Electric Motorcycles in China – Nathan Siy Interview, Founder Evoke Motorcycles

nathan siy

Electric Motorcycles are a niche market here in United States and other countries.  We recently wrote about a company called Evoke Motorcycles that is wants put more electric motorcycles on the roads in China. The country already has booming sales of electric scooters and other types of electric vehicles so we imagine buying an electric motorcycle isn’t too far of a leap.

Anyway Nathan Siy, the founder of Evoke, was kind enough to do an interview with us. He shares some insights into what it’s like building a vehicle company from the ground-up, what it’s like living in China, and were the technology for electric vehicles currently is.

Electric Motorcycle Club – So Nathan, tell us a little bit about yourself? You are Chinese Canadian correct? How long have you been living in China?

Nathan Siy – That’s right, I’d consider myself more Canadian, but with Chinese heritage. I was raised pretty westernized in Vancouver, Canada, but have enjoyed my time here in Beijing reconnecting with China. I’ve been living here in Beijing on and off since ’03. A short term work contract turned into a whole new chapter of my life.

EMC – What’s been the most interesting cultural differences or shock you’ve experienced as a Canadian?

NS – There are so many, it’s hard to pinpoint the most interesting one. Coming here in the beginning, I was actually pretty shocked that more people didn’t speak English. I tried to get by my first year without learning the local language, which made it insanely difficult living and working here. I actually sort of gave up and went back after my first contract, but came again in ’06 to give it another shot, and have been here ever since.

EMC – About Evoke Motorcycles, how did the company get started and why did you start an electric motorcycle company?

NS – It actually started with a completely different team and evolved into what we have today. It got started with the idea of developing something that we would want to ride ourselves. Throw a stick in Beijing and you’ll probably end up hitting an electric bike, but those bikes that so many people ride here today didn’t have enough power, or safety, or comfort. We begin with the idea of taking what was here, working so well, with electric scooters, and scaling it up to a point that we would be happy with, without breaking the bank. It took quite a few iterations, but I believe we got it right with the Urban S.

EMC – Does anyone think you are crazy for wanting to start Evoke?

NS – My wife thinks I’m a bit nuts. She’s really supportive of developing the business, but automotive companies, and by extent, motorcycle companies are inherently challenging. They take time and a great deal of resource to scale properly. We’ve done a great job so far finding ways to fast prototype and R&D cost-effectively up to this point, and being in China helps to manage logistics and H&R costs. Honestly, if we were elsewhere in the world, we wouldn’t have been able to progress as quick and far as where we are at now.

EMC – Has running tours in Beijing given you an good perspective of what works and doesn’t for travel in an urban environment? Are electric vehicles an adequate replacement for gas powered vehicles?

NS – Running tours here have definitely given me good perspective on what people’s 2 wheeled expectations are, but what has been most useful is renting out our e-scooters. We started doing that in 2012, and I believe that people drive a lot more “true to life” when renting. They usually don’t have a concept of electric power, how to conserve it, etc. They ride it like a gas scooter and from their data, I was able to quantify daily range and “true to life” expectations.

Electric vehicles can be an adequate replacement for urban dwellers providing the vehicle has at least a 60km range. From many of our renters’ experiences, they would empty the battery almost 1.5 times in the course of a day in Beijing. They would charge up at least an hour or 2 during lunch or coffee mid-day, and then be off again in the afternoon. Our average range for our small e-scooters is about 30km, which means someone with no concept of electric vehicles and basically ultimate freedom in the city would travel a daily average of about 45km, which matches a lot of commuter data in other big cities. Buffer in 20% and I believe that with a vehicle range of 60km, it would suit majority of the urbanites transportation requirements.

EMC – What are the advantage to use electric scooters over gas powered scooters? I assume you have lower maintenance costs, right?

NS – There are quite a few “hard advantages” to electric scooters and electric motorcycles over their gas counter parts, such as reduced maintenance, lower operating costs, low noise, but what brought me over to the “dark side” of electric vehicles is hard to verbalize; it’s the fun factor. It’s the sensation of being launched from a slingshot while you accelerate, where the bike snaps you back and continuously pulls for what seems like ages. It’s also the simplicity of just twisting to get you going without all the clunky clutch and shifting and what not. It’s also the peacefulness of the surroundings hugging you and making you one with the city; the unity that feel with your bike, hearing the tires on the ground, the slight hum of the motor, knowing you and your machine are one symbiotic unit.

I’ve been riding motorcycles since I first got my driver’s license, and while they’re fun, there’s also lots to keep you busy with; now that i’m on electric motorcycles, I just realize all that stuff detracted from my 2 wheeled experience.

EMC – What does it cost to charge the scooters?

NS – In China, we’re paying about 0.48 RMB for kWh, so to fill up the Urban S from dead to full would be about 4 RMB ($0.66 USD).

EMC – Currently there are about 12 million electric scooters sold each year and about 9+ million of those are sold in China. It seems the Chinese are more willing to accept electric vehicles from what I’ve read. Why is this? Does it have to do with the air pollution?

NS – The statistics seems about right. The automotive culture, and by extension, motorcycle culture is still relatively new to them. Cars and motorcycles have only been around, at most, 30 years. I believe the country is still in it’s infancy, which makes it easier to “change over” to new technologies quicker.

Another issue would probably be the government’s backing on EVs. Gas motorcycles are slowly being eliminated in the bigger cities, perhaps due to the pollution issue, or licensing. People still need to get around, so that gap is being replaced with electric.

EMC – It seems like the Chinese already are ahead in terms of battery technology and other electric vehicle related tech. I assume you are planning on utilizing this to your advantage. Do you plan to pool local talent and knowledge?

NS – China is surprising ahead of the curve when it comes to battery assembly and we’re fortunate enough to be working with some of the best in China. In basic EV related tech (controllers, DC-DC, etc) China’s on par. What I miss from local companies is electronics and diagnostics. Surprisingly, we haven’t found what we’re looking for yet and have ventured off developing our own.

The local talent pool is somewhat divided and where we lie is somewhere in the middle. On the one end, there are a lot of guys with hands on building experience, which is great for execution and going from concept to prototype, then there are the high end theoretical minds, working for Tesla or Byd. We’re kind of stuck in the middle. As a startup, it’s difficult to attract the high end guys, but we also need several steps up from the hands-on guys as well. We’re continuously looking for local talent to join the team and I’m sure as time goes on, we’ll see more and more mid-level guys coming from different industries into EVs.

EMC – How hard is it to charge an electric vehicle in China? Could I find a place to charge-up if I needed it?

NS – It’s fairly easy. People in China are quite used to the electric scooter industry, and since we utilize a 10A on board charger with a standard plug, it allows us to make use of the “regular” infrastructure. This infrastructure isn’t a traditional one, per say, but it’s the mom and pop shops, restaurants and storefronts, with extension cords charging their own e-bikes that are happy to let someone piggyback on it as they dine in their establishment.

Car charging stations are growing in Beijing, but I’ve only ran into a few. It would require an adapter, but we’ll consider selling one if the demand gets there.

evoke motorcycles

EMC – What electric motorcycles does Evoke Motorcycles currently sell?

NS – We’re currently selling our first model, the Evoke Urban S. We’re planning to develop a series of electric motorcycles utilizing the same power train in a sport body, cafe racer body and finally a relaxed cruiser. It’s still a while away, but we’re hoping to make use of more fast-prototyping methods to get new bikes launched.

EMC – Does Evoke build motorcycles from the ground-up or are you retrofitting motorcycles with a motor, controller, and batteries?

NS – We’re probably closer to retrofitting motorcycles at the moment, but I’d say a few steps up from that. There’s quite a few parts that are designed by us to bring it all together, so it isn’t retrofitting in the traditional sense, but using some motorcycle parts, some ev parts and custom design parts to make the Urban S.

EMC – When do you plan on selling your Urban S? Is the 150cc engine equivalent adequate for Beijing and roads in China?

NS – We’re currently in small production for the China market. Our biggest challenge stateside isn’t the manufacturing, but the DOT process. The 150cc equivalent engine is a bit misleading. We rate it at that due to the output power that a 150cc typically produces and what the Urban S produces, but “seat of the pants” testing leaves the 150cc in the dust, and getting up to speed in traffic is no comparison.

EMC – Any plans to scale production in a factory? Seems like jumping from scooters to motorcycles would not be too hard. Are you looking for investors?

NS – That’s a great question and, honestly, we’re still in figuring things out. Scaling production in a Chinese factory means that we have to have all our ducks in a row to protect ourselves and the brand in the future from possible IP issues. Scaling production in our own facility means lots of capital. Both are difficult choices.

A short term goal that all of us had in mind was exactly that, but with everyone so busy on production and R&D, no one’s had the time to pursue things on the investor front as much as we’d like. I am starting to leave R&D a bit more to the other guys and learn about the business side of things to balance the team out as well.

EMC – Why is your website in English if you are currently only planning on selling in China? Are you planning on importing Evoke motorcycles to the United States and North America at some point?

NS – Haha, it’s was a pretty big pivot we all decided on early in 2015 for the China market. The plan was always to develop and manufacture in China, but where we pivoted was, we wanted to start sales and marketing in Canada and the US, but were faced with quite a lot of challenges that we weren’t ready for yet, such as DOT approval and Transport Canada, so in Jan. 2015, we decided to continue researching the North American market for now until we can find the right people to execute the legalities, marketing and sales there.

EMC – Do you have a Chinese language site?

NS – 正在做。(It means “we’re working on it as we speak) :p

EMC – The first time I heard about electric motorcycles, I thought it sounded lame. What were your thoughts and reaction?

NS – First reactions to EVs in Beijing were electric scooters, and for me, they were life-changing. It wasn’t necessarily the “cool factor” that got me on one; it was more the mobility and freedom in Beijing. But like anything I buy, I simply can’t be happy with stock, so begins the journey. But before coming to Beijing, I actually had no concept of what an electric motorcycle or electric scooter even was.

EMC – What’s been the most challenging aspect of trying to get a vehicle company off-the-ground?

NS – It’s all challenging, equally challenging, but I enjoy the challenge and the process. At the end of the day, getting any company off the ground takes time, but you got to find ways to make it fun while you’re taking the time to get things going.

EMC – What’s a book that’s had a profound affect on you, helped your, or changed your outlook on life?

NS – Hmmm, I haven’t read a book in quite a long time. I like chatting with people or doing stuff with my hands to keep busy, so I haven’t found the time to section off to read a book.

EMC – Do you have any advice, personal of professional, that you’d like to share? It could be something you’ve learned or something that someone taught or told you that helped your in your life.

NS – Something that comes up around the shop a lot is “You don’t know what you don’t know”. I think it has come in handy for several situations when prototyping stuff, testing circuits, or designing the UI. It’s building in redundancies for things that may happen, or preparing for something that could happen that you don’t even know about yet.

END OF INTERVIEW

We’d like to thank Nathan for taking the time to do this interview and answer our questions about Evoke Motorcycles and the market in China for electric motorcycles, well mainly electric scooters.  Do you have any questions for Nathan about Evoke, future plans for the company, the tour business, or anything else? Please leave a comment below and we will try to get him to answer any questions or concerns as soon as possible.

You can learn more about the motorcycles and company here – http://www.evokemotorcycles.com/

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