A shocking development

This is so weird. I shouldn’t be surprised by the Vectrix, but I am. I have read up on the groundbreaking electric scooter; I have watched video of the machine in action; I know, in short, what to expect. And yet, here I am, not quite understanding how I have suddenly been propelled forward by a bike that gave me no advance warning of its impending surge into traffic.

Tzahi Ziv of IFI Motors, which is importing the American-made scooter to Israel, has already briefed me on the vehicle’s operation. He has explained that the brushless electric motor housed in the rear wheel spins in near silence, and that, unlike internal combustion engines, it makes its maximum output right away, so it doesn’t need to reach high RPMs to pour on the power.

In other words, there’s no “vroom, vroom” when you pull back on the throttle, but there’s plenty of “zoom, zoom.”

And what a strange “zoom, zoom” it is! Upon turning the starter key (you can’t really call it the ignition) I am greeted not with the usual throaty growl of a thumping engine, but with a chipper “Ready… GO!” on one of the bike’s digital dials. Like a radio controlled toy hurtling past surprised motorists, the Vectrix has me zipping through the Ramle industrial zone where IFI’s offices are located.

Acceleration is brisk and instantaneous; the manufacturer claims a 0-80 kph time of 6.8 seconds, and I believe it. The ride is silky, the handling smooth. The bike has a contemporary, mildly aggressive look to it that covers up its geeky insides and sets it apart from its smaller, weaker cousins.

(One of Vectrix’s main marketing messages is “Cool people drive electric.” The company is trying desperately not to be associated with the pocket protector crowd.)

Also differentiating the Vectrix is its high-end parts list, including outstanding Brembo brakes. It doesn’t really need them, though: Turning the throttle forward, away from me, utilizes the engine’s regenerative braking system, which returns a considerable amount of energy to the battery even as it stops the wheels with authoritative bite. Another fancy extra is the reverse feature, a useful help for maneuvering the 200-kilo-plus vehicle from a standstill and in tight places. When stopped, turning the throttle forward (as in braking) will send the Vectrix backward at an easy pace.

In many ways, says Ziv, the Vectrix aims to change people’s minds about electric vehicles, scooters, and even transportation itself. For one thing, he says, “When you plug in your scooter, you’ll stop thinking of it as an oily machine and start thinking of it like a cell phone.”

It’s definitely a departure from the ordinary. Like other electric vehicles, the Vectrix has no need for gas, or oil. Gears and a torque converter are also unnecessary. The nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery can provide up to 100 kilometers of travel, depending on driving style, on a full charge – which is provided from any standard electric socket. The engine is designed to whir quietly for years without a hint of trouble, and without leaving a wisp of pollution in its wake, either.

 

The absence of carbon emissions makes the Vectrix a godsend for those eager to look chic while saving the planet. (Witness former US presidential candidate and affirmed Harley Davidson fan John Kerry tootling around on a crimson Vectrix, for example.) On a scale of 1 to 100, a gas-guzzling SUV’s polluting effect scores around 70; a family sedan scores in the upper 50s, and a medium-size scooter a much cleaner 30. But the Vectrix, as a zero-emissions vehicle whose only contribution to pollution comes from the small amounts of coal-fired electricity used to power it, comes in at a very environmentally friendly 11. Hook up your scooter to a solar-powered, wind-driven or water-powered electricity source and the score drops to just three, Vectrix adds.

Now, green is great. But if anything is going to turn electric vehicles into bestsellers, it’s the rising cost of gasoline. Consumers around the world are so overwhelmed by the skyrocketing prices that they are looking for ways to save on fuel costs, from telecommuting to replacing their gas-guzzling vehicles. Automobile manufacturers have suffered massive declines in sales over the past few months, while fuel-sipping scooters and motorcycles are experiencing a major spike in sales.

“Our sales are up 200 percent,” a Vespa dealer in the United States told a local newspaper last month. “Demand far exceeds supply. And it’s obvious if gas continues to rise, so will interest in scooters.”

More specifically, electric scooters are selling well in Europe; hundreds a month are leaving dealerships in England now.

Of course, there are numerous electric cars currently in production, but they are either extraordinarily expensive or woefully inadequate for anything more than a neighborhood cruise. Scooters, by nature, are an easier application of the electric motor. And Israel, with its relatively short commuting distances and high-density population centers, makes for a logical home for such an electric vehicle.

The Vectrix is not the first electric scooter to reach these shores. But the other models available, from E-max and Eco, lose steam at about 55 kph and are limited by their range of 40-60 km. These are small, underpowered vehicles that have failed to make much of an impact on Israel’s fast-growing scooter market. They are essentially gimmicks, enticing only to those who are most dedicated to minimizing carbon footprints, options only for those satisfied with a machine capable of little more than short excursions about town.

Indicative of these shortcomings is the fact that, outside of fleet sales to police and municipalities, only a few dozen electric scooters were sold in Israel last year. And even those sales have not augured well for the electric scooter, according to Ziv, who says the Jerusalem municipality has expressed interest in the Vectrix because it is disappointed in the weaker models it recently purchased.

 

(Fleet sales are the main prize for electric scooter companies, since government bodies and major corporations gain the most benefit from them. Ziv says IFI will likely depend heavily on such sales for the Vectrix, which is catching on with police forces, airport security companies and municipal workers in Europe and the United States.)

So, until now, the electric scooter has been, shall we say, less than successful. IFI promises that the Vectrix will change that picture, however, and with it change the landscape of Israeli transportation. Can this capable and clever scooter deliver on that promise?

Measured against conventional scooters, the Vectrix is a strange bird. For licensing purposes, the bike is classified as a 125cc scooter, which will allow new riders to drive one right away, even though its size and acceleration are more like that of a much larger 400cc scooter. In terms of economy, though, the 125cc class is a poor match for the Vectrix: even with the electric scooter’s extremely low operating costs, the NIS 50,000 price tag is still four times that of a gas-powered 125cc scooter.

The top end of the scooter spectrum is also a poor fit for the electric. While the Vectrix may look and feel like a so-called maxi-scooter, whose purchase price is in the same range, similarities between the two end there. The audience for larger machines would be disappointed in the Vectrix’s restricted top speed of 100 kph – some 40-60 kph less than they would be expecting – and its limited range, which would make long trips up the coast, or down through the Negev, impossible. Fuel and maintenance costs make the conventional bikes less economical than the Vectrix, but the big-engined scooters offer more overall than the green machine does.

Recognizing this conundrum, IFI’s strategy is to aim for the middle – the prospective purchaser of a 250cc scooter. This category is all about value: it offers more speed, more stability and more storage space than the 125s and makes a highway run a realistic endeavor. Just as importantly, it does all this for about half the price of the “real deal” maxi-scooters in the 400-500cc class. Owners of a 250cc bike don’t necessarily want to drive farther than their daily commute to work, but they want to arrive in style and still have change in their pockets for a nice business lunch; the 250s allow them this indulgence.

“Do you realize how many lawyers drive scooters to work in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area?” Ziv asks, potential sales figures gleaming in his eyes. “There is definitely a market in Israel for the Vectrix.”

To be sure, the slick, ultramodern and smooth-sailing bike will attract a lot of attention. But there’s still a mammoth price difference between the Vectrix and most of the 250cc scooters available, which can be had for about NIS 28,000. No problem, Ziv says, opening a spreadsheet filled with calculations. That gap diminishes during the life of the scooter, Ziv points out, as fuel costs and maintenance visits make the gas-powered bikes a constant drain. The Vectrix, in effect, “saves” money from Day 1.

How much money? Consider: At current gas prices of roughly NIS 7 per liter, a gas-powered bike needs about NIS 35 to take you 100 kilometers. Charging the Vectrix’s batteries with 100 kilometers worth of electricity, on the other hand, only costs about NIS 4. That difference might not seem like much, but over the course of a year it can add up to thousands of shekels. Over the life of the vehicle – assuming a certain number of kilometers driven – the Vectrix is not only economically competitive but actually cheaper to own than a 250cc scooter.

Will that be enough to make the electric, which still can’t match the top speed or the range of the 250s, a winning product? And how many drivers will in fact travel the kind of distances necessary to see their investment pay off? Undoubtedly, there will be a number of people happy to pay extra for a tool as cool as this. How big that number is, though, may come down to how many people can overcome the very real problem of recharging.

Despite Ziv’s reassurances that a Vectrix owner can find an available electric socket wherever he may need one, this is clearly not the case. Anyone without a parking spot right next to their kitchen window – that is, almost all Israelis – will have to contrive some sketchy means of “juicing up” their ride. (As one commenter asked in response to a preview of the Vectrix in a local motorcycle magazine, “What are we meant to do with this in Israel, hang a 30-meter extension cord out the window to plug in our bike parked outside?!”) Add in the fact that recharging still takes several hours, and the convenience of a three-minute stop at the gas station looks pretty darn good.

Project Better Place, in its joint program with Renault to build and sell plug-in electric cars in Israel by 2011, is planning to build hundreds of thousands of charging stations across the country to make the technology feasible for consumers. That’s not only an ambitious goal toward massive social change, but an admission that the current infrastructure does not allow for a seamless transition from fossil fuel-powered vehicles to rechargeable electric vehicles.

Electric scooters have been in production for some 30 years already, without making much headway in the market. The Vectrix is definitely cooler than all of them, and the closest one yet to offer consumers a viable alternative to their gas-powered vehicles. Although it isn’t the answer to our transportation problems, it does seem to stand on the threshold of such a solution and hint that one is closer than ever. Until that perfect bike comes rolling into town on its silent electric motor, though, Israelis’ “zoom, zoom” will still be accompanied by that old familiar “vroom, vroom!”

…Actually, that’s one thing I hope they can keep!

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