16 Oct 2019
Electric Motorcycles Driving Taiwan's New Green Transport Programme
While the world's focus on cutting emissions rests on the less-than-humble electric car, Taiwan aims to ultimately replace its entire fleet of 14 million motorcycles with battery-driven versions, despite several remaining challenges.
As has been common in many other global territories, Taiwan has been looking to actively develop electric vehicles in a bid to cut its use of fossil fuels and reduce emissions. Its overall focus, however, has been a little different. While introducing electric cars has been the priority in many other markets, Taiwan's focus has been squarely on the introduction of battery-driven motorcycles. As a result, a comprehensive industry production chain is now in place, with a number of manufacturers not only finding considerable success locally, but also increasingly confident with regard to their prospects on the global stage.
By far, the motorcycle has long been the transport of choice in Taiwan, with about 13.92 million such vehicles on the territory's streets as of August 2019, according to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, well in excess of the 8.08 million cars. Given its population of 23 million, this translates to an average of 1.65 people per motorcycle. In the US, by comparison, the corresponding national figure is 35.7 people to every motorcycle.
The reasons for the popularity of motorcycles are not hard to discern – they are, after all, compact, cheap, easy to ride and by far the most convenient way to travel to and from work. It is their sheer ubiquity – as well as the alarmingly high percentage of aged and decidedly non-environmentally friendly machines still in everyday use – that has, however, caused growing concern and sent emission levels soaring.
With it deemed difficult, if not impossible, to wean the populace at large off their motorcycles, there was only one viable option – reinvent these environmentally unfriendly two-wheelers in a far greener format. Thankfully, recent advances in battery technology have made the widespread introduction of electric motorcycles much more viable, in terms of cost, range and reliability.
Suitably emboldened, two years ago, the Taiwanese government announced plans to progressively phase out fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. The initial phase would see solely electric buses in use by 2030. This is to be followed by a moratorium on the sale of petrol-driven motorcycles by 2035 and on the sale of all fossil-fuel-dependent vehicles from 2040. This is in line with the government's wider, three-pronged anti-climate-change initiative, which aims to reduce vehicle emissions, improve air quality and begin to repair existing environmental damage.
Throughout the territory, local governments were quick to support the initiative, with a number of subsidies made available to consumers willing to switch from traditional motorcycles to their more environmentally friendly counterparts. This, coupled with improved battery charging and swapping facilities, as well as an enhanced range of more stylish designs, has led many young commuters to opt for the greener alternative.
Indeed, sales of electric motorcycles have soared in recent years. While just 27 were sold in 2009, by 2011 the figure was 7,286 and last year, total sales hit 78,676 – a number already exceeded in the first eight months of this year.
Bearing in mind that 938,000 motorcycles in total were sold in Taiwan in 2018, electric versions still account for just 8.4%. That is, however, a healthy increase on the 3.9% recorded in 2017 and a clear sign that the market is moving in the right direction.
As the Taiwanese electric-motorcycle market shows the first signs that it's beginning to mature, it has come to be dominated by four sizeable players. In purely sales terms, the market leader is Gogoro, with e-Moving, Kymco and SYM the clear challenger brands. The four now account for a remarkable 99% of all electric motorcycles sales in the territory.
Turning to the market leader first, Gorgoro launched in Taiwan in 2011. Funded from overseas, it was founded by Hong Kong-based Horace Luke, who grew up in the US, and Matt Taylor, an Illinois resident and a former Microsoft employee. Immediately prior to establishing Gogoro, they headed, respectively, the innovation team and technical team for HTC, one of Taiwan's leading smartphone brands.
In January 2015, the company previewed its first consumer model – the Gogoro 1 Series – as well as its proprietary battery-swapping system, the Gogoro Energy Network, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The product was widely available just six months later and, by the end of the year, 3,894 had been sold, making it the second most in-demand electric motorcycle in the territory and giving the company a 40.8% market share. Demand continued to grow, and 73,231 were sold last year, increasing its market share to 85.2%.
While its domestic positioning is secure, it is now keen to be considered a global player. In line with this, in August 2016 it announced it was partnering with Coup – a subsidiary of German technology giant Bosch – for the launch of a scooter-sharing platform in Berlin, which would see tourists and residents in the German capital able to hire one of the Taiwanese electrical motorcycles.
In August 2017, the Coup initiative was expanded to Paris, with 400 Gogoro electric scooters made available in the French capital. In terms of future plans, the company is confident of introducing similar schemes throughout Southeast Asia and India.
Second place, in terms of market share, in the Taiwanese electric motorcycle hierarchy goes to e-Moving. The company first launched into the market in 2010, focusing on more compact models and a wider consumer age group than Gogoro. Unlike its competitor, which favours a battery swapping arrangement, its batteries can be charged at home or at one of Taiwan's increasing number of public charging stations.
In 2018, 5,811 e-Moving electric motorcycles were sold, accounting for 6.8% of the market. As with Gogoro, the company is also contemplating expanding on an international basis, particularly within the ASEAN market where motorcycles remain hugely popular.
Meanwhile, Kymco and SYM, both previously suppliers of conventional motorcycles, have extended their operations into the electrical sector. Since 2010, Kymco has launched a variety of chargeable models, including the Candy, the Cozy and the Miny. Last year, upping its game somewhat, it introduced its Ionex Electric Vehicle Solution, which offered the option of either charging or swapping the battery. Kymco, which had a 5.9% share of the market last year, has now announced plans to launch 10 new models over the next three years.
SYM, which last year accounted for 1.1% of the market, introduced its first electric models in 2009. Its E-Woo, which has a maximum speed of 50 km/h and a portable lithium battery, made its debut in 2012, followed by the ED1, the e-Mio, the EF1 and the EE1 last year. In terms of batteries, the company sought to avoid the huge set-up costs required for maintaining a proprietary network by partnering with the CPC Corporation, Taiwan's largest petrol-station operator, and piggybacking on its established charging facilities.
Although the market is clearly expanding rapidly, not every obstacle has been overcome. One particular concern on the horizon is the end of the government subsidy for those switching to electric vehicles. This will be cut to NT$7,000 (US$230) per unit in 2020 from its present level of NT$10,000 and be progressively phased out. Inevitably, this will have something of a dampening effect on sales.
Perhaps even more challenging is the lack of a single battery standard. While market leader Gogoro favours the battery-swapping system, the majority of other manufacturers prefer the charging option. Until a degree of consensus is achieved, this will continue to be an issue for consumers and likely to hamper the growth of the sector.
Robert Kang, Special Correspondent, Taipei