'2M EVs worldwide are dwarfed by the number of e-bicycles in circulation"
Going electric: Celebrating Japan’s powerful e-bikes
Nov 18, 2017 J.J. O'Donoghue Haruka Iwamoto
[images / KYODO
A woman carries two children on an electric bicycle
A man sits on an electric bike near Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi Prefecture, in
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama rides an electric bicycle in Tokyo in December
Cycle Osaka participants pose with an electric bike near Osaka Castle. |
COURTESY OF SAM CROFTS, CYCLE OSAKA
Panasonic Cycle Technology President Eiichi Katayama shows off an electric
OM1 mountain bike model in July. | KYODO
KYOTO – What’s the first piece of advice I give anyone visiting Kyoto who
wants to check out the sights? Rent an electric bike.
And just like that their visit is a completely different experience compared
to others who are forced to slog their way over the numerous hills that
surround the country’s former capital as they work their way from temple to
temple in a bid to cross off all the historic sights on their itinerary.
But it’s not just tourists that are jumping on the electric bike bandwagon.
The country’s residents have been using them for some time. Parents carrying
children, elderly folk looking for a bit of exercise, sales staff scurrying
from meeting to meeting and delivery couriers hauling trailers — they’re all
fans of the humble two- or three-wheel electric vehicle.
In fact, electric bikes have become as commonplace as, well, bicycles
Yet, when it comes to electric vehicles, the car industry captures most of
the headlines, as automakers such as Telsa and Nissan push technology beyond
However, the number of electric cars on the roads — about 2 million
worldwide — is dwarfed by the number of electric bikes that are in
Navigant Research estimates that annual global sales of electric bikes are
expected to reach 40 million by 2023. China, which has for decades been
leading the electric bike market, accounts for about 80 percent of all
electric bicycles sold.
In Japan, the electric bike industry is booming in an otherwise declining
In 2016, the domestic market for electric bikes was worth an estimated ¥4.7
billion, with Panasonic Corp., Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. and Bridgestone Corp.
producing the bulk of the nearly 550,000 electric bikes sold last year. By
comparison, Japanese carmakers produced 939,025 units last year.
What’s more, as the country’s population ages, domestic manufacturers are
making fewer standard bicycles, largely ceding that role to Chinese imports.
In 2016, electric bikes accounted for nearly 6 out of every 10 bikes
manufactured nationwide, according to the Japan Bicycle Promotion Unit,
which tracks bicycle production in the country.
The future of the bike is increasingly looking, er, electric.
Technology vs. rules
People have been tinkering with the design of the humble bicycle ever since
it became a common feature of daily life in the latter half of the 19th
century. Early innovators tried to harness the power of electricity to
enhance the mechanics of a bicycle — helping a bike to do more and its rider
For the next 100 years or so, electric bikes remained largely in the realm
of hobbyists. Legislation also kept these bicycles off the roads.
“Before electric bike legislation, most countries treated any sort of
powered bicycles as a moped and, thus, a motor vehicle, requiring insurance,
tax, helmet and other paperwork,” says David Henshaw, editor of A to B
Magazine and co-author of a book titled “Electric Bicycles.”
“Things only really took off in the 1980s,” Henshaw says. The first
generation of electric bikes used gel lead-acid batteries and weighed as
much as 40 kilograms.
“The vast majority were Chinese made,” he says. “Today, Germany and Japan
dominate the luxury end, with China at the lower end.”
As the name implies, electric bikes assist a rider while cycling. Unlike a
moped — where you hop on and twist a throttle to start moving — pedal-assist
electric bikes won’t go anywhere until a rider starts pedaling. Once a rider
does start pedaling, a tiny current — via the battery — powers the motor,
which helps to turn the crank and propel the rider forward.
If you’ve ever been waiting at a traffic light alongside a parent and two
kids who are sitting at the front and rear ends of a bulky bicycle, you’ve
probably noticed the ease at which the bike takes off. When the signal
changes, the electric bike glides forward easily and is well ahead of you by
the time you get up to speed.
“With pedal-assisted bicycles, it’s like riding a bicycle and not riding on
a bicycle,” says Byron Kidd, a cycling advocate and editor of the website
Tokyo By Bike.
By contrast, many electric bikes that are popular in China have a throttle
similar to a moped, and while they don’t require as much physical exertion,
they can be more difficult to control and are more prone to accidents.
Pedal-assist electric bikes in Japan have a range of between 30 and 70
kilometers, depending on variables such as motor efficiency, battery
capacity, gradient and weight of the bike and rider.
The maximum speed limit of all electric bikes is set at 24 kilometers per
hour in accordance with domestic transport law.
Electric bikes generally use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are
removable and typically take between two and three hours to charge.
If a battery runs out before a rider reaches their destination, they can
still complete their journey and pedal the bicycle without any electric
Nevertheless, many electric bike users do experience “range anxiety” that
their batteries aren’t going to last the distance.
Corinne Suya, who lives in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, bought two batteries
for her Yamaha model to counteract such anxiety. Suya lives at the top of a
hill and her electric bike is typically also carrying two of her three sons.
“Cycling without the battery is almost impossible unless it’s downhill or a
flat run with few obstacles,” Suya said. “Otherwise it’s just way too heavy
to stop and start, especially with kids and bags on there.”
Catherine Littlehale Oki, a Kyoto resident who ferries her daughter around
on a Panasonic electric bike, says “cycling without the battery on that
model of bike is like trying to push a dead horse up a muddy mountain.”
The growth in electric bikes has been fueled by two factors: technology and
legislation. Yamaha was the first in the world to launch a pedal assist
bicycle with its PAS (Power Assist System) electric bike in 1993. The
bicycle was powered by a lead battery and had a range of 20 kilometers. It
would take the best part of half a day to recharge its battery.
Still, Yamaha sold about 30,000 bikes in the first year of production —
three times more than it had forecast. Updates to PAS models were rolled out
every two years and with each iteration, the bicycle included better
The market for electric bikes surged after regulations governing a bicycle’s
motor and road safety were revised in 2008 and 2009. Sales of domestic
electric bikes rose from 275,000 to 335,000 between 2008 and 2010.
Masayuki Hasebe, director of the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center in the Osaka
city of Sakai, says parents had no problem using electric bikes instead of
cars, especially for short trips to and from schools or shopping, once they
realized how safe they are.
Hasebe also thinks the rising popularity of electric bikes in recent years
has helped relieve traffic congestion.
Kidd says many parents view electric bikes as an essential household item,
especially since they’ve become more affordable and practical. Kidd notes
that an average trip distance by bicycle in Tokyo is about 2½ kilometers and
electric bikes make those trips much easier.
Suya says while her Yamaha electric bike was expensive, it has been an
investment that has paid off. “I have three boys and work full time,” she
says. “I couldn’t survive without my electric bike.”
Littlehale Oki became a convert to electric bikes after borrowing a
She says her electric bike has given her more freedom and she regularly
brings her daughter from Yamashina into Kyoto, which is well known for its
“We go longer distances,” Littlehale Oki says. “I am stronger because I
don’t feel nervous biking over mountains with 16 kilograms on the back of my
Not just for parents
If parents are an important part of the equation driving the popularity in
electric bikes nationwide, older cyclists are another.
Kyoko Kato, 75, lives near the shores of Lake Nishinoko, a small body of
water near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Kato rode a standard bicycle for
the vast majority of her life, but a combination of the constant winds
whipping along the shoreline and worsening arthritis in her back meant that
cycling had become too difficult.
Kato wanted to keep exercising in some fashion, but long walks proved
difficult and tiresome. Three years ago, she bought a Karoyaka Life EB, a
three-wheeled electric bike manufactured by Panasonic.
“I still remember the first time I tried to pedal up a slope with my new
electric bike,” Kato recalls. “It was amazing.”
Kato says the design of the electric bike is also helpful: The frame of her
bicycle is low to the ground, making it easy to mount and dismount.
“Electric bikes give hope and joy to older cyclists,” says Hasebe, the
66-year-old bicycle museum director who used to work for Shimanto, a leading
bicycle parts manufacturer.
Hasebe says older cyclists were the first to purchase electric bikes when
they first hit the market.
“The emergence of electric bikes enabled older cyclists to stay connected to
friends and society,” Hasabe says.
Neither Panasonic or Yamaha would disclose information on consumer
demographics, but officials from both companies say smaller electric bike
models appear to be popular with older cyclists.
“These bikes are important socially for older cyclists,” Kidd says, “but
there’s also the health benefits.”
To find out if there are health benefits to a workout on an electric bike,
researchers at the University of Boulder, Colorado, put a group of 20
out-of-shape volunteers on these vehicles for a month-long experiment, the
results of which were published in the European Journal of Applied
Each volunteer was assigned an electric bike and underwent a health check in
the lab to check body composition, blood pressure, aerobic fitness,
blood-sugar control and cholesterol profiles. Freed from the lab, all 20
subjects were asked to ride electric bikes, fitted with a GPS device, to and
from work at least three times a week for the following month, spending at
least 40 minutes in the saddle on each ride.
A secondary test was to see if the bikes were safe, especially as electric
bikes have a much lower profile in the United States.
After a month, the researchers called their electric bike “guinea pigs” back
into the laboratory and poured over the data from their heart monitors and
They found that the electric bike commute amounted to a moderate workout:
heart rates averaged about 75 percent of each person’s maximum, comparable
to an easy jog. Riders also showed greater aerobic fitness, better
blood-sugar control and less body fat. Importantly, no crashes were
reported, and seven participants went on to buy electric bikes after the
Japanese electric bikes for Japan
Sam Crofts is the founder of Cycle Osaka, a tour guide service that operates
in the country’s second city. Many participants can’t believe that electric
bikes aren’t more prominent in their home countries.
Crofts usually recommends electric bikes for families who sign up for a
guided cycling tour of the city.
“After they’ve given them a go, they usually love them,” Crofts says.
It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll be able to find a Japanese model back
The regulations governing electric bikes vary significantly from country to
country. There’s also the small matter of taste.
While the mamachari-style electric bike is popular in Japan, European and
American consumers tend to prefer a more robust commuting bicycle.
Crucially, these consumers also prefer an electric bike that has more range
and more output than Japanese models.
“In Europe,” Henshaw says, “there is much more emphasis on middle-aged and
even youngish riders, with machines that look sexy, exciting and are able to
commute long distances fast.”
“It’s about getting around faster rather than easier,” Henshaw says.
In that sense, the cycling landscape is different insofar as Europe and
Japan are concerned.
“As a rule, Japanese bikes and motors were — and to some extent remain —
light, short-range and slow,” Henshaw says. “They were quite unsuitable for
European or American use, and most attempts to import them failed.”
However, Henshaw believes that Japanese electric bikes could eventually make
a resurgence in Europe.
“They could yet go on to take the lead back from the Germans,” he says, “but
they have to get to grips with the European mentality.”
Tim Snaith, owner of 50Cycles, a fleet of shops in the United Kingdom that
specialize in electric bikes, started selling Japanese models when he
launched his first store in 2003.
Working with his brother who was based in Tokyo, the pair would buy electric
bikes, ship them to the United Kingdom and resell them. Starting out with
the Honda Step Combo, they moved on to the Panasonic WiLL, one of the first
electric bikes to use a lithium-ion battery.
“Fortunately, both bikes were incredibly reliable and trouble-free,” Snaith
Since around 2006, 50Cycles hasn’t stocked any Japanese models — although,
as Snaith notes, many of the electric bikes they’ve sold feature technology
Japanese electric bike manufacturers are adapting. However, they’re also
constrained by domestic regulations governing electric bikes.
Yamaha and Panasonic are gearing up to implement a range of sporty electric
Panasonic plans to release a new model in its range of XM1 mountain bikes in
December. The new model will be priced at ¥330,000 — about twice the price
of a utility electric bike.
Yohei Hosokawa, a sales representative at Panasonic, says the new model is
reflective of the European brand of electric bike that’s capable of more
than just trips to and from the school and shops.
Yamaha also has been offering a range of sporty electric bikes and road
bikes since 2015. A spokesperson for Yamaha says that an electric mountain
bike was showcased at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. Yamaha’s electric road
bikes also have an output for charging phones built into the battery.
However, both models are unlikely to be seen outside of Japan. Manufacturers
restricted the models’ motor power and battery capacity to adhere to
regulations governing electric bikes in Japan, making them less attractive
in countries in which the laws are less prohibitive.
In the meantime, the electric bicycle in Japan will continue to evolve.
Engineers and bicycle enthusiasts will keep tinkering with technology,
increasing the capacity of batteries and reducing charging times.
A research team at Kyoto University is testing wireless charging technology,
converting electricity to microwave frequencies in order to charge the
bicycles. Ultimately, trials such as this could lead to the establishment of
charging stations throughout towns and cities.
Regulations will likely change as well, but at a much slower pace. The
increase in the number of electric bikes on the road might also prompt Japan
to tackle its cycling infrastructure — or lack thereof.
Kidd says the template already exists in countries such as Denmark and the
Netherlands, both of which have invested heavily in a cycling infrastructure
built around cycle lanes.
In the meantime, nothing can halt the electric bikes’ rise — except perhaps
for an uncharged battery.
[© The Japan Times]
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