All-electric, all-Texas

HANOI — It’s hard to find a place in Hanoi where you don’t hear motorbikes.

The city has 1.8 million of the gasoline-powered beasts, roughly one for every two inhabitants. They are the dominant mode of transit, and the source of most of the city’s caustic air pollution. A 2006 study found pedestrians in downtown Hanoi breathe particulate matter levels of almost 500 parts per million, ten times higher than WHO guidelines.

But Christian Okonsky, an engineer from Austin, Texas, has a device that could change all that.

The device is an electric motor with a nano-crystalline core. It is the size of a casserole dish, and more powerful than a 600cc motorcycle engine. Okonsky’s company, KLD Energy, is supplying the motor to the Vietnamese motorbike company Sufat and by the end of the year he expects to startle Hanoi with something it has never seen before — a clean, quiet electric scooter that can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in under 10 seconds.

At least, that’s what the prototype can do. There are still a few kinks to work out.

“We’re hoping to have it done by the end of the year,” Okonsky said in May, sitting next to his prototype on the sidewalk in front of KLD’s Hanoi office. “Our technology is on pace.”

The prototype, which KLD’s lead engineer, Hector Moya, had just unpacked from a crate air-freighted from the U.S., was not working. Okonsky and Moya had been fiddling with it for half an hour.

As it turned out the problem was simple — the software on the computerized motor controller had to be rebooted. After that, the bike ran perfectly for several days. But by the end of the week, its battery had burnt out.

Such are the perils of working with new technology. If the teething problems can be solved, KLD’s electric motor, produced under the trademark name “Neue," could make a major dent in air pollution and carbon emissions in Vietnam — and beyond.

Okonsky picked Vietnam to debut the technology because it has the world’s highest ratio of motorbikes per person: 22 million motorbikes in a population of 85 million. If Sufat’s electric scooters take off in Vietnam, KLD will spread the technology to other motorbike-crazy countries, like Malaysia, Taiwan and India.

Electric motorbikes, as such, aren’t new to Vietnam. “They have been sold in Vietnam for a long time,” said Tran The Loan, deputy director of Vietnam’s Department for Pollution Control. “But they have not been be able to penetrate the market.”

The reason is that current electric motorbikes are underpowered for Vietnamese tastes. Most are made in China, where the industry took off after major cities like Beijing and Shanghai banned gas-powered motorbikes in the 1990s. Chinese electric scooters can do a solid 30 miles per hour, and can go up to 55 miles between recharges. Last year Chinese bought 30 million of them.

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