Motorcycles conjure images of the Hell’s Angels and a trail of noisy, oily machines throbbing loudly through the desert as they kick up dust and fumes behind them.

But a Singaporean startup thinks that motorbikes are the clean, green transport of the future. Already, South East Asia’s economy is reliant on them, with tens of millions weaving through busy streets of Jakarta, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City – ferrying people to work; delivering their food and supplies; and serving as the backbone of the transport system.

“There’s no reason why the trusty motorcycle shouldn’t join the ranks of devices that form part of our digital flow in the internet era,” believes James Chan, CEO of Ion Mobility. The key is to make them totally electric, and ditch those dirty machines of the past. GovInsider spoke with Chan to find out more about his vision for transport.

Electric Asia

Asia has the largest market in the world for motorbikes, but the industry is ripe for disruption. “There’s been a gradual decrease in the momentum, the velocity of new innovation in that space,” Chan says.

Electric bikes can cut the smog caused by the swarm of motorcycles across South East Asia’s cities. “So much wasted gasoline is being burned off in Jakarta during the jams,” Chan notes, releasing noxious PM2.5 emissions in the air.

Electric bikes, however, don’t cause any pollution when idling. “Take away the urban smog and improve people’s health,” he argues. “More than 7 million people in the world die from bad air pollution.”

EVs also cost less per kilometre because they require less power than traditional motorcycles. “We are no different in the power draw relative to a microwave oven left on for three hours,” Chan says.

They can even improve a nation’s balance of trade, Chan points out. Many nations in South East Asia, such as Indonesia, import crude oil and provide fuel subsidies. “The country’s budget GDP budget can be much better spent.”

There is a downside to EVs, however. “Unfortunately, the battery still uses lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese – these are unavoidable”, he points out. But the whole industry is trying to find more sustainable supply chains and options to reduce net emissions. “We’re still a startup, right, so sustainability is that vision”.

Like self-driving Teslas, electric bikes could provide opportunity for innovation. Ion is re-envisaging “the human machine interface,” Chan says, working on navigation, data input, even payments with a bike as the platform.

Users can connect their devices to the bike as a hub. “Part of the safety and UI/UX enhancements, be it from a sound driven [perspective] or from visual cues, is where you redesign the dashboard to take into account the consumers’ daily inconveniences”, he says.

ASEAN mosaic

When it comes to the Asian market, not all nations are equal. One of the major challenges Ion faces is around charging infrastructure and regulations.

Indonesia enables bikes to be directly charged from houses, and uses a common plug interface that’s easier for users. Singapore, however, has a much larger type of plug and does not permit freestanding wall charging, so there must be a separate fixed charging unit provided.

Partly this represents the demand in the market, as well as other considerations around the strain on the power grid. That said, “Enterprise Singapore has been extremely helpful”, Chan notes.

Indonesia is the best market opportunity in ASEAN for electric bikes in the region because of the size of demand, and “they iteratively create the space for us to engage and to lobby and to create standards together”.

“There’s not necessarily that same level of attention given to EV motorcycles in developed markets”, he continues. “It’s very important for policymakers to take into account the need to create innovation space for companies like ourselves”.

The future is bright for electric vehicles, with commitments to reduce internal combustion engines and a vision to phase out gas guzzling machines. The EU set a target of 2030; Singapore has just announced a target of 2040; and there will likely be further movement as the COP26 climate change negotiations approach.

For many in Asia, bikes are a way of life – from the rural villages of Bali to the thrumming metropolis of Bangkok. Their downside is the carbon they consume, and the smog they exhale. EVs solve at least one of these problems, and could solve both. Could Heaven’s Angels become a more appropriate name?