A tech entrepreneur is trying to make scooters cool in car-obsessed China

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

One of China’s best-known tech leaders is hoping to revolutionize the motorized scooter. Li Yinan, former chief technology officer of China’s largest internet search company, Baidu, has taken inspiration from Vespa’s design and Tesla’s lithium-ion battery, to launch an electric scooter for high-end commuters.

In a launch event today in Beijing, Li’s company Niu, which means “buffalo” in Chinese, introduced the “N1 smart e-scooter.” The bike includes a lithium battery that can last 100km without recharging and weighs just 10.1kg—”so women can easily lift it too,” Li said at the launch. It has a motor made by the German automotive parts maker Bosch, and comes with an app to monitor battery levels and theft.

Li, best known for attending university in China at the age of 15 and later becoming the youngest vice president of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, has said he eventually hopes to sell his scooters in Europe but he may have a tough enough time in China. He is entering a crowded field of other electric scooter startups and cheaper manufacturers.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.00.26 PM
(Weibo/Niu)
(Niu)

Electric bikes are already popular—it’s estimated that there are more e-bikes than cars on the road in China, where 90% of the world’s e-bikes are sold. Many of these are aimed at lower end of the market because most wealthy Chinese prefer cars, a sign that they have moved on from their two-wheel, thrifty student days. For Li to be a success, he’ll need to convince upwardly mobile commuters that two wheels signal trendy, not cheap.

Li seemed to acknowledge as much in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, “Our ancestors worked on the backs of buffaloes…Now we want to have young people get back on ‘Niu’ and see it as a cool icon.”

Li’s scooters aren’t cheap—two models of the N1, which cost 3999 yuan and 4999 yuan ($645 and $800)—but they are at least environmentally friendly. “Electric scooters save the country as much as 42 million tons in carbon emissions in a year, the equivalent of 7 billion trees,” according to the company’s blog page.

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