Sustainable Mobility: Are Electric Bikes Eco-Friendly?

April 11, 2023
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By- Sravan Appana, CEO of iGowise Mobility

April 11, 2023: Can you believe that in just nine years, it will be 200 years since the advent of the first documented electric carriage on the roads?

That’s true. Several factors influenced the battle between fossil fuel and electric in the personal vehicle segment. The electric powertrain may have lost steam(pun intended) because of the bulkiness of energy storage systems at the time.

Unfortunately, that led to the fossil-fuel based mobility revolution that eventually contributed 16% of the world’s emissions and toxic air-pollution in the most densely populated metro cities. EVs today have already turned out to be a viable solution to the fundamentally limited resource of fossil fuels. Sustainable mobility is a broad topic with no one-size-fits-all solution. Planes, trains, trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles & bicycles, each of them needs a unique tailored approach. Possibly the lowest hanging fruit among all the modes of transport is the electric motorcycle or simply, e-bike! On which the majority of the emerging world depends. This will help the emerging economies avoid repeating the blunders of the developed world with bulky, dirty & perpetual congestion causing personal cars. Electric bikes are not perfect, like any other form of vehicles and transportation options. This does not undermine the purpose, as collectively, EVs are known for reducing the effects of emissions in the longer run. E-bikes have been improving in different segments and performance. The goal of reaching zero-emission biking is always the target, but making it more effective and responsive is up to all of us. Electric bikes have all but positive outcomes.

Let us first knock off the obvious advantages of eBikes over the status quo:

Direct Carbon Footprint

Let us consider a regular petrol-run bike compared to an e-bike. When we compare lifecycle emissions, many people often miss out on the well-to-wheel emissions of fuel vehicles, all the while taking into account the battery mining and production-related emissions. The overall emission of just CO2 is nearly half of what a fuel-powered vehicle has to offer. Far lower in terms of much toxic PM emissions causing health troubles in densely populated metros. Evs also help reduce not just air but also noise pollution.

Energy Efficiency

Some others point out the fact that the source of electricity is still dirty coal-based in many emerging countries. While that is quickly changing, we can safely say that an average e-bike converts a whopping 77% of the electrical energy into power. This is more than twice that of a regular fossil-fuel-powered vehicle. The latter has a conversion of 12-30% of the energy out from the fuel, resulting in an expensive proposition.

Recycling

With or without EVs, humans have to figure out the battery-recycling puzzle. From laptops to smartphones, data-centres to electrical grids, from power-plants to bitcoin-mining operations, batteries are going to be in demand for a long time. EVs have already driven considerable push to innovations in both reuse & recycle. One notable example is finding a second life for discarded EV batteries as home UPS. With V2G technology, EVs can eventually be a distributed alternate grid of sort for better energy resilience in the long run.

Now we shall discuss a few not-so-obvious advantages of EVs that are not being leveraged by even the most ardent proponents of the e-bike revolution:

Compactness

The electric powertrain is incredibly compact compared to the fuel counterpart. Understanding this one aspect opens up multiple opportunities and eliminates several constraints. 

All of us know EVs have fewer parts and need lower maintenance. But we should also note that one can design electric vehicles to be far more safer, more spacious, more comfortable & more accessible to one & all.

Safety

Eighteen people die on Indian roads every hour. Two-wheeler users are 30 times more prone to accidents compared to any other vehicle, and many of them are young breadwinners. We can do a lot more. For example, mandating helmets helps reduce fatality in case of a skidding incident. By designing bikes and scooters that prevent skidding in the first place, we can drastically reduce the economic cost of road accidents. Mobility technology has advanced considerably to make this possible. Beyond anti-skid, eBikes can be naturally integrated with connected vehicle technology for advanced features, including obstacle detection and collision prevention. 

Space

eBikes can be built for space. By allowing us to carry more goods safely, we can reduce the number of trips, overall energy footprint, spillage, and increase the overall efficiency of bike logistics. A small Kirana store is forced to use a big, expensive cargo four-wheeler vehicle just to restock a few items mid-week.

Comfort

eBikes can be built for more comfort and less fatigue. We can go beyond the standard scooter, bike, and moped forms to create new vehicle categories. We can essentially bring all the comforts of a car into an all-weather narrow footprint motorcycle for the narrow roads of Mumbai and Bengaluru. Every such vehicle on the road contributes to lesser emissions not only directly with one less car but also indirectly by reducing congestion.

Accessibility

Safety, comfort, and ease of handling of eBikes, when improved, leads to the biggest advantage of them all. Accessibility irrespective of age and gender. Today, many women and elderly are struggling with a lack of alternatives, forced to rely on their cars even in high-traffic peak times and non-existent parking spaces.

Final thoughts:

Not everything is hunky-dory with eBikes. EVs are typically bulkier and have higher acceleration, thus causing more particulate emissions from tires. EV-specific tires are just beginning to take traction, and hopefully, innovation catches pace, and this problem is also addressed soon.

With better battery chemistries, we are already reducing the impact of unethical mining for Cobalt, Nickel, and other rare minerals, simultaneously reducing the risks of fire incidents caused by such high thermal runaway minerals.

Overall, the sustainability benefits of electrification far outweigh the cons in small-footprint mobility for the emerging world. Not only for the environment but also for the economy and providing equitable opportunities. Not only for the carbon footprint but also for the overall energy footprint and the road infrastructure footprint, a.k.a traffic congestion.

Sravan Appana is the CEO of iGowise Mobility, he has an MBA (Marketing and Strategy & Leadership) from ISB and B. Tech (IT) – IIIT Allahabad

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