Is this the zero-emissions green vehicle of the future? For the masses, possibly not. Â For me personally, maybe so. Itâ€™s a battery-powered electric scooter, with solar panels for recharging during daylight hours.
Iâ€™ve become a big fan, and a minor authority, on battery-powered electric scooters. Iâ€™ve owned a few. A Chinese-made electric scooter was my primary form of urban transportation while living and working in Los Angeles until moving to China last year.
Though I never saw another one on the road in LA, I’m a passionate believer in this mode of transport.Â In China, electric scooters are almost as common as passenger cars, with upwards of five million sold every year. The streets and sidewalks are crowded with them. They run on lead acid batteries, the same kind used in car batteries.
The electric scooters sold now in China rely on plug-in battery rechargers. Thatâ€™s the biggest drawback of driving one. Lead acid batteries can take up to eight hours to recharge. This new solar-powered recharger should solve that problem. The battery recharges automatically as you ride around, as long as thereâ€™s sunlight. Assuming the solar recharger works, this electric scooter becomes a street-legal perpetual motion machine, never needing, at least during daytime, to stop for a recharge.
I met the inventor, Zhao Weiping, at a trade exhibition. I could barely contain my excitement. We discussed the science, the capacity of the solar panels, and the potential to upgrade the batteries to lighter, longer-lasting lithium batteries. Heâ€™s only built prototypes so far. He expects the cost, for a base model, to be around Rmb3,000 ($440).
With lithium batteries, the price goes up to around $750. Lithium batteries take half the time to recharge.
Another benefit of lithium: the batteries weigh less than half lead acid ones. Less weight means less drag and so farther range on a full battery and faster top speeds. Â Engineer Zhao guesses top speed should be about 50kph (30mph) compared to 30kph (18mph) for lead acid models.
To me, it sounds like the ideal form urban transport: zero emissions, reliable, fast enough to keep up with traffic, and will rarely, if ever, require mains electricity to recharge. In other words, zero cost per kilometer traveled.
It gets better: in much of the US, including California, you donâ€™t need a driverâ€™s license or insurance to drive an electric scooter, and you can drive it legally in bicycle lanes. Of course, few traffic cops know any of these facts. I was pulled over routinely in California, while riding my electric scooter. Eventually, I created a plastic-coated car card with all the relevant clauses of the state traffic code. I’d present it to traffic police, and they’d usually let me head off after a few minutes.
In LA, I drove a Chinese electric scooter upgraded with lithium. Top speed was about 24 mph. Recharging time: four to five hours. As commutes go, my 9-mile trip to work was about as pleasant and relaxing as any could be. Most of my route was along the Pacific Ocean, and then through some of the hipper areas of Santa Monica and Venice. When the roads were crowded at rush hour, Iâ€™d switch into the bicycle lane. You can park anywhere on the sidewalk, just like a bicycle.
The biggest hazard is pedestrians. The scooters are so quiet that people donâ€™t hear it coming. I had a few near misses.
I never understood why so few in California ride electric scooters. I never saw another one on the road. California is certainly one of the most environmentally-conscious places on earth. Motorized transport doesnâ€™t get any greener than electric scooters. Zero emissions, zero fossil fuels, zero direct carbon footprint.
Those green credentials were never my main reasons for riding an electric scooter. I liked the convenience, the tranquility, the absence of traffic and the sheer exhilaration of riding it.
Exhilaration, however, is instantly transformed into despair when your battery runs out of juice. Â It happened to me a few times, when I miscalculated the range. Open throttle riding, going uphill, lots of stops and starts can all drain the battery rather quickly. The meter showing battery life is, at best, unreliable. When the battery is empty, the scooter will shudder once, then conk out completely.
Run out of fuel with an internal combustion engine, you call the AAA or find a gas station. Run out of electricity with an electric scooter and your only real choice is to push the vehicle home for recharge. Iâ€™ve had to do it more than once.
Engineer Zhaoâ€™s solar-powered recharger should make that problem less common, if not eliminate it altogether. At worst, if the battery empties, you park it and in daytime, come back in a few hours and drive it away. Limitless range should make for limitless enjoyment.
Yes, but will Engineer Zhaoâ€™s machine work? Talking with him, itâ€™s hard not to be confident it will. The solar panels are powerful enough to keep the batteries recharged and light enough not to create a lot of extra drag. The only way to find out, of course, is to get one. Iâ€™m thinking now of commissioning Engineer Zhao to build me one, with lithium batteries.
If it works, Iâ€™ll help Engineer Zhao get venture capital funding to build his company. My gut tells me I’m not the only one who’d ride around on one, and that there could be a very big market in the US, Europe and China for this solar-charged scooter.
I donâ€™t particularly relish the idea of driving any sort of vehicle on Shenzhenâ€™s streets. Driving is chaotic. Accidents common. Pollution awful. There are no bicycle lanes. But, Iâ€™m prepared to put my money â€“ and perhaps my health â€“ on the line to prove this is a vehicle with a future and perhaps even a mass market.
Wish me luck.