In a small sales outlet on Esther Place, off Park Road, several bikes are being tinkered with by mechanics, as would-be customers peer over their shoulders and fire off questions. The latter are patiently informed that the running cost of this bike is an amazing 15 cents per kilometre, that no servicing or even oil changes are required and that spares are easily available on the market.
‘No fuel required,’ promises the marketing brochure for this new range of electric bikes being manufactured almost entirely in Sri Lanka. In a year of rocketing fuel prices, their appeal is obvious; but the new CL 350 from Electramobiles Pvt. Ltd. has a lot else going for it.
Dr. Mohan Siribaddana, Chairman of Electramobiles is the man responsible for bringing much of the technology to Sri Lanka. He explains that unlike vehicles that run on internal combustion engines, electric bikes essentially run on a controller, a motor and a set of batteries. Maintenance, he says, amounts to what is required for a push bike. “If the controller goes, or the motor goes, you have to replace it, but we know these last for over three to four years,” he says, adding that the lead acid batteries – which cost approximately Rs.12,000 – are the most expensive part. These are expected to last the two years that the bike is under guarantee. Even after that, the company advises owners not to replace the whole set, but to allow them to replace the most affected individual battery.
Currently, the most obvious constraint in using the bike is the distance it can run on a single charge. “Under standard conditions it can run 70 -100 km,” says Gihan Wijetunga, CEO of Electramobiles. Describing the bike as perfect for people commuting to work within the city, he explains that many customers are opting to drive their bikes to work, and then plug them into charge there. The compact, portable charger can be plugged into a regular 5 amp plug point. “It’s much cheaper than keeping a computer switched on for the whole day - it consumes only 1.8 units of electricity for the complete charge,” he points out.
Speed demons must prepare for disappointment though, as the speedometer is likely to hover around a sedate 40 km/h mark. However, compensation arrives in the form of a release from registration at the RMV, licence, revenue licence and insurance policies. The bikes can bear 150 kg, and so for most part serve as two person vehicles. In case of complete discharge of batteries, athletic owners can consider using the pedals.
Dr. Siribaddana says that he first decided the product would be ideal for the Sri Lankan market after witnessing firsthand its success in China. When his course in traditional Chinese medicine came to an end, he spent a few months working closely with Chinese manufacturers who taught him a great deal about the technology behind the bikes.
After his return to Sri Lanka, “it took over two and a half years of R&D, but we sold our first bike in 2005.” Sales were far from satisfactory though – requiring some strategic changes. Finally, E-Honda Pvt Ltd was renamed Electramobiles Pvt. Ltd and assembly was brought entirely into Sri Lanka.
Presently, Electramobiles, a joint venture with Incalcu Electric Vehicle Company and Hywuxing China Ltd – the latter being the third largest vehicle manufacturer in China, sells its bikes at dealerships in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Horana and Marawila while more centres are expected to open soon.
Currently, they have two models: the first, the CL 350, is meant for city riders who will probably spend most of their travelling time on smooth, congested roads. SW 500, however, boasts a high tension electric powered motor fixed to its wheel – a design that allows it to perform well on the high incline roads in hillier parts of the island, says Dr. Siribaddana. In the coming months Electramobile plans to release more new models.
At an average price of Rs. 84,500 these bikes don’t always compare favourably with their petrol-fuelled, moped-like brethren. However, the long term costs must be considered. “When you compare it with the average motorcycle, there are so many people spending around 100,000 a year to fill gas and maintain the bike,” says Mr. Wijetunga. “With our bike you spend less than 10,000.” He then takes his argument a step further – “you’re actually saving 90,000 a year – this is not just a bike for transportation but a bike for investment.”
It is apparent that they may have found the magic formula. Their factory in Pepiliyana, Boralesgamuwa currently manufactures around 200 electric bikes a month and the company has sold 500 bikes in the last three months alone. However, with a 30 – 65 day waiting list of over 200 customers, they are in the process of upping their production numbers to 500 bikes a month. Competing with established brands for a share of the vehicle market is tough going, admits Mr. Wijetunga freely. But he shares Dr. Siribaddana’s faith in the technology itself. Especially when taken in the context of the inevitable fuel shortages, “I think this is the best solution for Sri Lanka, for any country,” he says.