Life Electric: living with a Zero DS

Dailies, Reviews -



We’ve been writing about electric bikes since HFL’s launch, four years ago, in the process covering their rise from flights of fancy to futuristic concepts to expensive novelties to gas-beating race bikes and, lately, the creation of realistic consumer products. But while we’ve spent plenty of time on machines like the Brammo Enertia, MotoCzysz E1pc and even the full Zero range, we’ve never had enough time on any of the above to see if they could honestly fit into our lives on two wheels. So, over the next two weeks, I’ll be totally ditching internal combustion in favor of this 2012 Zero DS. Officially rated at an 80mph top speed and 112-mile range, it’s surely the most legitimate electric yet realized.

Living in LA and using motorcycles as my primary means of transportation, I think the DS is going to be an easier fit for me than for most riders. The majority of my journeys are short and take place at relatively low speeds while splitting traffic, punctuated by brief, high speed dashes on the highway. Living in a standalone home, it’s also easy for me to plug the bike in every night. Zero threw in a 2x quick charger, dropping the full charge time from 9 to 4.9 hours, but that still means it’s going to spend most nights tethered to an outlet. This is the $14,000 version of the DS with the 9kWh battery pack.

Still, I’m more used to riding motorcycles like the Aprilia RSV4 factory, which are faster in 1st gear than the Zero DS is flat out. Riding fast and riding everywhere — for work, for play, to the store, to the gym, to friends’ houses, literally everywhere — I’m going to be putting the bike to a tougher test than any reviewer yet has. And yeah, DS stands for Dual Sport, so I plan on getting it dirty too.

I’ll be summing things up at the end, of course, but in the meantime, I want to give you a real, deep-level insight into what life on an electric bike is like. Since I ride everywhere, every day, that’s going to take the form of daily journal-style recaps. These are complete, objective honesty too. You’ll see the highs as well as the lows. Let’s get started.

- Zero dropped the bike off last week, but wrapped up in show production and travel and whatnot, I didn’t get a chance to ride it until Saturday. Dropped the SuperTen off at Grant’s, picked up a CCW Misfit, took that to Ashlee’s place and swapped that for the Zero DS. The Zero is noticeably faster and more reassuring than the CCW and sharper handling and easier to manage than the 636lbs SuperTen.

- Then a night out. First Wurstkuche in Venice before heading over to a dive bar in Hollywood, then home to grab my backpack and over to the not-a-girlfriend’s house for the night. Total distance: 34.2 miles, including about 12 miles on the highway. I don’t like going slow, so the vast majority of this was spent at WOT. By the time I was parked outside the NaG’s place, the battery was a little over half depleted. I nearly hit her as she walked across the street from her BMW, she couldn’t hear me and I was fixated on a nice pair of bare legs below a short dress.

- Sustained highway speed: an indicated 85mph. Felt honest too, I was passing 95 percent of other traffic, including several bewildered Harley riders. I made sure to buzz them as close as possible.

- I was worried about rapidly draining the battery going so fast on the highway. There’s a Sport/Eco mode button. Eco drops the top speed to 74mph and noticeably blunts throttle response. I’ll be sticking to Sport from now on.

- The Zero DS borrows its seat from a CRF450X. It’s a good thing it doesn’t fit flush, because the gaps leave room to shove stuff under the seat, which doesn’t clip off like on most bikes. The frame rails and battery box form a sort of bucket under the front, which fits my Xena alarm disc lock, while my Aerostich Lightweight Portable Bag can be squeezed in between the rear of the seat and the fender.

- The DS is so quiet that, below 25mph you can actually hear the turn signals clicking.

- Caused quite a fuss getting the NaG to dig out an extension cord so I could plug the bike in at her place. An hour and a half of regular 110v charging only got me one bar on the battery meter. Wasn’t worth the hassle.

- Rode to Deus over in Venice for MotoGP, where I plugged in again for about two hours, again for a single bar gain. Quite the conversation piece over there. A Spanish gentleman took a spin around the car park, sneaking up behind me to nudge my ass with the front tire, proving how quiet the damn thing is.

- Sean, Grant and I agree that the DS’s stock tires would work great for flat track racing.

- The MT-03-alike headlight is powered by two dinky incandescent bulbs and isn’t much good at actually providing any illumination, even on high beam. I’d have expected a full LED system, with much more brightness and much lower draw, on such an expensive bike.

- Back home the next afternoon, the quick charger got me from below half, to completely full, in around two and a half hours. Not bad. I’ll be leaning on that quick charger a lot.

- Riding to a cafe this morning, through surface street rush hour traffic in Hollywood, emphasized what a weapon the DS is for lane splitting. Nice and high for vision, it’ll easily and confidently plow through gaps as narrow as your hips. I wear size 30 jeans, so those are some narrow gaps.

- Throttle response and therefore acceleration away from a dead stop is tuned so it doesn’t frighten new riders. Needs some help for us, so we’ve booked an appointment with Hollywood Electrics later this week. One of the big advantages of electric motivation? Tuning is as complicated as plugging the bike into your laptop.

- Some guy just came in the cafe and asked the barista who had the “super cool” electric motorcycle parked out front. I’m sitting right by the door with a Vanson and a helmet. Guess he couldn’t connect the biker and bike. I didn’t bother chiming in.

  • Frosty_spl

    These are fun to ride. I demoed one for about 30 minutes. Can’t wait on your verdict.

    • Frosty_spl

      I think the silence can be a bad thing though.

      • aristurtle

        I’ve seen drivers “not notice” full-size firetrucks with the lights on and sirens blaring; at this point I don’t think “noticeability” makes any difference.

  • Scott-jay

    Fourteen thousand dollars!
    Good topic – series.

  • Scott-jay

    BTW, had a NaG and now she’s house-mate for over seven years. Don’t let semantics mislead you.

    • Wes Siler

      Not too worried about the semantics. I like her :)

  • Mark D [EX500]

    From my very short on a Brammo, I agree with the oddness of the throttle. Didn’t take too long to simply use it as an on/off switch, though, which is kind of fun in its own right.

  • xphilip

    Cool bike – will only get better.
    9 years this month!
    How does this happen?

  • JoppaPete

    This article made me re-subscribe to HFL. Your articles are the best. hands down.

    Can’t wait to see this progress!

  • overunder

    Love to hear more about this after the throttle retune. When I test rode the DS and that was one thing that bothered me. But very glad to hear that it can handle a West side to Hollywood commute with ease.

    • protomech

      Very interested to hear how the retune works out as well.

  • Campisi

    I wasn’t aware LEDs were all that much more expensive than incandescent lights; they’re such a no-brainer for electric vehicles I’d assumed Zero was using them already.

    • fasterfaster

      There are, to date, very few companies producing a DOT-compliant LED headlight for motorcycles. Ducati had to develop theirs for the Panigale from scratch. I suspect it was a sizable effort among lots of sizable efforts on that project. The others I know of are hideous affairs designed by Chinese MFGs to look like a classic 7″ round. Individual LEDs themselves aren’t so expensive, but engineering and manufacturing a lens/reflector/ballast/headsink/enclosure for an actual headlight no small task.

  • Jesse

    Very, very interested. Thanks for doing this, and happy web-birthday.

  • Mykola

    Having test-ridden Hollywood Electrics’ Zero S, I’d say retuning the from-a-stop throttle response is a must. Apart from that and the wooden brake-feel, it was a cool bike.

  • gaudette

    After a 15 min test ride I agree with most things said here. It was a fun little jaunt but it felt more like a toy than a motorcycle. I fail to see any benefit to owning this machine over other available options such as a scooter, small cc motorcycles, or even a bicycle.

    • wwalkersd

      Not counting the environmental benefits, of course.

    • Campisi

      I’d certainly rather have this than a bicycle.

      • BigRooster

        or a scooter.

        • gaudette

          Being an automatic and not too quick, it basically is a scooter. Difference being the seating position and costing three times the price of one.

  • contender

    Excellent timing. I am trying to get a company-sponsored move to Denver from L.A. happening, and Colorado has some tasty EV subsidies. I’ll sure miss the lane-splitting, though.

  • Jake Leslie

    My Uncle had a deposit on a Brammo for almost a year before he gave up waiting and bought the Zero DS. The 9kw battery pack was a major factor. He’s been zipping up and down Angeles Crest and Tujunga Canyon for a few weeks now and loves it. His last bike was a Norton Commando 35 years ago though, so he’s likely to be a bit more forgiving.

  • Archer

    I bet a 35w HID bulb kit is what you need there Wes.

    • Wes Siler

      I’m just going to zip tie on my 4Sevens Maelstrom G5. No battery drain!

  • Chris

    My normal driving needs would lend itself well to an electric. I commute in mainly stop and go, 45mph and slower traffic 80% of the ride to work with a short stint on a 60mph road. On the way home I jump on the highway for about 80% of the return home at 65MPH. Total miles travelled to and from work each day is just shy of 15 miles. Interested to see what your feedback is at the end of this.

    • BigRooster

      You are my commute doppelganger.

    • protomech

      My experience:

      The ZF9 Zero has 11 bars indicating battery charge. You generally deplete about 1 bar every 4 miles at 70 mph, 1 bar every 5 miles at 55 mph, 1 bar every 6-7 miles at 40-45 mph.

      Your round-trip commute would use about half the charge for the big battery ZF9 Zero or about 75% of the ZF6 Zero. Maybe 60% of the charge for the Brammo Enertia Plus.

      My commute is (each way) 2.5 miles @ 55-65 mph, 1.2 @ 50, 8.5 @ < 45 (~25 total). I use about 40% of the pack normally.

      Stop and go traffic works pretty well if you can use the regen braking, in eco mode it feels similar to a 500cc type engine braking. Riding with one hand controlling both acceleration and braking is very easy.

      • Chris

        Dopplegangers are good BigRooster, although clones are better because they can be used as look-a-like-minions.

        protomech – thats great feedback. Thanks for giving me such a good idea of what the current battery life / power use is. That was awesome.

  • Paulie 4k

    Great topic, and one I haven’t seen covered in this sort of detail before. Can’t wait to see how it progresses.

  • Eric

    Looks nice.
    My slightly shredded commuter CB250 was cheaper to buy but handles sure worse in the dirt ;-)

  • the_doctor

    Sounds like a promising series. Is fourteen large worth it?

  • BMW11GS

    These sort of electrical bikes seem far more promising than the electrical cars that are rolling out. Probably because they offer performance and enough range for day to day things. I could definitely see this in my garage one day. Hopefully after they have come down in price a bit. Say 5-6,000 dollars?

    • HammSammich

      That’s exactly where I’d be able to justify it. Not to say that $14k isn’t worth it, but that’s too much for me to spend on a second bike right now. Thankfully, there are others out there with more resources who can afford to be early adopters, and bring the price down eventually.

      I am also familiar with the fact that with an electric vehicle you’re not going to have to pay any significant price for fuel, but I suspect that most people wouldn’t be able to buy an ICE bike and pay the fuel costs for the life of the bike up front. Maybe electric vehicles will require a different kind of pricing/financing strategy at the outset to make the cost of entry more comparable to a similar petrol bike…

      • BMW11GS

        Interesting thoughts in your second paragraph, gas is sort of an ongoing tax in comparison to electric vehicles, where you essentially pay that tax when you buy the EV in the first place. However, like you said it doesn’t have to be like that, thanks to the early adopters. I think when they hit 200 miles and cost 10K its going to be an absolute game changer.

  • JMcMahon

    Great write up. I would love to know the bike handles slick rain soaked roads. Its always been a concern of mine as to how the instant electric torque will respond in low traction conditions.

    Whatever happened to Thom? He used to be in here pissing all over electric bikes then he just fell off the map. I can’t be alone in wondering…

  • Will

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the slimness and torque of electrics make them theoretically perfect for flat track racing?

  • ontheroad

    Funny, the Zero guys just came by our shop today with the latest bikes, including this one and the S. Looks like the production quality has improved and the guys who took it out said the same thing about the top speed: seemed pretty honest.

    I’ll be interested to follow this as it goes; you definitely are an ideal test subject, riding daily through the middle of metro LA. My 35 mile highway commute would make the Zero pretty impractical… another reason I’m eager to see the Empulse when it finally rolls out.

  • ontheroad


    so… whatcha ridin’ at the flat track?

  • Campisi

    So what you’re saying is that you’ll be riding this with a steel plate strapped to your left foot in a bit…

    … Motorcycles are awesome.

  • l2and

    Thanks for the article, I’ve really been split as to whether I should ditch gas for commuting on electric…

  • JVictor75

    I have to wonder if the big ticket aftermarket upgrades for the Zero and Brammo lineup are going to be carbon fiber bodywork and frame, lightweight wheels, and LED lighting.

    It could all easily add up to the cost of the entire motorcycle itself, but then again it could greatly increase the range/speed capability.