Meet the Niu N1: the first ‘cool’ e-bike from China

Rohan Malhotra

After a successful fundraising campaign, sizable local press coverage and a few bit pieces in the foreign media, the Niu ‘N1’ has hit the road in style and is currently selling in batches directly from the Niu website. Niu is the “e-scooter startup” of China with a single mission in focus: to introduce a quality e-scooter and make it accessible to the masses.

Of course, China has no shortage of e-bikes and e-scooters, but what is sorely missing is an available premium range. The problem can partly be put down to the poor perception many Chinese people seem to have of two-wheeled technology, but it can also be partly attributed to the dearth of quality offerings currently available on the market.

A lack of innovation on the part of local companies means that many popular e-scooters in China are simply cheap copies of existing overseas gas-powered scooters and motorbikes with their combustion engines replaced by electric systems. A great deal of Chinese e-scooters currently on the road also suffer from a number of problems, chief among them poor battery quality, with build quality coming in second – body panels held together with duct tape are a common sight on Chinese streets.

Niu said the challenge for them was essentially to design a full-sized scooter that would fill the gap in the market for something powerful, sturdy and impressive to look at, while still having it be affordable.

China is home to the world’s largest market for e-bikes and e-scooters, with sales numbering 18 million for 2014 – drawing close to the 23 million cars sold in 2014. As with cars, there is a significant opportunity in China to pioneer high quality export-worthy e-bikes. Based on the fact that prestigious car brands like Tesla have a high following, the demand is there, but as yet, there has been no significant investment in this market tier from traditional manufacturers.

niu battery
The N1’s battery

Battery blues and the state of the grid
The great black cloud looming over the electric vehicle industry of China is a severe lack of public charging facilities. Although many smaller e-bike models have removable batteries that can be charged from conventional home sockets, only a few parking lots offer primitive power sockets for overnight charging. Though the Chinese government has made several pronouncements over the years, no government body or private enterprise has successfully resolved this as of yet. As of October 2015, the latest announcement from the authorities has the government intending to build out a charging network for as many as 5 million vehicles by 2020.

Li Jingze, Head of Communications said that newer lightweight, detachable lithium batteries – like the one featured on the Niu N1 – solve the problems of the older lead-acid tech batteries currently employed by a majority of bikes on the road. Older lead acid batteries, in addition to being extremely heavy, tend to have a short life span and offer less range. Lithium batteries can last up to five years compared with six months to a year for lead acid batteries, and offer half the weight and more power.

Inconsistencies and uncertainty

Another significant hurdle facing the two-wheeled e-vehicle industry of China is the contradiction between apparent attempts at government legislation – including the varying circumstances of different jurisdictions – and the realities at ground level. The official message seems to be that e-bikes and e-scooters are considered bicycles for the time being with some regions requiring vehicles to have pedals, others imposing limits on maximum speed, and others still having no limits at all. Importantly there are no uniform standards in place and in practice e-bikes and e-scooters are commonly sold across China with no pedals and with maximum speeds that enable them to keep up with urban traffic.

The N1 sold nationwide is capped at a maximum speed of 45km/h and optional removable pedals are supplied in certain jurisdictions to comply with local laws.

Niu has said their government contacts indicate there’s a strong likelihood that various jurisdictions will introduce license plates or compulsory licensing for e-bikes in the next year to 18 months. In Beijing, you can already register a scooter at a local police station for 10 RMB, but it is not compulsory. Driver licenses for e-bikes have not yet been introduced and it might be difficult to introduce stringent licensing due to an industry-wide reliance on electric vehicles for business purposes particularly pertinent for the courier economy.

(Image credits: feature image & battery Niu)

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