Connect to share and comment

All-electric, all-Texas

Video: How a high-tech electric engine from the Lone Star State could change the face of Vietnam.

But Vietnamese use their motorbikes as the equivalent of a family car. Urban residents routinely ride three or four to a bike; farmers use their motorbikes to haul chickens, pigs, and refrigerators. And teenagers like to drag-race them at 60 miles per hour.

“Electric motorbikes are unpopular in Vietnam because, first of all, they’re much slower than gas engines,” said Hanoi motorbike taxi driver Duong Van Huong, 40. “Second, the price is too high. Third, the batteries don’t last long. Only old people use them.”

Huong also dislikes one of the very things non-Vietnamese like about the electric scooters: the quiet.

“The motor doesn’t make any noise, so it doesn’t attract attention from other drivers,” Huong said. “It’s easy to get into traffic accidents.”

Graphic designer Nguyen Thang Trung, 27, said the problem was the ungainly designs of the current crop of electric motorbikes. “If manufacturers develop more designs and forms suitable suitable for young people, and the price is reasonable, it will be good,” Trung said.

The bikes Sufat and KLD make could solve all of these problems. Okonsky wants to make the new bikes’ batteries easily removable, so they can be recharged at work, or exchanged for fully loaded ones at gas stations. The company is coming up with elegant designs that accentuate the absence of a combustion motor. Even the noise issue may not be relevant: the Neue motor generates a powerful whirr when it revs up.

The main difference, though, is that KLD’s electric motors are simply much stronger than those on traditional electric scooters, because they use a different technology. Electric motors work by alternating the polarity of several magnets back and forth, causing a rotor to spin. Most materials release heat each time their polarity shifts, and if the frequency of alternation goes too high, the motor will overheat.

But the nano-crystalline material at the core of a KLD motor scarcely heats up when its polarity shifts. That means the motor can alternate much faster, generating more power. The KLD motor is so strong and so small that it doesn’t need a drivetrain, or gears. It is simply built into the motorbike’s rear wheel, which it turns directly, like pedaling a unicycle. Eliminating the drivetrain saves energy and improves reliability — there are fewer parts to break down.

The new bikes are slated to sell for between $1,500 and $2,000 U.S. dollars. That’s a reasonable price in the Vietnamese market; a mid-range Honda Future gas-powered bike sells for $1,700, while more chic bikes, such as the Piaggio Honda SH, sell for $4,000 or more.

But everything will depend on how Vietnam’s motorbike-savvy consumers react to the new electric scooters. Most Vietnamese who’ve heard about the bikes have taken a wait-and-see attitude.

“The main reaction is I think the same reaction that a lot of people in the U.S. have at some level, which is: if it’s viable, and it doesn’t really change their lifestyle, they’re happy to do it,” Okonsky said. “If they can recharge (easily) and can do the same things that they currently do with their gas scooters, and the cost is similar, they’re happy to do it.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Vietnam:

More powerful than a tall building

Down and out in Ho Chi Minh City

Lessons of Vietnam