March 4, 2005 4:00 AM PST
Bike maker heads for electric avenue
Ultra Motor, a start-up based in the United Kingdom, will launch a new type of electric motor later this year that the company hopes will help jump-start the theoretically lucrative but highly elusive market for personal transportation and clean vehicles.
In September, two of India's largest bike manufacturers will come out with bikes equipped with the company's AH300 motor, which will run for 35 kilometers (21.75 miles) on a single charge and run at a top speed of 25kph (16 mph). Billionaire Sir Richard Branson auctioned off the first two prototype bikes at a charity event in 2004.
Ultra Motor is also working on more powerful versions of the motor that could appear in rickshaws (still a major form of transportation in India, Vietnam and elsewhere), wheelchairs, motorcycles, small cars and hybrid vehicles. In tests, the company has cranked the speed of vehicles using its engines up to 56mph.
Ultimately, vehicles powered by the company's motors could well be targeted at environmentally conscious, bike-happy regions such as the Netherlands.
"We looked at the Segway experience. They tried to change the behavior of the customer," said Joseph Bowman, senior investment manager at venture firm Russian Technologies and formerly the interim CEO of Ultra Motor. "We're positioning the company in the niche between a bike and a scooter."
For several years, personal vehicles like the Segway Human Transporter and the Zap PowerBike have been waylaid by potholes. This time around, however, the circumstances favor the growth of the market.
For one thing, the price is lower, Bowman said. Complete Ultra Motor-powered bikes will sell for about $150 to $175, far less than the Segway, which runs a few thousand dollars, or many electric bikes, which can cost about $1,000. Recharging the motor costs about 6 cents, he added.
The attitude of governments has also become brighter. In 2001, New Delhi swapped diesel buses for natural-gas ones, and several other Indian cities are taking steps to adopt nonpolluting public vehicles. Indian cities are also looking at offering subsidies to buyers of electric cars such as the Reva, an e-car developed by an Indo-American joint venture.
In the United States and Europe, motorized two-wheelers that top out at about 16mph are typically classified as bikes under pending and recent regulations, meaning that the company can skirt driver's license and registration laws. Because the vehicles are bikes, the sidewalk-driving controversy that saddled Segway can also be avoided. Rising energy prices, pollution and fears of global warming are growing in importance as factors, too.
Chinese consumers have already shown that the concept has some legs. In the past four years, about 3 million motorized bikes have hit the road in China, starting from a base of zero, Bowman said.
A Cold War hangover
Ultra Motor?s chief technology officer, Vasily Shkondin, began tinkering with the concept of an e-bike while managing an air defense radar station for the Soviet Army in East Germany in the late 1980s. After the Berlin Wall fell, Shkondin showed off his ideas for a magnetic
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