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A two-wheeled electric solution

Battery-powered scooters offer a new way for sustainable urban transportation

Public transport and bicycles are two obvious solutions to the pollution, rising fuel prices, traffic jams, parking difficulties and other problems associated with urban motoring. But what about electric motor scooters? They charge in a relatively short amount of time (four to five hours); they don't pollute; they hardly make a sound; they have an adequate range; they can reach speeds of 100 km/h; they cost around 60 cents per 100 kilometers to run (seven to 10 times less than their gasoline-powered equivalents); and to drive one, all you need is a regular driver's license.

"It's clear they are not for bikers, but they are already a solution for urban mobility," says Juan Ignacio Iglesias, marketing director at Helectra, a Spanish company that sells three models. And you just have to take a peek at the catalogue of models approved by the Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving (IDAE) to see there are many others available.

The sector is still in its infancy, but it is growing. "The technology is advancing and in a short while it will all advance a lot, from the manufacturers and the recharging points, to things we can't even think of at the moment," says Juan Antonio Alonso, the IDAE's energy saving and efficiency director.

The main questions that get thrown up when talking about electric vehicles usually concern their range, their speed, battery rechargability, and their price.

In terms of range, the 91 models in the IDAE catalogue can travel between 50 and 130 kilometers, more than sufficient for urban use - the trip to and from work, say. What's more, none of the scooters in the catalogue has a top speed below 70 km/h. That said, you should bear in mind that manufacturers' figures are based on performance in ideal conditions and in reality could be lower.

The crux of the matter, though, is recharging the batteries. A complete charge takes around four hours, and in principle, can be done using "any plug you use to charge your cellphone," according to Helectra's Iglesias.

The question becomes more thorny when it comes to recharge points on public highways or in public parking lots. For that, there is the 10-million-euro MOVELE project, which IDAE put in place in spring 2009 with the aim of encouraging 2,000 electric vehicles on to the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and Seville, with a total of 546 recharge points.

According to Sergio Fernández of Fundación Movilidad, which runs MOVELE in Madrid, there are now 246 recharge points in the city - 98 financed by MOVELE, six of which are on the street, and 148, all in parking lots, funded by City Hall.

At present the law does not permit the reselling of electricity, which prevents, for example, a parking garage from charging for a recharge or the setting up of coin-operated parking-meter-style chargers. For now public charge points are free, while shopping mall and hotel parking lots include recharges in general tariffs.

But this is set to change with the creation of recharging agents, which will allow gas stations, kiosks and the like to install points and charge for electricity. Sergio Fernández hopes this will happen in April, but IDAE has not given a date.

The biggest problem with recharging, however, is time. A full charge takes four to five hours - although an 80-percent charge can be done in two hours - compared with five minutes to fill up a car with gasoline, the placing of recharge points next to places of work, motorbike parking spaces and parking lots will be crucial.

Another important issue is price. The most expensive models in the catalogue are priced around 7,000 euros, from which you can take off 15 to 20 percent thanks to MOVELE. A Bereco Voltio Five, for example, costs 4,900 euros, with a 980 euro discount due to the available grant. Unlike electric cars, the price difference between an electric scooter and a normal one isn't excessive. Other subsidies also exist: Madrid City Hall offers a 75-percent discount on road tax, for example. As for fuel costs, traveling 100 kilometers costs just 60 cents, up to 10 times cheaper than a conventional scooter.

Helectra's three models are powered by an engine above the rear wheel. "In reality, it's like a food mixer," says Iglesias. "There is no chain or drive belt, which means there is no wear. It's only the tires and the brakes that will need replacing." A minority of models do have a drive belt.

José Manuel Caramés of Going Green agrees. "Maintenance is minimal, because the electric engines have 90-percent fewer parts than a combustion one. Inspections are annual but basically involve checking that engine parameters are correct." Manufacturers claim that the batteries, normally lithium-ion cells, are good for 2,000 charges and discharge cycles. That means a scooter with a range of 60 kilometers can travel 120,000 kilometers without changing the batteries. You would probably need to change the tires before that.

Is Spain ready for car swapping?

If 2009 was the year of the social networks and 2010 the year of the online off-season stores, this year is seeing a rise in the popularity of an internet service that allows people to rent a car directly from other people by the hour or by the day, for a fraction of what car-rental companies charge.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) car sharing has become such a hit that Google recently invested in a new company called RelayRides, which operates out of Boston and San Francisco. In London, WhipCar got started last May and already has a database of 1,000 individuals ready to rent out their vehicles part-time across 450 municipalities in Britain. France has Deways and Livop while Germany has a website called Tamyca. In Spain, for now, nobody has taken the plunge.

"The greatest obstacle is changing consumer behavior," says Vinay Gupta, 33, the co-founder of WhipCar in London. "People are not used to renting their car to a stranger on the internet, but the moment they try it and see that it works, they do it again." Gupta is convinced that something like this could work in Spain as well.

Although this kind of car-sharing does not yet exist in this country, carpooling has become increasingly popular.

"Through the internet we connect people with similar commutes so they can make better use of their cars, avoid driving alone and save money," explains Diego Hidalgo, founder of the Madrid-based carpooling site Amovens.

Hidalgo believes that Spaniards attach greater importance to ownership than people from other countries. "The idea of sharing your car is still surprising, but it's making headway," he says. Dozens of companies and universities are already using Amovens and similar services such as Viajarjuntos, Shareling and BusVao to encourage employees and students to travel together, save money and energy, and reduce pollution levels.

First there were the traditional rental companies that rented cars by the hour, like the US pioneer Zipcar and its Spanish versions such as Avancar, Conduzco and Ibilkari. But the P2P car-sharing initiatives are different in that they take advantage of the internet to eliminate the middleman and put car owners and car borrowers directly in touch with one another.

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