By EV World
Oxygen is essential to life.
It's also one of Italy's up-and-coming electric vehicle manufacturers, headquartered in Padua. In the two short years of its existence it has sold 5,700 electric bicycles and 4,000 electric Vespa-class motor scooters., half of them in Italy, the rest scattered across the globe.
This week, EV World had the opportunity to speak with Oxygen S.p.A.'s director Raffaello Locatelli about the brief history of his company. He began by explaining that he formed the company, with the assistance of US-based nickel zinc battery manufacturer, Evercel and other investors, as an employee buyout of one of Italy's oldest bicycle makers, Atala-Cesare. Locatelli told EV World that the company was struggling in the wake of intense Asian competition in its traditional bicycle business and simply lacked the resources to capitalize on its efforts to develop its two-wheeled electric vehicle programs.
"I was running an investment fund that was focusing on environmental technology. We were some of the first investors in fuel cells and other battery technologies," Locatelli remarked, noting that he thought the purchase of the electric vehicle side of Atala was a "right fit." So, he helped arrange a buy-out of the electric vehicle division.
"We re-capitalized the company. We hired new people," he added saying that the focus of the new company would be strictly personal electric-powered transportation. Interestingly, some of the family members who owned Atala also came onboard Oxygen because they saw its formation as a way to help grow that they thought was an important new business opportunity.
EVs A Viable Business
Locatelli also firmly believes in the viability of electric vehicle technology. "We're strong believers in environmental technology. We are strong believers that personal transportation will have a major change. I don't feel its necessary to drive an SUV to go down three blocks from where to you live to buy some groceries. So, I think there is a huge need for transportation for the two to fifteen mile radius. We believe there is a huge market and we want to build the right product for it. We think electric, especially electric that is powered by innovative technology batteries, is the right answer for it."
One of those innovative batteries is the nickel zinc (Ni Zn) battery developed by Evercel, which owns a 15% stake in the company. The advantage of Ni Zn is that it enables Oxygen to reduce the weight of its battery pack by 45% while dramatically increasing the reliability of the battery over conventional lead acid, which is available in a lower-priced model of the company's Lepton motor scooter. Oxygen warranties the Ni Zn battery pack for two years or 6,000 miles. It is confident the battery will perform well for upwards of 15,000 km (9,300 miles).
Locatelli says Evercel's battery is the right technology for the money right now, but added that Oxygen isn't "married" to any particular technology. "We are always trying to be on the edge of technology. So we are always testing new batteries, always trying to find new configurations for our products. But right now we feel very confident that we've got the right product. That doesn't mean that a year from now we'll get into different batteries, even fuel cells."
Oxygen doesn't actually manufacture the vehicles that bear its logo. Locatelli explained that instead it designs and develops it bicycles and motor scooter then turns over the design and, in some cases, the tooling to various subcontractors who make the parts and even assemble the final product. He said this approach is quite common in Italy and enables Oxygen to keep its overhead low and stay on the cutting edge of technology.
The Lepton -- named after a sub-atomic particle -- comes in two models and two variations of those models, one approved for operation in Europe and the other for operation in the US and approved by the Department of Transportation. As mentioned earlier, there is a lead acid model and Ni Zn model, which runs about several hundred dollars more. Locatelli has promised to provide EVWorld with a model for us to test drive in the near future.
The company also has two electric bicycle models, the Distance and the Avenue, both powered by lead acid batteries, but which will soon be offered in Ni Zn and possibly NiMH. The bikes are currently only being sold in Europe. The Distance, which comes in a men's and women's version, uses a light-weight aluminum frame, while the Avenue uses conventional steel tubing for its frame. According to Locatelli, these bikes are some of the best selling in Europe right now.
"It is a parallel-assisted bike, and has a central movement so it can use the gears of the bicycle and it is actually one of the best selling in Europe. It's very popular because it looks like a traditional bike. You hardly can tell it's an electric bike. It's very appealing to the senior market, the more mature market that basically still wants to go out and do some exercise but doesn't want the bicycle to have a weird look."
Locatelli noted that the customer for the bicycle is not the same customer for the scooter who, he describes as being younger "hip commuter who wants to look good, feel good."
"It's a totally different customer."
Locatelli also told EV World that Oxygen plans to introduce three new products in the coming year, one an improvement over a current product, and two completely new. We were able to get him to admit that one of the new products will, in fact, have more than two wheels vehicle, but he wouldn't say anything more than that, only adding that one of them will be "revolutionary" for the industry.
Coming back to Oxygen's current product line, since its introduction some 8 months ago, the company has sold between 600-700 Lepton Es with the Ni Zn battery, which requires almost no maintenance. Locatelli told EV World that he doesn't believe there is a future -- at Oxygen, at least -- for lead acid batteries in personal transportation.
A Clean Vespa
One of Italy's trademark products is the Vespa motor scooter, so when asked how his scooter compares to that more well-know brand, Locatelli replied, "We're a clean Vespa."
"We're silent. We have better acceleration [in comparison with the 50cc Vespa]. Probably a better ability to climb hills. And the driving experience is much more fun in my experience," he remarked. "And that's also the opinion of people who have migrated to our technology. So, we don't have the Vespa name. That's one thing. It's a different product, but people that drive our product very rarely go back to drive a motorized scooter."
One of the advantages of the gasoline-powered scooter like the Vespa is that it can refuel at any gasoline station, but most motor scooters are only drive 10-15 miles, Locatelli notes, which is easily within the range of the Lepton.
"Our range in any driving mode... in any city with hills you can easily drive [our] scooter for more than 25-30 miles without paying attention to being a pretty aggressive driver."
"If you drive a scooter more than 30 miles a day, than maybe you should buy a Vespa," he added. "If you drive less, our product is very viable." And in terms of price, the Lepton is cheaper than the Vespa, which Locatelli said sells for about $3,300 to $3,400 while the Lepton E with the Ni Zn now sells for under $3,000.
Banning Gasoline Vehicles
Because of pollution problems, Italy is beginning to ban the use of internal combustion engine vehicles in many of its urban centers on certain days. Locatelli says the government is increasing the restrictions on two-cycle engines and beginning to tighten the regulations on four-cycle engines, creating a market opportunity for Oxygen.
A promising new market is beginning to open up for the company in fleet sales. Recently the traffic patrol department in Milano bought 120 Lepton motor scooters, which Locatelli jokingly hopes won't hurt sales when they hand out tickets to motorists. The company is also in discussions with Milano's electric utility in a effort to get their meter readers to use the Lepton on their routes.
"I think there is demand in every city in the world for those kinds of use for our scooter," he stated. He also commented that while he has had conversations with police departments in America, he first wants to make sure that he has a service support system in place before moving too quickly in this market.
"Our product is very easy to service. It's basically hassle-free product, but we still need some service for our customer's confidence."
PART TWO CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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