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 user 2009-09-04 at 2:08:44 pm Views: 116
  • #22428
    Japan’s Moms Dodge Law, Pedestrians on Panasonic Battery Bikes

    2009– Chie Igawa is part of a trend that’s transforming Japan’s roads.
    The 36-year-old Tokyo housewife zips her kids around on a
    battery-boosted bicycle without breaking a sweat or having to worry
    about traffic rules.Domestic sales of the bikes eclipsed those of
    scooters for the first time last year and have jumped 24 percent since
    January, according to the Tokyo-based Bicycle Promotion Institute. In
    2008, Yamaha Motor Co. sold more of the bikes in Japan than
    motorcycles. Rival maker Panasonic Corp. predicts the market will
    triple to a million units a year.“I started riding it a few months
    ago,” said Igawa, pausing on a sidewalk near the Imperial Palace, with
    her two boys strapped into child seats. “You couldn’t do this on a
    moped, it would be illegal.”The bikes, which have a brick-sized battery
    tucked behind the seat post, aren’t bound by traffic laws because
    they’re not classed as motor vehicles. That appeals not just to
    housewives, but also companies such as Fuji Xerox Co., which bought a
    fleet of them to avoid parking tickets.“It’s a very interesting trend,”
    said Morten Paulsen a Tokyo-based analyst at CLSA Asia Pacific Markets,
    who covers the bicycle industry. “There are some fairly big funds out
    there that are looking at this. We might see quite a lot of
    growth.”Fuji Xerox, Japan’s largest maker of color copiers, bought its
    fleet of Panasonic hybrids for field technicians after it became
    illegal to park motorcycles on the sidewalk. Competitors Ricoh Co. and
    Canon Inc. followed suit.

    Law Change
    “We’d been going
    to Fuji Xerox and other companies with a sales pitch about how the
    bikes were eco-friendly and cost- effective. They’d nod politely, but
    nobody took us seriously,” said, Akira Tatsumi, 58, head of Panasonic’s
    electric bicycle division. “When the law changed in 2006, it changed my
    life.”Xerox’s 540 hybrids have more than paid for themselves in three
    years, according to Kenichi Niizeki, a manager at the company’s Tokyo
    headquarters. The company saves 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of gasoline
    each month and service times have been cut by 10 percent.“I got mine a
    year ago and I love it,” said Naoto Shindo, a 27 year-old salesman at
    Fuji Xerox in Tokyo, who says he visits about 10 clients a day on his
    bicycle. “You don’t have to stand up in order to ride up
    hills.”Panasonic’s most advanced model, priced at 150,000 yen ($1,560),
    has a regenerative braking system like the one on Toyota Motor Corp.’s
    Prius electric hybrid car. It can run 182 km on a single charge of its
    lithium ion battery, the company says. Earlier models adopted the
    nickel-hydride cells Panasonic co-developed with Toyota for the Prius.

    Legal Limit
    have to pedal the bicycles to make them go, with a battery-powered
    motor boosting the strength of the rider’s step. The motor shuts off at
    24 kilometers (15 miles) per hour, the legal limit for the
    vehicles.Best-selling models by Panasonic and Yamaha sell for about
    100,000 yen and have cruising ranges of around 40 km. Batteries
    recharge in three hours, using about 10 yen of electricity.Yamaha
    lobbied for three years to have the hybrids classified as bicycles
    before it brought the first model to market in 1993.“We knew the bike
    wouldn’t work as a product if it was classed as a motor vehicle,” said
    Kazuhiro Murata, 45, business development manager for Yamaha’s electric
    bicycles.Fifteen years earlier, an electric bike ordered up by
    Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita to mark the company’s 60th
    anniversary failed because it was treated as a motorbike. Production
    stopped after 1,000 units.Yamaha sold more than 130,000 of the bicycles
    and battery sets last year in Japan, compared with 122,000 motorcycles.
    Panasonic sold 120,000 units.

    Green Machine
    Sales got
    a boost a year ago after gasoline prices peaked at 185 yen a liter
    ($7.28 per gallon), prompting people to look for alternatives, said
    Yuuki Sakurai, chief executive officer of Fukoku Capital Management
    Inc. in Tokyo.“That’s kind of the plus-alpha,” said Sakurai, a bicycle
    fan who helps manage about $10 billion in assets. “The main thing is
    you get the convenience of speed without having to follow the traffic
    laws.”While Yamaha’s revenue from motorcycle sales is still about four
    times its 9.9 billion yen from the bicycles, the company said the rapid
    aging of Japan’s population will shift demand toward the
    battery-assisted models. Japan’s elderly will outnumber children two to
    one within four years, according to the Health Ministry.In December,
    manufacturers were allowed to double the assistance the bikes can
    provide at low speeds, a concession to older riders. Tokyo and other
    prefectures last month allowed the bikes to be equipped with two child
    seats, legalizing a practice that was already widespread.

    Accident Report
    law also doesn’t penalize cyclists who ride on the sidewalk, a loophole
    that is showing up in road accident statistics. While bicycle accidents
    fell to about 26,000 last year, from 28,200 in 2004, the number
    involving battery-assisted bicycles rose to 153 from 105, according to
    police data.“It used to be that cyclists were the victims in
    accidents,” said Maiko Yamaguchi, a police officer in central Tokyo.
    “Now we’re starting to see cyclists hitting pedestrians.”