Interview: Electric motorcycles – the question of how it happens

David Rubia, Photo: PB IKI
David Rubia, Photo: PB IKI

David Rubia from UN Environment talks about ways of fostering the transition to electric mobility in East Africa and Southeast Asia. 

David Rubia works for the Air Quality and Mobility Unit at the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UN Environment). He is coordinating the Electric Mobility Initiative, which is supporting developing and transitioning countries move from internal combustion engine to electric mobility with a focus on electric 2&3 wheelers, light duty vehicles, and buses. The project “Integrating Electric 2&3 Wheelers into Existing Urban Transport Modes” focuses on Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Mr. Rubia, within your project you work with six countries, three of them in East Africa and three of them in Asia. How did you select those six countries?

In our unit, we have worked in 70 developing and transitional countries. Over the years, we have had the opportunity to get an idea of what their mobility issues are. So specifically with these six countries, we observed that they came from two sub-regions with different issues related to 2&3 wheelers. In East Africa, you have the biggest growth rate of 2-wheelers in the world right now. A lot of that is for taxis because of the collapse of public transport and the congestion in the cities. In South East Asia, the growth in 2-wheelers has been going on for a long time, with most being used for personal use. It has almost become a culture: in Viet Nam for instance, people are likelier to own a scooter rather than a car.

Car and motorbike taxis in Kampala, Uganda; Photo: UN Environment

How would you describe the relationship between mobility and climate change?

What excites us about this project is that we know that the future of mobility has to be shared (i.e. public transport) as well as low or zero emissions to be able to meet the Paris Climate Agreement. Moving from internal combustion engine to electric 2-wheelers is a great stepping-stone for the wider uptake of electric mobility, which will see to reductions in mobility emissions. It is an easier entry point into electric mobility because you do not need as much of the infrastructure as you would need for light duty vehicles or buses and you do not need a lot of the investment at the personal level as you would need for light duty vehicles. The products are already on the market and they are pretty much price competitive. Once we reach this transition, we will change the mind-set of people. People will be able to see electric mobility as something that makes sense and that works. Going from there into light duty vehicles or buses or any other mode of electric mobility will then be much more capacitated. Having said that, it is very important that these electric vehicles, particularly electric 2-wheelers be fully integrated in urban traffic with sufficient policies and regulations.

Looking at Kenya, how do you think that you can change the established chains of production?

One of the key components of this IKI project is supporting local manufacturing/assembly. Most of the 2-wheelers in Kenya today are imported; therefore, transitioning to electric mobility presents a big opportunity to promote local industry and innovation. Indeed, we are supporting one of our partners in Uganda, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, to map out the internal combustion engine 2-wheeler industry in Uganda in order to understand it better because ultimately we are trying to see a change in technology not a disruption in people’s livelihoods. We therefore need to understand the market so that we can start this intervention to transition to electric mobility in a sustainable manner that creates green jobs.
On the consumer side, this is somewhat easier. Since in East Africa the motorcycles are mostly being used as taxies, it is important to create an economic incentive for electric mobility. If we are able to present a scenario where – with new policies and with great piloting - you can save 30%, to 40% to 50% or even more on your operating cost by switching technology, it will be an easy decision to make for most consumers. Here we definitely want to benefit from the fact the motorcycle taxis feature higher usage than 2-wheelers for private use – thus, lower operating costs compared to conventional motorcycles can really make a difference.

Which role does policy play? How do you approach the challenge of adapting regulations to foster low-emission technology?

All the work we do at UN Environment is targeted towards policy change because interventions not rooted in policy change often do not see to the long-term impact intended. UN Environment has the institutional capacity to see to policy change. Now it is important that we look at all the issues on the table and work through them. It will be a challenge but there is a lot of energy from policy makers who view this as an opportunity to better regulate the motorized 2-wheeler sector, which has grown faster than policy. We therefore hope to capitalise on this excitement on the policy side and support transitioning to electric 2-wheelers, including bicycles, scooters and motorcycles.

UN Avenue in Gigiri, Kenya, separating different lanes for cars, bikes and pedestrians; Photo: UN Environment

You mentioned piloting…

Yes, one of the things we were really excited about when we were putting this project together is that it is really tangible. Electric mobility makes sense to many people once they have been exposed to it. First people worry about thinks like "How can I charge it? What if the battery runs out?" We need to introduce consumers and policy makers to electric mobility so that they can be able to see how it works. We are going to do a demonstration pilot in every country where we will introduce electric 2&3 wheelers in captured fleets. What is going to differ is the scope of the pilot. In South East Asia, there have been pilots before. We need to understand and work with the players. Ultimately, the pilots will drive policy formulation as well as raise awareness for electric mobility.

What would a pilot project in Kenya look like?

It is not just bringing a motorcycle to an office and having you touch it. It is actually having a yearlong study where you introduce electric 2-wheelers into a captured fleet i.e. an entity with a sizeable existing internal combustion engine 2-wheeler fleet (e.g. the police, a courier service, or even a taxi cooperative). After we introduce the electric 2-wheelers, we will then collect data on their performance e.g. charging frequency, energy consumption, operating costs etc. contrasted to the same for internal combustion engine 2-wheelers. The pilot will therefore arm the policy makers with data to better inform policy development as well as allow consumers to interact with electric 2-wheelers and proof the concept. We will also conduct a lot of awareness raising and media campaigns. The project will also explore all the emerging innovative energy and mobility links e.g. electric bikes charged by solar which can be used for lighting your house at night.

How conscious are consumers regarding environmental impacts and the effect of transportation on climate change?

I think it is honest to say that there is not that much awareness speaking specifically about East Africa but that this is ramping up. Many things are changing. Two months ago, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya banned plastic bags. This was a huge step. But Rwanda has done that for close to 10 years and other countries are thinking about it now. That creates awareness. The National Environment and Management Authority of Kenya is getting a wider and a wider mandate today in terms of policing the environment. Today you cannot do a project without a robust environmental impact assessment. People now know that and it is a serious process. Actually, Kenya is one of the first countries to enact a law (Climate Change Act, 2016) that provides a legal framework mandating climate resilient low carbon economic development. The awareness is going to come and we are going to help push that.

Pollution caused by internal combustion engines; Photo: Kampala, Uganda. Photo: UN Environment

The pilots within the IKI project are just the starting point. How do you think that you can scale them up?

If everything works out as we plan and it ends up in policy, there will be an uptake of electric 2&3 wheelers. But, speaking about East Africa, we will need to see investment in local manufacturing of electric 2&3 wheelers and more incentives for consumers. In South East Asia, there will also be a need for targeted policies and investments. First, we want to support the policy framework for that region because we understand that this right now is a priority. But then we would also like to look for more financing for that region.

Looking at Kenya, do you think that one-day people will only use electric vehicles?

I think that – yes! I do not want to put a date on it, but I can say this: We are not a car manufacturing country, so we do not have the inertia issues that many countries have. We are therefore not beholden to any technology. So switching to electric mobility is a way of domesticating our energy and our energy security. Those two things alone make it very realistic to see a transition. Further, the Kenyan consumer is very responsive. If we get the right interventions in place for electric 2-wheelers, honestly, we could see to a complete transition very quickly. Of course, our worry is that, if you move too fast you do not get the right standards in place. You need to look at battery issues and at minimum acceptable specifications. This is not to say “slow down the transition”, but we need to do this right. It is like a wildfire that could catch and burn even faster than ideal. The question is if we are going to see a serious import of electric mobility without any robust standards and policies that support local manufacturing and harmonised standards in regions. The latter is what we want to see. So to answer your question: it is happening and it is going to happen. The issue is how it happens.

Thank you very much.

The project “Integrating Electric 2&3 Wheelers into Existing Urban Transport Modes” is being funded by the German Environment Ministry’s International Climate Initiative (IKI). Mr. Rubia was interviewed during his visit at the Transport and Climate Change Week in September 2017 in Berlin.

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