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Electric Bikes Quietly Claim City Streets

The familiar cluttering sound of motorbike scooters may soon be history as an electric scooter silently takes over the streets.

German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel, left, sits on an electric scooter which is driven by Matthias Heseding from Germany

Even German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has tried out a Vectrix maxi scooter

Until a few years ago, the electric scooter was considered an inventors' joke with a cumbersome heavyweight battery pack that made it about as maneuverable as a cement truck.

But the latest battery-driven scooters and bikes can hardly be distinguished from their petrol-driven cousins, with new battery technology making it possible to hide the battery pack in the bodywork, giving it the same optimal weight distribution as in conventional bikes.

Sales buzzing

Sales of electric bikes still only make up a small proportion of total bike sales, but are picking up rapidly as consumers seek alternatives to expensive fossil fuels.

Vectrix Corp., based in US state of Rhode Island, claims to be the world leader in zero emission electric scooters and high-performance bikes -- which are becoming quite a sensation among biking enthusiasts.

It has a conventional design with only the "electric" sticker on the front, distinguishing it from other bikes.

Vectrix reported in September a 738 percent rise in revenues compared to the last business year.

It sold 1,184 bikes to dealers, representing an increase of 156 percent over the previous financial year.

Electric Vx1 and Vx1e scooters are built at a plant in Poland but the company said it had also entered into an agreement for a final assembly in China.

Reducing carbon output

Demonstrators ride the Segway Human Transporter, a one-person, battery-powered scooter

Not all battery-powered scooters have caught on

SYM Corporation, a major bike producer in Taiwan, is also planning to produce several thousand electric bikes at its plant in China. The company is looking optimistically at the potential of zero-emission bikes because many cities in the world are imposing bans or high taxation on polluting vehicles.

Bicycles with an electric-power back-up are gaining in popularity, especially in flat countries such as the Netherlands. But companies are seeing more potential in high-powered electric motor bikes.

Police in the Scottish city of Edinburgh have just bought their first Vectrix maxi-scooter with fleet manager Dignan McCulloch, saying that "organizations across the country are focusing on improving their carbon footprint. The implementation of the Vectrix, as a direct replacement for a car, is a substantial achievement and goes a long way in helping us to reduce our carbon output."

The catch

Traffic tailbacks

Soon to be history?

At present, the Vectrix battery pack is a nickel metal-hydride unit, which can be recharged in two hours from a normal electric socket, giving it a range of 109 kilometers (67.7 miles) based on urban driving at 40 km/h (25 mph). The top speed is listed at 100 km/h.

But one big stumbling block is the sales price at 10,000 euros in Europe and $11,000 in the United States. A replacement battery costs about 2,232 euros.

The company has announced that it is looking at introducing lithium-ion battery technology for new models, and is also experimenting with fuel-cells. The high cost however has to be weighed up against the drive to the petrol filling station, oil and maintenance that falls away with the electric scooter. Insurance and tax are also lower for zero-emission vehicles.

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