In rejecting electric bikes, the municipalities cited such concerns as the threat of pollution from spent lead-acid batteries, interference with automobiles resulting in accidents or slowed traffic, and the impact on the viability of public transit systems. Advocates for green transportation say these arguments amount to thinly veiled attempts to protect the electric-bicycle industry's competitors. "The real reason is competition from interest groups," says He Zuoxiu, a renowned theoretical physicist and academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
An outspoken figure in public debates around environmental and energy policy, He says none of the arguments against electric bikes has merit. Lead-acid batteries, he points out, are used in cars, too. "The real pollution source is not the electric bikes, it's the automobiles," he adds. And he says transit operators and manufacturers should be forced to compete with the electric bikes by offering more efficient services and cheaper, cleaner vehicles. The problem, he explains, is that electric-bike manufacturers are insignificant next to the other interest groups, particularly the car makers that are attracting billions of dollars of foreign investment. The automotive industry is identified as a "pillar industry" in China's official five-year plans.
Although the odds against them are daunting, electric-bike manufacturers are pushing back, with surprising success. The mastermind of one of the most high-profile battles is Ni Jie, president of Luyuan Electric Vehicle Co., a privately owned manufacturer that has a pragmatic approach to the market, a sizable R and D effort, and an ambitious vision for Chinese EV technology.
Luyuan EV, like Cranes, was a government venture-capital spinoff. Building from a prototype put together nine years ago by Luyuan's general manager, Hu Ji Hong, Ni's wife, Luyuan went private after Ni, Hu, and other principals bought out the initial investors. They have built a dynamic company that sold 120 000 electric bikes and scooters last year and expects to sell 300 000 this year [see photo, ].
To find Luyuan EV, you must head off the beaten track to Jinhua, an industrial metropolis of 1 million people that is tucked into the unbroken sprawl south of Shanghai that is Zhejiang province. In the chairman's spacious corner office (one of the few heated rooms at Luyuan on a cold February day), Ni chain-smokes, sipping from a seemingly bottomless jar of well-steeped green tea. He says traffic is the top concern in many Chinese cities, and the electric bicycle fills a void by offering an affordable alternative to sitting in a stationary car or bus. "If governments don't have the solution, the people will behave in their own ways," says Ni. "There's no way to stop that."
Ni took people power to surprising limits in 2003 when officials in Fuzhou, the capital of neighboring Fujian province, decided to ban electric bicycles--shutting off what until then had been one of Luyuan's best markets. The city not only ceased issuing licenses for electric bicycles but also seized 20 electric bikes from a bicycle shop in the summer of 2003. Ni gathered a coalition of 126 electric-bike manufacturers and filed suit against the city in its own municipal court. The coalition scored a partial win against the city government, forcing it to return the seized bikes.
Far more valuable, says Ni, was the sympathetic coverage they received from national media and the warning that attention sent to other municipalities. "What we told other governments is that if they do the same as Fuzhou, there will be some trouble," he says.
Conflict over electric bikes isn't limited to the municipalities and the manufacturers. Even the China Bicycle Ass0ciation has been clashing with some companies, including Luyuan, over what types of electric two-wheelers should be on the road [see photo, ]. The bike group enforces a national standard for electric bicycles, and whichever parameter you choose--weight (no more than 40 kilograms), width (220 millimeters for the pedal shaft), speed (20 km/h, maximum)--many of the latest electric scooters either flunk or thwart the standard.
Lots of electric scooters, for example, are outfitted with nonfunctioning pedals and with speed-limiting devices designed for easy removal after purchase. Luyuan's latest machine doesn't just skirt the electric-bike standard; it rumbles right over it. Luyuan calls its new product the LEV, short for light electric vehicle, and Ni openly admits that it's more than a bicycle. Luyuan's Web site calls it an electric motorcycle, and that seems fitting: the LEV weighs in at 95 kg; its 48-V, 20-AH battery packs double the energy of the standard bike; and its 500-watt CPU-controlled motor propels it to 35 km/h.
The LEV has no official status in China. Nevertheless, on what should be a slow sales day at a Luyuan retail outlet in downtown Jinhua, the LEVs are flying out the door. In the space of an hour, one is snapped up by a 25-year-old man, and a working mother rolls out with another. Why did she choose an LEV? She drives her rather big-boned son to school and prefers an LEV to a gas-powered scooter, pointing to the endemic air pollution hanging over the city.
Ni is betting that governments will sanction the LEV if it proves popular. He says he believes that Luyuan has addressed the one concern municipalities could level against the LEV that might have stuck: reduced safety due to the cycle's greater weight. The LEV employs an electric drum brake that, Ni claims, stops it faster than the cantilever brakes used on garden-variety electric bikes could. A regenerative braking system is also in the works that would boost braking power by using the in-hub motor as a generator to pull energy out of the wheels, extending the vehicle's range by simultaneously charging the battery.
Ever the entrepreneur, Ni sees the success of the LEV as a step toward bigger and better things. He already has his eye on the market for small delivery vehicles, and he even imagines Luyuan making electric cars and challenging the major automakers. "They are investing money, saying we are going to change the gasoline system to electric," he points out. "But will the big companies really be willing to destroy their own factories to build the new ones?" In Ni's view, small, aggressive Chinese companies like Luyuan are more likely to drive the EV revolution, because they have nothing to lose.
Wang Feng-he, executive director of the China Bicycle Association, has little patience for Ni's vision of the EVs' future. Wang says his association's mandate is to represent the bike industry's interests, and in his view, vehicles that violate the standard could do damage. He fears a regulatory backlash if riders of powerful two-wheelers like LEVs suffer serious injuries in accidents, which would hurt the entire industry by undermining the electric bicycle's right to the road. "If the electric bicycle moves toward the motorcycle, we will lose the ability to be classified as a bicycle," he says.
Wang is pushing for amendments to the national electric-bike standard to close its loopholes. But Luyuan and other manufacturers have other ideas, advocating revisions that would boost the electric bike's top speed to reflect current consumer demand. At the moment, the debate is gridlocked, and vehicles such as the LEV keep rolling off assembly lines and onto China's buzzing, teeming streets.