Yamaha Motor Co is a Japanese manufacturer of motorcycles, marine products such as boats and outboard motors, and other motorized products.
The company studied the differences between Europeans and Japanese in using the bicycles to produce the drive unit that houses the motor, whose power complements the rider’s pedaling. The device is small, lightweight and can maintain the stylish design of the bicycle frame.
The result has been exports of 53,000 drive units for power-assisted bicycles in 2014, a 16-fold increase from the previous year. The company now aims to export 80,000 in 2015.
“We didn’t imagine sales would increase this much,” said Shoichiro Ikebe, overseas sales manager at Yamaha’s Smart Power Vehicle Business Unit.
Yamaha, the world’s first company to sell a power-assisted bicycle, started work on its latest component for Europe in late 2013.
The market for electric bicycles is expanding in European countries like Germany and Switzerland, where a million or so of the vehicles are sold each year.
While many people in Japan’s graying society use the bicycles for daily chores, such as shopping, Europeans often ride them for steep mountain roads and long-distance touring. The European market is now twice the size of Japan’s.
With the goal of staying “one step ahead” of German rival Robert Bosch GmbH, Yamaha revised its design by closing the distance between the pedal’s axis of rotation and the rear wheel axle shaft to more directly transmit pedaling power.
The drive unit is around 3.5 kilograms, or more than 10 percent, lighter than Yamaha’s previous products.
The unit’s performance and size, which causes no loss in terms of frame design, has garnered attention from leading German and Dutch manufacturers of power-assisted sport bicycles.
A Yamaha subsidiary factory in Mori, Shizuoka Prefecture has been working at full capacity to meet the 2015 target of 80,000.
Yamaha released the world’s first commercial electric bicycle in Japan in 1993, and has since produced more than 3 million drive units.
In the Japanese market, where about 500,000 power-assisted bicycles are sold each year, Yamaha accounts for well over half the share when its drive units sold under other companies’ brands are included.
The company started trying to export bicycles and drive units to Europe in 1996, but it fared poorly and ended up pulling out of the market.
Yamaha tried again in 2012, hoping to cash in on the exploding European market, where bicycles with superior features and designs were selling well even when priced between 300,000 yen and 700,000 yen (US$2,430 and US$5,670).
The company believed it could compete in terms of quality while avoiding being sucked into a price war.
However, all did not go well from the outset.
Although Yamaha improved the component’s design for the Japanese market, the feeling of the power being transmitted and the rechargeable battery’s conspicuous shape did not suit the tastes of European makers. Yamaha’s exports to Europe plateaued at 3,000 to 4,000 units.
“We’re here because we suffered two setbacks,” said Wataru Shimizu, general manager of the marketing division at the Smart Power Vehicle Business Unit. “The target when we began our comeback attempt was 100,000 units. We want Yamaha products to be the first choice for Europe’s top bicycle models.”