided swingarm hub motor was adequate for the job. But the lead batteries were a disaster. Apart from making a scooter weigh more than most sport-touring motorcycles, you couldn’t ride out of sight on a dark night! Also rather unfortunate was the price—retailing for nearly $5000 at the time, they weren’t just slow movers on the road.
Apparently a lithium version was available out of China, but given their poor sales in Australia, the more expensive scooter wasn’t likely to be a hit. So the original stock of about 30 bikes languished for years. As the lead batteries failed, the scooters were popping up for sale ‘sans battery’ and several were converted to lithium using prismatic (a squarish, flat cell, rather than the usual cylindrical cells) lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4, or LFP for short) cells. CALB, Sky-Energy and Thundersky were popular choices. Yours truly has converted several of these to lithium, all of which are still on Perth’s roads today, including the subject of this article.
A lithium upgrade
In mid-2015 I bought an E-max ‘sans batteries’ from E-Station for $1000 and ordered a 60 Ah, 48 volt (16 cells in series) GB Systems lithium iron phosphate battery from EV-Power, with a basic battery management system using balance boards to ensure each cell cannot be overcharged (these bypass current around each cell to prevent cell voltage rising above the maximum allowed voltage). This particular scooter had done less than 500 km before being parked and left to go flat, so I’ve practically had it from new.
After replacing 100 kg of AGM batteries with 32 kg of LFP cells, the scooter was like night and day! It was an easy retrofit and within a day I was rolling. The reduced kerb weight means the scooter is easier to move, especially when parking on a hill.
Critically, the scooter now accelerates briskly up to 70 km/h without a fuss. The lower rolling resistance also gives a little more range—65 km on a warm day. This range is plenty—rarely do I need to travel further than this in one day (particularly as the seat is so hard and uncomfortable, I can barely walk after about 40 km!)
Since owning the scooter I have clocked up over 19,000 km. My daily commute is about 30 to 50 km and I have never needed to bring the 1.6 kW off-board charger with me to charge away from home. Assuming I was paying retail prices for electricity (though thanks to solar, I don’t), and given that the scooter averages 50 Wh/km, for 19,000 km, that’s 950 kWh, or $266. Cheap travel!
In terms of maintenance, it’s been pretty good, but not all clear sailing. A flat tyre meant the bike was off the road for several weeks while I sourced a new inner tube: the tubes have a unique offset valve stem to clear the motor, but being rather uncommon I had to order one from Electric Avenue in the USA. As the hub motor is on a single-sided swingarm, changing a tyre involves undoing a dozen M5 screws and removing a split rim. It’s also very easy to pinch the tube as you screw the split rim back on, so it pays to order several tubes in advance. Ask me how I know …
Another failure was the steering head. My wife was riding the scooter to work one morning when the steering suddenly felt very heavy and unresponsive. She carefully rode home and took the car instead. It turned out that the holder for the lower bearing race (ring of bearings) had cracked off and the whole front end of the scooter was slopping around! It seems there was only a thin ring of metal at the narrowest point of the bearing seat which fatigued after 12,000 km. Fortunately I was able to reweld the bearing race in place and tighten the steering back up. So far it’s held up to 7000 km of further use and shows no sign of letting go. The frames are satisfactorily built, but they could have used more metal in a few places!
Then there’s the recurring issue of water ingress and dodgy connectors. A known problem with these scooters was that the horn would start sounding if the bike was parked in the rain for any amount of time. The connectors leading to the handlebars are also rather flaky. Turning left to right would put tension on the wires and cause some pins to loosen. That might be okay if you lose a turn signal, but losing power on the highway can be rather unnerving, especially when trying to get up to speed!
Judicious placement of a cable tie to secure the offending connector seems to have worked for now, but short of replacing the multi-pin connectors, I have learnt to ride around it.
All up I’m very happy with the scooter considering I paid $3000 for it and the fuel savings have been immense. It really is a pleasure to ride and is my choice for urban commuting.
Current options in Australia
In terms of what’s available right now, it’s about time Australia saw some competition in the e-scooter market. Based in Sydney, Fonzarelli are assembling some very stylish scooters with similar performance to a lithium-powered E-max and, according to proprietor Michelle Nazzari, they are selling reasonably well. Fonzarelli released a new scooter (technically a motorcycle as far as licensing is concerned) with an 11 kW hub motor capable of pushing the bike up to 100 km/h. The battery affords a range of 100 km and it looks great; at $13,000+, it would want to be. BMW recently released the C-Evolution in Europe, but have no plans to bring it to Australia just yet. Recent entrants in Australia are the 3 kW and 6 KW Bzooma Tino scooters (www.bzooma.com.au) and the Super Soco C-UX scooter, due 2019 via Urban Moto Imports.
Gogoro in Taiwan has developed a stylish little scooter with swappable battery packs, designed for BBQ-gas-bottle style swap stations. But as with the E-max though, your bum will give out before the battery!
Though the options may be limited at the moment, a compact, nimble, silent steed like an electric scooter is a winning formula for our city streets. I hope to see a few more on our roads soon. Ride safe!