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Cycle of change: electric bikes prove mainland winners

Boosted by government backing and consumer preferences, electric cycles are proving the transport of choice across the mainland, with distinct differences emerging in consumer preferences in the north and the south.

Photo: Electric cycles: lean, green machines.
Electric cycles: lean, green machines.

The continued rise of mainland electric bicycle manufacturers was clearly in evidence at the 2013 Guangzhou International Bicycle and Electric Vehicle Exhibition, where they pretty much dominated the proceedings.

On show were dazzling variety of these hybrid vehicles, including the latest solar-electric, electric mountain bikes and lithium battery-powered bikes. The consensus among the exhibitors was that there was now a huge demand for electric bikes on the mainland, with considerable differences in consumer preferences clearly apparent between the northern and southern market sectors.

Despite the variation in specification demand, the overall popularity of electric bikes stems from a number of government initiatives aimed at conserving energy and reducing emissions. Foremost among these initiatives is the 1-3-5 green commuting protocol, developed as part of the Implementation Plan on Energy Conservation and Emissions Reduction under the terms of the 12th Five-Year Plan. The 1-3-5 refers a suggested travel mode of walking if the intended distance is less than 1km, biking if it is less than 3km and using public transport if it is less than 5km.

Going against the flow a little was Guangzhou Yichi Bikes, with its range of 14-inch folding bikes, making it one of the few exhibitors to be producing pedal bikes. According to Zhou Canshu, a senior manager with the company, although fewer people are now using pedal bikes as a way of getting round, they remain popular as a recreational and fitness tool. He did, however, concede that electric bikes were faster and more versatile, making them highly popular among mainland consumers giving them excellent market potential.

Keen to make the most of this potential was the Tianjin Talang Technology Co Ltd, which had brought its extensive range of electric bicycles – in a choice of colours, styles and sizes – to the Guangzhou event. Li Ming, Talang's Regional Director, said the company's mini-electric bikes had proved particularly popular in the north, thanks to their steady performance, reliability and compact structure. In the south, the company finds adding more fashionable elements to their products is the key to attracting buyers.

Another company that was finding favour in the south was the Guangzhou Qinghua Technology Electric Vehicle Co Ltd. Particularly popular was its mountain bike-style electric cycle, featuring a water bottle-shaped battery blended to fit in with the overall frame, making it both stylish and practical. Liu Xiaofeng, a senior manager with the company, said most of the company's products were sold in the south, with its stylish designs proving highly popular.

Eco-friendly and energy-efficient

Part of the success of the electrical bike sector lies in the commitment of manufacturers to continuously upgrade their products. Highlighting his company's latest innovations, Chen Jieping, a senior manager at the Shanxi Voyage Electric Vehicle Industry Co Ltd, singled out two of its hybrid electric bicycles that come complete with solar panels, but can also be charged from an AC power supply. As their batteries can be topped by solar power during a ride, the range of these cycles is said to be 50% greater than conventional electric bikes. Furthermore, as the battery is continuously under charge, battery plate sulphation is prevented and the unit's lifespan extended.

Chen said even though the popularity of eco-friendly and energy-efficient products is being driven by both national policy and consumer demand, environmental awareness was still lacking among many mainlanders. He maintains that marketing products solely on their green credentials is not enough to drive sales, particularly in rural areas, with energy and cost efficiencies also needing to be highlighted.

Photo: Stylish and customisable electric cycles.
Stylish and customisable electric cycles.

Tianjin Talang's electric bicycles are typically powered by lithium batteries as, according to Li Ming, the company's Regional Director, they are small in size and highly efficient. A fully charged lithium battery can suffice for 50-60km of travel. As a result of their comparative inefficiency, Talang no longer uses nickel-metal hydride batteries.

According to Chen, his company's solar electric bicycles benefit from patented technology, with their solar energy conversion rates said to be of the highest standard. This makes their products internationally competitive, seeing them particularly popular in those countries that prioritise environmental protection.

High-end or affordable: both have their appeal

Assessing the ubiquity of electric bikes across the mainland, Tianjin Talang's Li Ming said: "In big cities, the transport system is usually well-developed, but there are always traffic problems. Due to their small size, electric bicycles can move around fairly freely. In small cities, towns and villages, transport is poor, while the roads are bumpy and narrow. Again, electric bicycles are the ideal choice because they are compact and can go most places. As a result, they are in demand in every mainland city."

During the course of the fair, many of the exhibitors took the opportunity to showcase products that targetted a range of customers. Tianjin Talang highlighted a series of electric bicycles optimised for rural areas, as well as a number targetted at urban consumers and, in particular, the youth market.

Unlike Talang's bid to service all consumer sectors, Guangzhou Qinghua focusses solely on the high-end market. Liu Xiaofeng, a senior manager with the company, said that, with competition fierce in the mass market, the inevitable keen pricing has resulted in lower profit margins. Qinghua, on the other hand, has chosen to place greater emphasis on quality. Its products use imported batteries, said to be three times more efficient than their domestic counterparts. They also utilise internationally-known brand name engines, screws and tires. Despite its higher pricing, the company's electric bikes remain in considerable demand.

The Guangzhou Xiao Electric Vehicle Co Ltd, another exhibitor at the 2013 event, set out to woo consumers with its affordable pricing and a series of practical features. Hour Junwei, a senior executive with the company, said its farm-ready electric vehicles were designed with versatility in mind and also featured a large loading capacity, making them particularly popular in villages and small towns.

As well as the domestic market, mainland manufacturers are increasingly targetting the export sector. Tianjin Talang's high-end products, for instance, are increasingly in demand in East Europe, while Guangzhou Xiao's low-end electric vehicles have proved a hit in Southeast Asia, India and Vietnam.

e-Commerce drives demand

The growth of e-commerce has proved a boost for the express delivery and the logistics service industry sectors, a development that has again driven demand for electric cycles. Given their capacity for making extended journeys, the Shanxi Voyage Electric Vehicle Industry Co Ltd's range of solar electric bikes have proved popular with express delivery companies. Capitalising on this, the company has launched a proprietary logistics businesses in Taiyuan in the Shanxi Province. In a similar vein, Guangzhou Xiao has secured a contract to provide postal service electric bicycles for China Post.

According to statistics from the China Bicycle Association, mainland manufacturers produced some 82.78 million bikes in 2012, with total year-on-year output value and profits up, respectively, 9.4% and 41.3%. At the same time, the production of electric bike units reached 35.05 million, representing a year-on-year increase of 13.2% in total output value and 38.3% rise in profit.

As a major producer and marketer of bikes, China now leads the world in both the manufacture and export of cycles, with its exports accounting for more than 60% of the world's total. In 2012, China exported 57.15 million bicycles and 665,000 electric bicycles, up 2.6% and 9.7%, respectively when compared to 2011.

Photo: Post-modern: first class delivery via electric bike.
Post-modern: first class delivery via electric bike.

Featuring over 100 bicycle and electric bicycle exhibitors, the 2013 Guangzhou International Bicycle and Electric Vehicle Exhibition took place at the Poly World Trade Expo Centre in Pazhou, Guangzhou from 25 to 27 November.

Xing Ping, Special Correspondent, Guangzhou

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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