The EV revolution is here. It’s happening on two wheels.
Forget the F-150 Lightning. When it comes to getting more EVs on the road, it’s all about motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters.
This story is part of "The Future of Mobility," a Protocol special report. Read more here.
At rush hour, the off-ramp from the Taipei Bridge onto Minquan West Road turns into a waterfall of sorts. Rather than a cataract of water, though, this one is made up of hundreds of scooters pouring down a concrete canyon.
Sun glints off shiny helmets and front bumpers. Motors’ purr at the red light turns into a gentle roar as the light turns green. But that roar is getting increasingly quiet: Electric scooters and mopeds are becoming rapidly more common in Taipei and across the island nation.
The shift isn’t just happening in Taiwan, where two-wheel vehicles outnumber cars 2 to 1. It’s happening across Asia, and there are a number of lessons the rest of the world could learn in the race to electrify everything.
Road transport is responsible for 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It accounts for an even more significant share in developed countries. Decarbonizing how we get around and doing so as efficiently as possible — given the tight supply of critical minerals needed for batteries — is vital to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
It’s tempting to look at EVs like the Ford F-150 Lightning as game changers. But two-wheelers are already driving the EV transition. The inherent efficiency and affordability of small, two-wheeled EVs mean they could play a vital role in speeding it along. The incentives and innovations currently being developed in emerging economies could be used to reshape transit in developed nations — and reduce carbon emissions more effectively than fleets of Teslas ever could.
Two wheels good
Last year, nearly 17 million passenger EVs were in operation globally. Roughly 6.6 million new vehicles sold in 2021 were electric. That number isn’t too shabby, but it pales in comparison to the electric two- and three-wheeler market.
A BloombergNEF analysis found that 275 million electric motorcycles, tuk-tuks, mopeds, and scooters were in operation globally at the same moment. And 42% of two- and three-wheelers sold last year were of the electric variety. Together, those electric two- and three-wheelers are displacing the use of more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, more than all electric passenger vehicles, vans, trucks, and buses combined.
The vast majority of those vehicles are being sold in Asia, with China taking up the lion’s share of the market. Sales have exploded there over the past six years, according to International Energy Agency data. In 2021 alone, the country saw roughly 9.5 million new two-wheel EVs registered. Other countries, though, are also seeing two- and three-wheel EVs make in-roads.
Asia is already a hot bed of two-wheel mobility for a variety of reasons. Some are geographical, including the number of densely packed cities and the fact that it’s warm enough to ride year-round (though the rainy season can certainly put a damper on things). Others are economic. Notably, two-wheelers are a popular way of getting around in middle-income countries due to their relative cost-effectiveness compared with cars and trucks.
“Growing up, a car was never a thing,” Dong Tran, the founder of e-motorcycle startup Ryvid, said, recounting a story about growing up in Vietnam, where he lived until he was 10 years old. “It was something that I knew existed, but it was so beyond my comprehension getting into a box that’s covered. For us to afford a car would be like, for here, to buy a house. It’s very expensive.”
Taiwan is the rare exception where two-wheeled transportation has remained popular even as GDP has grown. The country’s small size and urban-planning policies (more on them later) have helped ensure that the country has the highest density of motorcycles in the world.
What’s driven the rise of electric two-wheelers, though, is a suite of policies and tech innovations that has made them accessible — and appealing — to the masses. In China, a number of major cities banned the sale of new motorcycles due to air-quality concerns in the 2000s. Those policies accidentally created a market for two-wheel e-mobility whole cloth.
“That created an opportunity for electric bicycles, [though] when we say electric bicycle, many of these electric bicycles are actually heavier than what you would consider an electric bicycle,” Timo Eccarius, a mobility researcher at Taiwan’s Tunghai University, said. “Basically, they look like scooters and they have pedals attached to them.”
Their use helped clean up air and noise pollution in Chinese cities, and the boom has since continued. Siyi Mi, an electric transportation analyst at BloombergNEF, said of the 31 million electric two-wheelers sold globally last year, 90% were sold in China.
“Established suppliers and manufacturers of electric scooters are really booming in China as well, driven by the growing demand, but also the establishment of a better supply chain, which makes it cheaper to actually manufacture at home,” she said.
Technological innovation has also spurred two-wheel EV adoption in Taiwan. The government there actually offered a series of incentives to get riders on e-motorcycles and convince incumbent scooter makers to go electric. The latter subsidies, though, ended up being a massive failure that nearly sunk the two-wheel EV industry, Eccarius said, with established companies pocketing money but not seriously building innovative new EV products.
Birth of an industry
In the end, incumbent companies haven’t driven the electric boom in Taiwan. That accolade instead went to Gogoro, which launched to the public in 2015 with an electric scooter and battery-swapping model. The company sells a variety of electric two-wheelers with replaceable batteries. Riders can buy a subscription to swap out drained batteries for fresh ones at Gogoro stations around the country.
Over the past seven years, the company has grown to have a network of 11,000 battery-swapping stations across Taiwan and more than half a million subscribers. That’s a fairly decent chunk of the Taiwanese two-wheel market, though by no means a majority of the 14 million scooters on the road in the country. Gogoro is, however, far and away the most popular e-scooter brand in the country, counting nearly nine times more registrations than its closest competitor last year. There are 47 vehicles its batteries are compatible with, including ones made by nine other manufacturers. Before the broader decline in tech stocks, it had a market cap of $1.8 billion, though that’s now fallen to $750 million.
“A lot of the credit has to go to Gogoro for overcoming this range anxiety issue that we have with all electric mobility with their, at that time, very innovative battery-swapping product-service combination,” mobility researcher Eccarius said.
The company has its sights set well beyond Taiwan. That includes expansion plans into China, which Gogoro announced last year, along with a partnership with Foxconn that could massively expand its battery manufacturing capabilities.
It also recently announced its expansion into India in partnership with Zypp Electric, an “EV-as-a-service” company. Its CEO, Horace Luke, has called India “the holy grail where we see our technology making an impact.” (Gogoro also announced a partnership with Hero, one of the largest two-wheeler manufacturers in the world which is also based in India, last year.) That could open up a market that’s an order of magnitude bigger than Taiwan’s.
“With more than 200+ million gas-powered two-wheel vehicles in India, the need for smart and sustainable two-wheel electric transportation and refueling is vital, but in densely populated cities traditional tethered plugin charging doesn’t really scale, even with fast charging,” a Gogoro spokesperson said in an email. “Gogoro battery swapping can support many more than tethered charging in the same space.”
There's less weight, less energy, and less infrastructure needed. Really, it’s a no brainer.
Gogoro is hardly the only e-mobility company looking at India as a lucrative market. Homegrown manufacturers like Mahindra Electric are targeting fleet operators to replace gas-guzzlers used for last mile deliveries with e-rickshaws. BNEF data shows up to 40% of the three-wheelers rolling across the country are already electric. E-scooter companies like Ather Energy are expanding at a rapid clip; among other moves, the company just hired Tesla’s former head of policy in India.
Other emerging economies could be set to see greater two-wheel EV adoption as well. Last month, Indonesia announced it was setting a goal of getting 2.5 million EVs on the road by 2025, of which 2 million will be motorcycles. To get there, the country is putting together a package of subsidies for would-be buyers. (Gogoro is, in what you may sense is a theme, also expanding there.)
“The number of motorcycle users in Indonesia is around 133 million,” transportation minister Budi Karya Sumadi said last month. “The market is huge, and this [subsidy] can become a game changer to accelerate the transition.”
The rise of electric two-wheelers has been driven by policies and tech innovations that make them accessible — and appealing — to the masses. Here, Vinfast Klara electric scooters sit at the automaker's factory in Haiphong, Vietnam. Photo: Yen Duong/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Though the government hasn’t announced what subsidies will look like, Mi said that the cost for e-motorcycles is around 30% to 50% higher in most places, so having an incentive that lines up is “very important to ramp up consumer demand.”
Bloomberg’s near-term outlook forecasts that EV car sales will rise rapidly, but that electric two- and three-wheelers will still be the dominant mode of electric transport globally in 2025. By 2040, more than 80% of two- and three-wheeled vehicles sold are predicted to be electric.
China will be the epicenter of this growth, both because of its vast population and the fact that the country is heavily investing in electrifying transit, but that’s not to say it’s the only place where two-wheel electric mobility will be needed. Two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by midcentury, including hundreds of millions of people living in megacities on every continent. Electric two-wheelers could be crucial in helping people navigate increasingly dense urban areas, providing economic opportunities and freeing up space that would otherwise be reserved for cars. Electrifying transit would also help clean up air pollution in the Global South, improving the quality and length of life for billions. (That’s a major driver in Indonesia’s electric push.)
Electric two-wheel adoption will likely be more sluggish in Europe and North America, where, for most people, motorcycles are more of a way to get around for fun — say, a weekend leaf-peeping in the White Mountains — than a daily way of life. But e-motorcycles don’t have to be relegated to niche recreation, nor should they be necessarily.
Policies in Europe and the U.S. have focused on speeding up passenger EV adoption, from banning the sale of gas-powered cars after a specific date to tax credits for EVs. And it’s with good reason: Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for 27% of all emissions, while transportation is the only sector of the economy where emissions have increased in the EU since 1990.
A wealth of passenger EVs has sprung up in response to policies and demand. Tesla has a big lead over traditional automakers, but incumbents have begun to catch up.
In the U.S., electric models of large vehicles Americans favor have popped up, ranging from the Hummer EV to the Ford F-150 Lightning. The F-150 is the bestselling vehicle in the U.S., and the electric version has been hailed as a way to get everyday folks into EVs. While getting people stoked on EVs is certainly one way to spur adoption, there are trade-offs that come with rolling out the electric big guns.
If you can’t get people on these things, then you don’t really have sustainability. You have a fun toy.
Chief among them is the size of batteries. The F-150 Lightning battery clocks in at 1,800 pounds, while the Hummer EV battery tips the scale at nearly 3,000 pounds. Both seat a maximum of five people, though they’re often used to shuttle just one or two folks around. With the supply chain crunch for critical minerals and exploding costs, it’s hardly an efficient use of limited resources, especially compared to two-wheelers with batteries that generally weigh under 100 pounds.
“The physics is very simple: If I’m moving a 75 kilogram person in 1.5 tons of steel, glass, and rubber and you compare that to moving the same person on a 100 kilogram scooter?” Eccarius said. “[That’s] less weight, less energy, and less infrastructure needed. Really, it’s a no brainer. You don’t have to have a Ph.D.”
Even with innovations in battery recycling and the U.S. and other countries playing critical mineral catch-up, there’s still a need to decarbonize — to borrow John Doerr’s book title — at speed and scale in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
E-motorcycles offer that speed and scale for a variety of reasons. More than 80% of the U.S. population resides in urban areas, with the average driver spending 35 miles a day on the road. It’s a distance easily traversed on two wheels. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily have to take years and billions in R&D to get e-motorcycles off the ground.
The only thing stopping the U.S. and other countries in the Global North from becoming nations of electric motorcycle riders is imagination.
Learning to lose the car
Tran, the founder of Ryvid, said he started his e-motorcycle company in part because he saw an opening in the mobility market. “The reason we wanted to jump right into motorcycles is because it’s the one [market] that actually makes sense for a lot of people to get to and from work to meaningfully go somewhere,” Tran said.
The company priced its Anthem motorcycle — which is expected to be delivered in 2023 — at $7,800. That’s well below high-end cruisers like Zero’s SR/S or Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire, which are really geared toward motorcycle enthusiasts. But the Anthem and similar bikes from makers including CSC, Kollter, and Sondors are priced low enough to be enticing to people who are, let’s say, motorcycle-curious and willing to try a new way of getting around.
“The other component of what we’re chasing, it’s sustainability,” Tran said. “If you can’t get people on these things, then you don’t really have sustainability. You have a fun toy. If all we did was get people to commute on these things, that would be amazing. It makes a lot of sense, especially here in LA. I can get to work way faster than anyone else sitting in their cars.”
Of course, affordable (and, frankly, cool-looking) electric motorcycles that are also cheap and fast to charge are only one piece of the puzzle. Overhauling cities to usher in a new e-motorcycle lifestyle will require policy and infrastructure changes as well. Some could be as simple as adding scooter boxes at intersections like those in Taiwan, creating motorcycle-only lanes or streets, providing preferential parking near public transit and elsewhere, or allowing lane splitting. (For the uninitiated, that’s letting motorcycles drive between two lanes when traffic is bumper to bumper.) National policies that support auto workers and mechanics who will see their jobs dwindle or change in the e-mobility era will also be vital to smooth the transition.
If all we did was get people to commute on these things, that would be amazing.
Safety is another major factor that widespread motorcycle adoption will have to overcome. Shared e-scooter company Revel has had to revise its safety protocols after a rash of accidents. That helped lower the number of collisions by 50%, but there’s still a way to go. “If you’re going to get people on two wheels, traveling around more efficiently, it has to be safe,” Tran said, noting that educating riders would have to be top of mind for both companies making e-motorcycles and lawmakers.
It’s also important to note that passenger vehicles regularly result in road deaths, with SUVs causing 40% of pedestrian deaths in the U.S., so safety is hardly an e-scooter problem. In fact, it’s arguably a bigger concern when it comes to the tanklike Hummer EV.
Ultimately, getting people on electric motorcycles will also require shifts in attitudes and behavior as well. The weather in the northern half of the U.S. gets decidedly less two-wheeler-friendly in the winter. Still, Eccarius pointed to Oulu, Finland, a city less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, as a relative hot spot for bicycling even in winter, as well as the number of people in the tropics who hop on two-wheelers despite rain as proof weather doesn’t have to be limiting.
Though big cars and trucks may seem quintessentially American, the pandemic has shown how quickly other means of getting around can take off. E-bikes sales nearly tripled from 2019 to 2021 despite only a handful of state-level rebate programs and no tax credits at the federal level (though that wasn’t for lack of trying). Eccarius also pointed to how city streets in Europe and the U.S. evolved from a web of streetcars and pedestrians in the 1920s to being ruled by cars in just a few decades. Shifting U.S. cities from auto-centricity to prioritizing two-wheel modes of transportation may not be an insurmountable challenge.
Tran said there’s also a generational shift that could usher in a renaissance of smaller e-mobility. “We call them ‘Gen EV,’ because these kids are growing up and EVs are just a normal thing for them,” he said.
That’s not to say we can just wait for the kids to save us, given the whole speed and scale thing. But that generational shift could inject a new sense of urgency to advocates already fighting for less car-centric cities and new modes of transportation.
Fostering those attitudes and policy changes are two of the biggest challenges for mobility in the 21st century. But then, addressing the climate crisis requires us to completely overhaul the systems that have brought us to a dangerous ledge. Now, we have a choice to either build a bridge to the other side or just keep driving off the cliff.