Batteries are the renewed focus of attention given the launch of Tesla’s PowerWall on April 30. What or where might the next major application be? Utility scale storage appears to be one. My thesis is that launching Tesla e-motorcycles is an equally high-impact, timely, and worthy challenge.
Transport and Electricity Go Together
Though electric vehicles and hybrids — the Tesla Sedan S, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Mahindra Reva, and others — are regarded as good for the environment, they would be more so if their battery charging used solar power. This is possible, but the solution is not convenient yet. We use grid electricity for charging. Since electricity generation depends on fossil fuels, we pour coal into our cars instead of gasoline when driving electric vehicles.
It is an open question whether electric cars (EV) are more ecofriendly than internal combustion engine (ICE) ones. Should we increase the miles/gallon (km/liter) of regular cars, or encourage hybrids and e-cars? In driving electric cars, we shift the source of emissions from automobile tailpipes to chimneystacks.
Transport and electricity generation each account for ~40 percent of all CO2 emissions in the United States. Interestingly, transport emissions get lesser emphasis in climate change discussions when compared to emissions from electricity. As the proportion of grid electricity supplied by renewables increases, due to Renewable Portfolio Standards, for example, we improve the “green”-ness of both electricity and transport. Electric vehicles thus do represent progress, though not as significant as we would wish.
If personal clean transport is the goal, it is far easier to charge e-motorcycle batteries with solar panels than cars, and such charging complements solar on rooftops, a Tesla sister company SolarCity’s main business. The complementarities are even greater when the charging is a part of microgrids, as I explain below.
The prime markets for solar charging and e-motorcycles are the BRIC nations, South Africa, and other middle-income countries. In the coming decades emissions by these nations, especially India, will increase. Solar electricity is all very well — and India plans to deploy 100 GW by 2022, an impressive number — but transport-related emissions need to be addressed too, through encouraging solar charging of personal transport.
I propose Tesla and others develop batteries for e-motorcycles, e-scooters, and e-bikes, in that order ideally, even simultaneously, and package their sales with matching solar panels-based charging systems.
Solar panels may be installed outside homes, terraces, or in open spaces where the vehicles are parked, and at the destination sites, say, office buildings or factories, with a suitable battery pack. Tesla has already integrated electric motors in their cars; incorporating, electric motors into e-motorcycles may be relatively easy. Many of the design challenges are well described on Honda EV-neo scooter’s website.
When I visited Mahindra Reva’s electric car factory in Bangalore, right at the entrance to the facility were charging “trees,” with cars parked beneath them. Battery powered motorcycles may be similarly accommodated. Of course, solar panels may not be the exclusive, but the preferred way for charging. The e-motorcycles may be charged on mains.
E-motorcycle marketing may parallel what was done for the Tesla Model S. At first introduce a high-end e-motorcycle with exceptional performance, at relatively high prices, say, US $3,000. Follow up by launching a model at the median price point for the everyday user.
The e-motorcycle must give great performance — a sense of power, even when climbing hills, control, and look elegant. It should appeal to the young professionals and college students.
Extreme usability is a must. Anybody should be able to drive the e-motorcycle without training. Standardized charging stations must become ubiquitous. Rapid charging must be supported. “Range anxiety” must be eliminated; the e-motorcycle should include a display indicating the level of charge, and the number of miles left before recharging.
Product-Market: Transport Vehicle and Charging Ecosystem As a Dyad
The e-motorbike must be considered as a complement to and an integral part of the charging ecosystem, neither may be viewed in isolation. The combination represents a new personal transport category, a new ecosystem, and a new product-market. It may not be positioned as an e-bicycle, e-moped, e-scooter, or as a battery-powered e-motorcycle alone, for the marketing challenge of selling, not only the product, but also the ecosystem, is unprecedented.
Positioning must emphasize the benefits of no fuel costs, no visits to gasoline stations, no need to wait in lines, and easily accessible charging. It should emphasize the solution as an answer to known challenges, and under-emphasize, even mask the innovation embodied in the e-motorbike ecosystem. Segway’s experiences are instructive — their product novelty was too visible for ordinary people to readily accept it and undertake the needed new learning.
The early launch segment is clear — students on campuses. And campuses are ideal customers for microgrids, including SolarCity’s own GridLogic microgrid. It is time to launch SolarCity and Tesla e-motorcycles in the BRIC nations, in India in particular, where the sun is plentiful, and students drive motorcycles in the millions.