With air pollution and motorbike ownership at an all-time-high in Vietnam, electronic motorbikes seem like the next best step. But have poor quality e-bikes already tainted the market? By Chris Mueller. Photo by Fred Wissink.

It’s a strange feeling at first. Although I’m driving more than 30km/h through the narrow streets of a neighbourhood in Tan Phu District, the scooter I’m riding doesn’t make a sound. I knew electric vehicles were quiet, but I didn’t expect them to be this quiet. With just a flick of the wrist, the bike accelerates faster than any scooter I’ve driven. Perched high on the seat, I feel like I’m more floating than driving.

“I told you, everyone finishes the ride with a smile,” William Sikes says as I pull up to Saigon Scooter Centre’s showroom. The VTronic, developed over the past two and a half years by Sikes and Patrick Joynt, owner of Saigon Scooter Centre, is a fully electronic Vespa replica. Designed as a city commuter, the scooter tops out past 60km/h and has a range of more than 40km after a full charge, which takes 4 1/2 hours.

Although electric scooters and Vietnam’s motorbike-mad culture seem like a perfect fit, there are very few around. Despite more than 35 million motorbikes already on the roads here and a growing air pollution problem — Vietnam ranked among the top 10 most polluted countries in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index — no e-bike company has successfully cracked the market.

Sikes and Joynt hope to change that by finding a niche with the VTronic and their Lambretta version, the EBretta. Wth the VND 116 million pricetag they don’t expect to be flooding the market. Instead, they are targeting expats and locals looking for a classic European scooter, but also want to keep up with the times.

“The whole industry is moving towards electric,” Joynt says.

But few companies have had real financial success while maintaining that green appeal, especially in Asia. In China, where more than 100 million e-bikes have been bought in the last decade, their environmental impacts are still unclear.

Chinese e-bike manufacturers mainly use cheap lead-acid batteries, which are heavily polluting the environment, says Christopher

Cherry, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee who has researched the impacts of electric vehicles in China. These batteries leak from 30 to 35 percent of the lead during the industrial process, Cherry says. It also doesn’t help that the vast majority of China’s power — between 80 and 90 percent — comes from dirty coal plants. So instead of motorbikes belching pollution into the urban environment, the pollutants are displaced to areas around the coal plants, making little difference to the overall air pollution levels.

But Joynt and Sikes are using cleaner and efficient lithium-ion batteries, and most of the electricity in Vietnam comes from hydroelectric sources.

“If e-scooters replaced or displaced motorcycles in Vietnam, that would be a net win across the board,” Cherry says. “No new safety issues would have to be introduced, and there wouldn’t be too many new environmental issues — unless lead batteries are used.”

The main problem in Vietnam, however, isn’t whether the bikes are clean, but getting Vietnamese to actually buy them. Chinese e-bike companies made a big push in the Vietnamese market around 2006, but quickly floundered and pulled out.

“When Vietnamese people think about e-bikes, they only think about the cheap Chinese bikes,” says Shingo Hayashi, general director of e-bike company Terra Motors Vietnam, a Japanese startup that recently set up shop in Ho Chi Minh City.

That’s why Terra, which has orders for about 10 of its A4000i scooters so far, is focusing first on a major PR campaign to polish the image of e-bikes. They are targeting the rich and famous, hand picking their first customers to make their e-bike something cool to drive.

While the A4000i is not cheap — priced at VND 84 million — it’s not all about image and gimmicks (though their iPhone dock in the dashboard certainly is a gimmick). The bike has a top speed of 65km/h, range of 65km and charge time of 4 1/2 hours. It uses a high-quality lithium-ion battery that is easily removed to be charged indoors. Since launching in Japan in 2010, Terra has sold 3,000 to 4,000 bikes a year there, Hayashi says. But the Japanese e-bike market isn’t big, so Terra decided to target Southeast Asia, starting with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Hayashi says once the luxury version starts to sell well, they will release an already-developed, less powerful e-bike at half the price.

But the question many ask is: how much do you actually save on gas? Joynt says he expects the VTronic, which should run for 10 years without any major upkeep costs, will pay for itself in gas savings after five years. Terra doesn’t forecast as optimistically, but they do have a handy slider on their website to calculate savings — and they aren’t minor. If you drive 30km a day with the bike and use it for five years, you will save just over VND 31 million.

But even with significant gas savings, if e-bikes are to gain traction in Vietnam, they need to run on clean power while still being affordable.

“I’m not sure what the future holds in Vietnam,” professor Cherry says, “but it’s going to take something different.”