Electric two-wheelers are set to scoot past EVs in road race
Micromobility vehicles don't carry any baggage – and that's a good thing
Video Visit Asia's emerging megacities and you’ll quickly notice that scooters and motorbikes vastly outnumber cars. Before long these fleets of two-wheelers will become battery-powered, always-connected, semi-autonomous machines that offer an even more potent alternative to their four-wheeled rivals.
The reasons powered two-wheelers dominate nations such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam – with a combined population over 1.75 billion – are simple: cars are unaffordable on local wages, few urban homes have space to store them, and warm climates make two-wheelers viable year-round. Plus, many of them sell for less than the equivalent of $1,000 apiece.
The industry has decided many will soon be electric and it looks like drivers will buy them.
"Electrification of micromobility can be adopted at a faster pace than cars, mainly because the motor and batteries are much smaller," Fook Fah Yap, a director at Singapore's Nanyang Technical University's Transport Research Centre told The Register.
Evidence of the shift is not hard to find. Earlier this year Honda announced it will start to sell 10 battery-powered bikes in 2025. Yamaha expects 90 percent of its sales will be electrified by 2050 and Toyota is expected to announce an electric two-wheeler this year.
While electrification is definitely coming to two-wheelers, the electric two-wheelers are not expected to see tech be so central to them as has happened in cars.
Timo Eccarius, an assistant professor at Taiwan's Tunghai University, told The Register cars could be considered a "living room on wheels."
"You have a certain demand for entertainment, communication, and navigation," he said. "A car is much more than just a transportation device. For some people it can even be their wardrobe, you open up the trunk and think – what are you carrying around?"
Two—wheelers, by contrast, are all about getting from A to B, quickly and at low cost. Digital technology's role in a two-wheeler is therefore all about information related to navigation.
Smartphones on wheels
One way tech arrives in bikes is smartphone integration.
BMW offers a smartphone cradle that brings navigation to the cockpit. Apple, however, has warned the vibrations produced by the German manufacturer's machines can damage its iPhone.
In-helmet heads-up displays are another option for riders.
Smartphone apps are also becoming part of the two-wheel experience. Yamaha already offers an app that provides ride tracking, notifies the user of calls, and remembers where the vehicle was parked. However, some in the industry told us such apps have quite low usage rates.
Seattle-based e-bike startup Weel has made the smartphone part of its bikes' brains, putting them to work alongside onboard processors.
"We do processing on the phone and on the bike," Weel co-founder David Hansen told The Register. "For example, lane keeping can run on the bike or on the phone. And what's great about it being on the phone, is that the cameras are so good, and the phones also have Lidar and we take all of that as input."
"It's great because your phone's faster than the computer on the bike and it upgrades over time for free," said Hansen.
Weel's e-bike doesn't actually require a smartphone at all – the bike is software-equipped all on its own. However, using a smartphone can unlock some features – like the ability to operate the e-bike's functions by remote control. As the bike self-stabilizes, riders can hop off and have it follow them. Or they can sit on the bike, let go of the handles and let the bike move by itself. But mostly Weel does not use a smartphone as a user interface.
User interactions are limited to those Hansen said "make sense intuitively": a thumb throttle, a brake and pedals. Hansen said the pedals can be removed and the bike is still street legal, but he feels it is best to leave them on as they do something for human connection.
Hansen said one of the biggest hurdles with the bike is just not scaring the rider, so a lot of work has gone into the human-machine interface.
"It's sort of like the early days of autonomous cars. You have to figure out what freaks people out and what feels natural," said Hansen.
Autonomy on two wheels
BMW, Yamaha and Honda have all invested in autonomous driving and produced concept vehicles that balance themselves using a combination of gyroscopes, control of steering, and suspension.
BMW's solution appears smooth and seamless – albeit a bit boring – as you can see in the video below.
Honda has its version as well. In 2015, Yamaha went in an unusual direction by adding a creepy robot to operate its auto-bikes. The company has since devised another iteration that dances like a bug and has the tagline: "envisioning a machine like a living creature."
Perhaps the creepy robot was better.
Alas, autonomous operation of two wheelers is not considered likely.
"Motorcycles will never ride autonomously; it doesn't make sense. However, in a future world of autonomously driving cars, being connected will be an urgent requirement for all motorcycle segments," head of BMW Motorrad Markus Schramm told consulting firm Frost and Sullivan in a May 2020 interview.
Schramm said that investing in autonomous driving technologies, however, would raise safety levels.
Two-wheeled IoT and big data
Connecting two-wheelers to the internet is expected to do likewise.
Bosch offers radar-based assistance systems (ARAS) – a combination of radar sensor, brake system, engine management – and a HMI (Human Machine Interface) that is claimed to be capable of preventing one in seven motorcycle accidents. Other manufacturers, including Honda and its dedicated short-range communication (DSRC), allow vehicles to sense and exchange information with one another, or even stationary objects and pedestrians.
Two-wheeled systems, like their four-wheel equivalents, can receive over-the-air updates. They can also incorporate AI in a limited fashion and connect to the cloud, harvesting data and getting smarter with every ride.
Weel uses its AI to offer real-time routing. Hansen said one day he hopes to be able to improve its maps with real-time data collected from users whose behavior creates data suitable for two-wheeled trips – much like superapp Grab has done for the backalleys and shortcuts of urban Asia.
Weel's mapping data can be combined with battery information to determine whether the user can make it to their destination without runnning out of juice, or if perhaps they need to pedal more or slow down to get there.
"I think people are providing more tech enabled solutions," consulting firm McKinsey associate partner Rahul Gupta told The Register. "You can actually do a lot with the consumer data, like track the riding behavior, basically understand where they are going and leverage a lot of data monetization, and then do targeted campaigns."
But that's not all the data can reveal. Gupta explained that the data can indicate how rashly you drive – info that could even affect insurance premiums.
At the starting line
Even though the established vehicle makers have the funds required to create two-wheeled innovations, McKinsey's Gupta believes upstarts are the drivers of change.
"Opportunities for disruption have been taken by the new entrants. The traditional players have come only after new entrants have started challenging them," he told The Register. "Honda and Yamaha haven't come up with the same number of variants. So this whole EV push has been largely driven by new players expanding into the new business," he said.
Gupta can't yet pick winners. In the past year, he has seen 10 to 15 companies compete in the field and feels "at least two or three will become a big player."
Whoever sights the finish line has a big prize waiting. As Gupta's colleagues pointed out in a 2019 report [PDF], average vehicle traffic speeds in many of the world's major cities crawled at as little as nine miles per hour (15 km/h). Two-wheelers already top that speed – if they can go faster still, demand will only increase.
"Micromobility offers some city dwellers an escape from that stress: higher average speeds, less time spent waiting or parking, a lower cost of ownership, and the health benefits of being outdoors," McKinsey's report states.
Car owners might not mind, as they stream video from the comfort of an autonomous vehicle.
But two-wheelers may laugh longest. ®