2011 China International Motorcycle Trade Exhibition
China was considered until recently a "developing nation," as China’s former Ambassador to the United States, Zhang Yesui, pointed out in a recent interview with the respected Charlie Rose on American television.
Mr. Zhang explained that China’s ascent as a global manufacturing and consuming power belies that characterization, due to a growth rate that outstrips mature markets. Managing growth with a population of 1.3 billion, he added, entails challenges of great scope.
One of these challenges is sustainable personal transport. There is a two-wheel tradition in China’s working class; witness a motorcycling population of almost 100 million. This includes the proliferation of motorcycle taxis and tricycle-style commercial vehicles in China and throughout Asia.
But even as an emergent motorcycle "lifestyle culture" is taking root among this landscape of practical usage, more and more among the new affluent are choosing the automobile. How this impacts the infrastructure and the environment is a major question in China.
CIMAMOTOR 2010’s schedule featured panel discussions on environmental management, the role of the motorcycle and scooter, and the future of alternative power sources, as part of a comprehensive agenda co-managed by China’s government and industry. The 2011 event carries those themes forward, and in 2012 it is planned to bring ‘green’ fully to the forefront.
Meanwhile, China has become a choice location for major automotive builders like General Motors, Daimler, and Ford for the construction of their future electric and hybrid vehicles. The government has already mandated an aggressive plan that targets having a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Major international motorcycle brands do not yet appear to have embraced the concept, but makers like Honda (who are also developing electric/hybrid technology), Suzuki, and Yamaha, already have plants in the country. Whether or not they add ‘green bikes’ to their offering remains to be seen.
Given this context, can China become an incubator for a new generation going ‘green’ on two- and three-wheelers? According to Mr. Wei Wang, director of CIMAMOTOR 2011, the subject is pertinent. "The question is really ‘who would the consumers be for this type of vehicle’? Motorcycles were always an affordable mode of transportation, so the optimization of cost/value was the focus for our industry."
Wang suggests the dynamic has changed: "The idea of motorcycling for leisure is relatively new. Affluence is leading to increased enjoyment of two wheels as entertainment, and personal expression. Being Asia’s largest motorcycle consumer and trade show, we are responding to this trend, and also by expanding our coverage of aftermarket products, riding gear and lifestyle accessories."
"China is key for international motorcycling companies, as we are the largest two-wheel market in the world, " he continues. "We intend CIMA to be the window where traditional product and the most advanced technology co-exist. The Chinese consumer is both educated, and qualified, to purchase the best of the best. Sponsors and exhibitors at CIMAMOTOR who connect with China’s prime motorcycle consumers, can get a strong return on their investment."
The revenues that global brands and retailers, from Prada to Diageo to Wal-Mart, are generating in China appear to support this perspective.
On the other side of the ledger, China’s own brands, according to CIMA’s figures, make up 50% of all motorcycles sold in foreign markets. These are as diverse as Brazil, Canada and South Africa, to name a few. World motorcycle sales are projected to rise six percent per annum from a baseline of 44 million units; one California-based think tank forecasts 75 million by 2015, the bulk of these being in Asia-Pacific with increasing numbers in Latin America. Africa is reported to another fertile continent for two wheels.
China’s financial strength is accelerating its development curve at home, and profile abroad. Concurrently, its government is stating its openness to foreign investment, in venues such as September’s World Economic Forum in Dalian.
Chinese motorcycle companies are also outsourcing know-how. One example is Zhejiang Qianjiang, who purchased Italy’s Benelli in 2009. Producing over a million units annually, it is one of China’s top motorcycle/scooter/ATV manufacturers; and has a dedicated advanced electric vehicle division. Texas-based KLD Energy Technologies specializes in advanced electric propulsion and generation systems.
Its August 2011 press release said Qianjiang "will serve as a contract manufacturer for the company and intends to leverage KLD Energy Technologies’ electric motor systems". KLD says its motor system, using nano-crystalline composite material, offers increased efficiency over traditional iron-core motors. Qianjiang’s other foreign technical partnerships include lithium-ion battery development.
Visiting last year’s CIMAMOTOR, one could see a number of Chinese companies are recognizing the potential of alternative power sources and their applications to motorcycles, scooters and ATVs.
As this potential manifests itself, can Chinese motorcycle manufacturers raise their ‘green game’ to world-class levels? The rise of China as a motorcycle presence evokes a number of parallels to Japan’s. If the ‘leapfrog’ effect occurs in motorcycling, as it has in other aspects of emerging economies, a tectonic shift could occur where e-bikes become the norm.
An electric/hybrid future for motorcycling promises a wellspring of innovation. Perhaps also, in the way we ride.
How China engages in the process, and how it co-operates with global partners, will be keenly observed.