Monday, March 8, 2010

All that Glitters is not Green!

I hope that over the last few articles I have established my credentials as an engineer and eco-warrior. Unfortunately not all my decisions have been good ones and purchasing a cheap chinese electric scooter turned out to be one of the most costly mistakes of my life .....

In 2008 I started a 2 year part time MBA course in Leuven. Lectures are on Thursday evenings and Friday afternoons/evenings meaning that two days a week I had to go directly from work in Brussels to Leuven, a journey of 25km and which would be a stretch for my electric bicycle.  More importantly the journey time by bicycle would be about an hour, which would mean I would have had to leave work very early.

For the first term I cycled home and then took the car the rest of the way but this meant my wife could not collect my eldest daughter from Friday nights out with her friends.  Around this time my daughter’s boyfriend got himself a 50cc scooter.  These are tax exempt in Belgium and no number plates are required, as are electric scooters. Encouraged by this thought, I test drove an electric scooter at our local shop in Tervuren but I was not impressed with its performance. Its 750Watt motor seemed much slower even than my electric bike so was not going to solve my problem. After a few weeks of web surfing I came across Elecscoot, a UK company that seemed to have exactly what I was looking for, the Elecscoot 3. The 2008 model (now replaced) claimed to have twin 1500W motors; 4 times more power than the one I had tried. The website claimed that the scooter was capable of 40 miles on a charge, had a top speed of 50mph and came with regenerative braking and Lithium batteries guaranteed for 2 years/2000 charge cycles. The price was just under £2000. It sounded too good to be true, but I found another website (since updated) that seemed to corroborate the bike’s specifications, claiming that the bike came with a 3kWh, 60V Lithium battery pack. Based on my experience, 3kWh seemed to tie in with the claimed specifications. The only downside was that the vendor was in Consett, County Durham so it would have been expensive to arrange a test drive.

After much deliberation and several emails to check the specification with the vendor we took the plunge and ordered the scooter sight unseen. We paid the extra for DHL shipment to Belgium. Even as we unpacked the scooter (see picture above) from its shipping crate alarm bells started to ring. There were scratches all over it. The documentation consisted of a very dubious looking certificate of conformance to EU standards and a single sheet of paper saying that “according to EU regulations this scooter is limited to  45km/h (30mph). This latter fact instantly blew a hole in my use case – how was I going to make the journey time any shorter if the maximum speed was only 45km/hr? I took it for a test drive. There was no evidence of regenerative braking and after just going up and down the road a few times the battery went from apparently full to empty. The motors that were supposedly 1.5kW were clearly marked as 500W motors (see picture) so we had clearly been lied to. We felt like we had been kicked in the teeth.

I immediately wrote a letter of complaint to Elecscoot and emailed it to them. My claim that it did not meet its original specification was not helped by the fact that Elecscoot had cleverly removed all trace of my scooter from their website and had replaced it with a new model with a different specification. For those that are interested I’ve placed a copy of my letter including pictures of the damage here.

We received nothing back from Elecscoot (and still have heard nothing a full year later) so we contacted Tesco VISA (who we bought it through) to dispute the purchase and try to get our money back. They were very reluctant to do anything. One word of warning here – I do NOT recommend using Tesco VISA for internet purchases. It is not, in my opinion, a full service credit card company like Barclaycard.  They do not, as we found out to our cost, do customer service. Tesco’s slogan says “Everly Little Helps”, and in this case it helped very little indeed!! When we lived in the UK our nearest supermarket was a Tesco store and we were loyal customers for over 20 years. This experience has left me so bitter that if and when we move back to the UK I will make a point of ensuring our nearest supermarket is NOT Tesco.

Eventually Tesco told us we would have to get an expert’s opinion on what was wrong the scooter. Hmm, How was I supposed to find an expert on electric scooters? After some digging I found that there was an electrical vehicle group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), a Dutch language university close to where I worked. I approached them and they said they would be pleased to test it for me, but they would have to fit it into their schedule. I explained that my primary complaint was the range of the scooter. They performed two test runs complete with telemetry. The first run was up and down hills and the scooter managed only 18.5km (11.6 miles) on a charge. The second was on the flat which achieved 25.6km (16 miles). In short, this scooter would not even get me to work and back never mind from home to work to Leuven and back, which is what I had bought it for! The VUB produced a short report and we duly sent it to Tesco only to find out that there was a time limit on getting back to them with a complaint and that time had passed so they were unable to help(!).

In the meantime I had found a whole community of disillusioned Elecscoot owners. A few people also contacted me after I wrote a review slating the product and had similar stories to my own. Some had tried going to Trading Standards. Others had at least managed to get a reply from Elecscoot fobbing them off but no-one did any better than we did. So, having paid for insurance I passed the scooter on to my daughter who could at least use it to get to and from local babysitting jobs.

This situation carried on until mid February when I got a distress call from my daughter because she had crashed the scooter and been thrown off. Luckily she was not badly hurt and I went to look into the damage. I found that the front wheel had completely seized to its spindle and the spindle had turned round and round, coiling the power lead and undoing the wheel nuts as it went.  The power lead quickly became taught and had no doubt pulled the handlebars out of my daughters hands such that she was thrown off.  As far as I can see the scooter is a write-off after only 950km.

If you are considering buying an electric scooter make sure:
  • Its not a cheap chinese import with no-name batteries
  • Inspect it and throroughly test drive itto check its range meets your needs.
  • There is local service and support
  • If you can, get a recommendation from a previous owner, and make sure if there are reviews that they are all positive!
  • Buy it with a Credit Card that you can trust to support you if things go wrong
I now see why the EU restrict these Chinese imports to 30mph. My daughter would have been severely injured had she been going at speed when the accident happened.  Perhaps better though would be for the EU to have tighter type approval procedures and import inspections to stop dangerous scooters from being imported in the first place?

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