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Electric bicycles the newest trend in Japan

Riding the vogue for eco-conscious products, companies ranging from battery to tire to motorcycle makers in Japan are looking to cultivate a market that beats even hybrid cars in green credentials: electric bicycles.

Japan's motor-assisted bicycles use a small electric motor and battery pack mounted inconspicuously on the bicycle to propel the rider, constantly adjusting the motor's force to the speed and resistance of the pedaling.

That makes cycling up a hill or while carrying a heavy load a cinch, winning over a growing number of seniors and housewives in Japan. Sales of electric bicycles more than doubled from 2000 to 315,000 last year, as they became more affordable and practical.

"Once you've ridden one of our motor-assisted bicycles, you'll never go back!" a spokeswoman at Yamaha Motor beamed.

The motor switches off automatically once the speed reaches the 24km/h legal limit for assisted riding, classifying the vehicles as bicycles.

Yamaha Motor, Japan's No.2 motorcycle brand and top maker of electric bicycles, expects more of a tailwind for the market.

Thanks to advances in rechargeable batteries, Yamaha's standard electric bikes have a range of 39km, or 67km using an optional mode that activates the motor only when desired.

That's about double the range of its first model introduced in 1993.

"A lot of our customers say their range of activity on a bicycle has expanded," said Masanori Kobayashi, a senior official at Yamaha. "They're going places where they would normally take their car or a taxi."

Charging time has shrunk to two hours from 10, with one charge costing around 10 US cents.

One catch though is that batteries need to be replaced roughly once every two years, and they cost at least US$250 each.

Electric bicycle makers, which also include Panasonic, Sanyo Electric and Bridgestone, also expect a boost from the nationwide road-rule relaxation this month that allows riders to mount two pre-schoolers as long as the bicycle clears stability and other standards.


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