Urban Eco-Transport to Hit the Street

Stuttgart has signed Britain's Ultra Motor to make eco-friendly scooters known as "light electric vehicles" available for rent throughout the German city

Call it a sign of the times. As Europe celebrates "Green Week" and oil trades above $120 a barrel, the German city of Stuttgart, home to Mercedes (DAI) and Porsche (PSHG_P), announced it will be among the first in the world to embrace fleets of nonpolluting electric scooters known as "light electric vehicles," or LEVs, a new type of urban transport.

To reduce the number of cars on the road and the pollution they spew, Stuttgart on June 2 signed a letter of intent with Ultra Motor, a six-year-old British company that already sells an eco-friendly cross between a bike and a motorcycle in India and the U.S. The idea is to create a rental system of scooter-bikes similar to the popular Vélib' bicycle rental scheme in Paris used by commuters. LEV parking spots, which will be connected to the electricity grid in Stuttgart and double as charging stations, will be sprinkled every 150-200 meters throughout the city. The plan is to have 1,200 LEVs available for rent at 250 stations in a first phase, and 10 times that many in a second phase, says Ultra Motor Chief Executive Joe Bowman. Launch is expected in about 10 months.

Ultra Motor is currently in negotiations with 12 other major European cities (BusinessWeek.com, 3/21/08). "We are starting a movement," says Bowman. All over the world, concerns over pollution, traffic congestion, and energy costs are prompting consumers, companies, and governments to embrace cleaner, cheaper, and smaller vehicles, including electric or hybrid-electric cars and two-wheeled electric vehicles.

Less Energy Than a Two-Minute Shower

Ultra Motor will act as a general project manager, producing the LEVs, installing the network, and providing stations that resemble a covered urban bus stop where people can recharge the batteries of the electric bikes. A monthly LEV subscription, which will cover rides of 30 minutes or less, will cost $23 (€15). In contrast, a monthly pass for mass transit in Stuttgart costs $84 (€54). Taking a 30km trip across Stuttgart requires only 250 watt-hours of electricity—the same amount of energy required to heat the water for a two-minute shower, according to Ultra Motor.

The advantage of an LEV, for older people or people in business dress, is there is no need to pedal or work up a sweat to be carbon-responsible, says Bowman. By providing one-third more force than similar electric motors, Ultra Motor models can accelerate faster in heavy traffic conditions and climb steeper hills. Another key benefit is the battery packs are up to 10% more efficient, meaning they need to be charged less frequently. The bikes that will be used in Stuttgart can go more than 60km before needing a recharge, which takes about 15 minutes.

Ultra Motor's products are proving popular in India with commuters looking to offset the adverse effects of gas prices. They're also a hit with teenagers under the age of 18 who can't legally ride motorcycles or gas-powered scooters and so must use traditional bikes or take the bus. The company owns and operates over 130 franchise stores across India.

To position itself in the U.S. market, Ultra Motor acquired Los Angeles' AECF for an undisclosed sum in 2007. It has since launched a U.S. model called the A2B.

See the BusinessWeek.com slide show for more about Ultra Motor's LEVs and other green urban transport options.