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Long before becoming icons in Europe, some of the earliest scooters were created in America. A few nimble American companies are now writing the next chapter: the electrification of the motorcycle and the scooter.
The Vectrix is the first all-electric scooter to comfortably handle highway speeds.
Getting 70 miles to a charge and topping out at 62 mph, the Vectrix packs in the equivalent power of a 400cc engine.
The Enertia from Brammo Motorsports has a unique lithium phosphate battery pack gives the bike a 45-mile range.
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The Enertia goes from zero to its top speed of 50 mph in 6.8 seconds. Coming in 2008, the standard model of the Enertia electric motorcycle will cost just under $12,000.
Scooters aren't a new presence in the U.S., but it's hard to ignore that these peppy, practical two-wheelers have been staging a comeback over the past few years. Ridership is up, as Americans bought close to 57,000 scooters in 2005. During 2006 and the first half of this year, sales have declined slightly, but a 2006 poll found that 30% of Americans would be "extremely or somewhat likely" to consider driving a scooter for everyday transportation needs.
Ridership for both scooters and motorcycles is particularly on the rise among women. From the get-go, the scooterâ€”with its skirt-friendly, feet-together seating positionâ€”was designed to be comfortable for women, and many a film has portrayed a chic young woman on her Lambretta or Vespa. The average age of scooter riders has gone up in recent years as well, suggesting that the step-though machines are becoming more of a fixture in American life; not just the province of mop-top models and scooter clubs.
Ask any scooter rider why she loves her Vespa, Buddy or vintage Lambretta, and she'll first tell you how much fun it is to drive. People truly relish the ride, not to mention the pleasure of splitting lanes during rush hour, or parking in spaces not even a motorcycle could slip into. Fuel efficiency will most likely come up next on the list. Scooter drivers happily brag about paying $5 or less to fill up the tank and getting 100 mpg or more.
Of course, travelers who have breathed the smog in Beijing or Buenos Aires know how bad scooters can be for urban air quality. But the latest two-wheelers that meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards in the U.S. are a different breed.
The single-cylinder, two- and four-stroke engines found in most new scooters use features like direct injection and continuously variable transmissions to make them not only sip gas, but burn it more cleanly. Piaggio took its scooters off the American market to retool their motors into compliance with emissions laws, and came back clean in 2000. They've since built a small empire that includes more than 60 boutique dealerships offering its Vespa and Piaggio scooter lineups.
Message board: Are scooters the answer to oil dependency and cleaner air? Voice your opinion!
With looming in-city traffic legislation, higher gas prices, and denser urban habitats, scooters may well prove one of the most viable options in personal mobility. As for the powertrain of the scooter itself, hybrid and electric technology is emerging as the next evolutionary leap. Piaggio has announced that it will produce three hybrid scooters by the end of 2008.
The Vespa LX 50, Piaggio X8 125, and unique three-wheeled Piaggio MP3 will be offered with HyS hybrid system. Like a parallel hybrid car, the HyS scooters will be powered by an electric and a gas motor working side by side, and regenerative braking will turn friction into power for the battery. But unlike a Prius, the HyS scooter will be a plug-in hybrid, letting riders extend their electric-motoring range with the option of charging the battery from a standard wall outlet.
No company other than Piaggio is publicly taking its scooters down the hybrid avenue, but fully electric machines may be preparing to leapfrog the transitional hybrid phase. Mirroring the budding electric car market, a handful of small startups are developing advanced electric bikes with the range, speed, power, and price to start competing with their internal-combustion counterparts.
For speeds up to 30 mph, there is a respectable selection of electric scooters to investigate. The Zapino from ZAP! carries a 3000-watt brushless DC motor in its wheel hub. With the lithium-ion battery upgrade, the Zapino can travel 65 miles on a full charge. The Evader EV 1000, and two scooter models from Electric Vehicle Systems (EVS's 4000-E and retro 168) offer similar performance. For the rider needing more speed and longer range, the option pool shrinks to just a few. But it won't likely be that way for long.
Related link: Read more about electric vehicles from ZAP!
The forthcoming Enertia from Oregon-based Brammo Motorsports is a slim electric motorcycle with classic styling and commendable performance. After charging for three hours, the Enertia's six lithium-phosphate batteries give the bike a 45-mile range, a 50-mph top speed, and an impressive 0-30 mph time of just 3.8 seconds. Coming in 2008, the standard model of the Enertia electric motorcycle will cost just under $12,000.
Related link: Read more about the Enertia electric motorcycle
The first highway-capable electric scooter to cross into production is the Vectrix Maxi Scooter. Getting 70 miles to a charge and topping out at 62 mph, the Vectrix packs the equivalent power of a 400cc engine. The Rhode Island-based company has been sweating through the design and testing process since 1996, and has recruited some notable corporate brass, including Carlo Di Biagio, former CEO of Ducati Motor Holdings.
The Vectrix scooter, costing around $11,000, is already being sold through dealers in Rome, Madrid, Melbourne, and Bologna, and the first U.S. store opened in Newport, Rhode Island this August. The next design phase will produce a three-wheeled version similar to the Piaggio MP3, that could be positioned for direct competition with the Italian hybrid when, and if, it arrives in the U.S.
When analysts at Piaggio ran the numbers, they found that if Americans used modern gasoline scooters for 10% of their travel, 14 million gallons of gas and 324 million pounds of carbon dioxide would be spared each day. After commissioning a study on traffic flows, Piaggio also estimated that if 20% of the vehicles in a central section of midtown Manhattan were scooters, total delays would decrease by more than 4.6 million hours per year.
In the large swathes of the U.S. that do not enjoy a Mediterranean climate, two-wheelers will never be an appealing option for everyone. But considering the bulging traffic snarls in our urban centers and the high rates of solo commuting, in many parts of the U.S. the scooter could become what it is in so many of the world's cities: a practical daily travel solution. It certainly can't hurt that people seem to love them so much.
Jacob Gordon is a freelance writer, a blogger for TreeHugger.com, and producer of TreeHugger Radio. He can be reached at by firstname.lastname@example.org