[GOING ELECTRIC 4] Approaching the future of noiseless traffic

Bomi Yoon

A Wacco E6S electric scooter is parked somewhere in central Seoul's Yongsan District, Oct. 21. Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

A Wacco E6S electric scooter is parked somewhere in central Seoul’s Yongsan District, Oct. 21. Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

By Jon Dunbar

After having detailed the experience of deciding to buy an electric scooter, shopping for one and learning how to care for the all-important battery, it’s finally time we got to what it’s like to drive the thing.

Overall, it’s pretty good, but different from earlier vehicles requiring the driver to unlearn and adapt.

If I could liken the force behind driving a gas-powered scooter to a pot of water boiling over, I’d compare the mechanical force of an electric scooter to the swift motion of a computer’s CD tray sliding open — it’s that fast and decisive, though maybe not as loud.

Before I made my purchase, multiple people had cautioned me about the fast acceleration from a stop, but their concerns were overblown. It’s a simple enough thing to adapt to. Actually, the first time I ever got on a scooter, a Hyosung Super Cab with a mere 50-cubic-centimeter-engine, I twisted the throttle and the thing shot out from under me, twirled up into the sky and landed on its back in front of me. I haven’t underestimated a throttle ever since.

Electric scooters seem to come with a standard reverse feature, which allows the vehicle to move in reverse. However, it can be pretty alarming and difficult to master, as it moves backward just as quickly as it does forward. Unlike being in a car, there’s no good way to drive a scooter in reverse while also being able to see what’s behind you.

Future of mobility

People seeing my new Wacco E6S scooter for the first time act amazed, like they’re seeing the future of mobility. Its silent but speedy movement can seem a little unnatural.

I’ve been asked if it’s safe to drive an electric scooter in the rain. Well, it’s no safer than a regular scooter on the city’s many slippery-when-wet surfaces, but it’s not going to electrocute you. It also has held up well through the cold weather in December, and the battery didn’t seem to lose any of its longevity when the mercury was low.

Another surprising feature of this electrical engine is the total lack of vibration. An advantage is that idling doesn’t seem to expend much power at all. As a photographer, I used to have to turn off the engine or get off my scooter if I wanted to take a picture. But now, I can keep the vehicle running, and take a picture quite steadily. Though, I also worry about the possibility of forgetting the engine is on, and just walking away with the key still in the ignition.

I also still worry that the lack of engine noise can be a problem. Pedestrians don’t hear electric vehicles coming. I’ve had a few encounters in one-lane alleys where I’ve pulled up right behind pedestrians who don’t hear me, and I have to ask them to move aside so I can get by. I’ve also found that if I mutter rude things under my breath while driving, I’m at elevated risk of being overheard. It’s awkward. Additionally, I’m worried about animals.

Without the feedback of hearing the engine roaring, I can’t resist accelerating whenever the light turns green and gunning it past other vehicles. Balancing this with energy-efficient driving is a new skill I’m trying to learn.

On a few test-runs, I determined that a trip from downtown Seoul to Gangnam — an around 11 kilometer trip — takes approximately 30 minutes and burned 37 percent of the battery. A trip to Hongdae used about 30 percent. But driving slower conserves battery power. I managed to take it all the way out to Bucheon and back on a single charge, but much of this was spent driving at the speed limit, or even as slow as 40 kilometers per hour (kph) where possible.

While being fully automatic, the E6S has three driving modes, which function sort of like different gears. Using the high-performance third gear, I’ve reached up to 93 kph. The second gear is more appropriate for anything Seoul’s roads can throw at you, and can rein in impulses to drive too fast. The eco-friendly first gear caps the vehicle speed at around 45 kph. When rolling downhill once in this gear, I was surprised to find the engine unable to engage because I was already exceeding that internal speed limit.

‘Nanny functions’

I’ve noticed a few other conditions in which engine power seems to be reduced or cut electronically, which I’ve termed “nanny functions.”

It does appear the throttle is disabled if you’re traveling faster than the speed limit of the gear you’re in. On the dashboard I can even see a 4 for a fourth gear, leaving me wondering if the bike is capable of battery-wasting higher performance, and it’s just disabled by default in this market. I wonder if it can be hacked to give an electric scooter a faster top speed.

An electric scooter's dashboard shows various features and alerts upon being powered up, including an inaccessible fourth gear. Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

An electric scooter’s dashboard shows various features and alerts upon being powered up, including an inaccessible fourth gear. Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

When the battery is low, the engine power cap is reduced. At times when driving home with the battery power reaching under 15 percent or 10 percent, I’ve noticed a significant drop in performance. This seems logical, but I’m not a fan of it, as I live in a hilly neighborhood and I also have concerns about being too slow for road traffic as the battery wants me to conserve power. That should be the operator’s choice, not some software programmer’s.

Another such function is that when turning the throttle and squeezing the brakes at the same time, the throttle does not work. In comparison, in a combustion-powered vehicle, you can apply the opposing forces of gas and brakes at the same time, and experience a predictable force — a burnout! So that’s something that has to be unlearned.

Also, I’ve been jammed up a few times by the kickstand, which when extended down turns off the engine thrust. This has caused problems, especially when a passenger’s foot made contact with the retracted kickstand.

Goodbye gas stations

Driving an electric scooter presents very few disadvantages compared to gas scooters. Mobility is limited by the scarcity of places to charge up and the amount of time needed to do so. This places some limits on operating an electric scooter. But if the battery level can be maintained, it’s completely fine for short- and medium-distance trips.

Gas stations feel a little quaint now. Sometimes when I pass by a gas station I used to stop at, I catch myself mentally checking if I need to stop for more gas, before remembering that’s no longer necessary. It’s a liberating sensation, but I’ve also felt a bit of guilt, and wondered if I should stop by anyway and let them know I’m still around. Then I come to my senses and move silently on.

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