A continuing discussion on electric motorcycles

Dailies -


Shelf Life_1

Last wednesday, I participated in a discussion in the comments section of HFLʼs last installment of the Life Electric series, something that lead to a very spirited exchange between myself, designer JT Nesbitt and a bunch of regular readers. The crux of the article concluded that electric motorcycles, while interesting and fun, have not arrived to a point of development which makes them practical for most users. I blithely commented my total agreement, but added words to the effect that this was symptomatic of any disruptive technology, and that electrification was the inevitable future of personal transportation. Some passionate reader publicly asked JT for a retort, which kicked the whole thing off.

I enjoyed myself immensely that evening. The exchange was passionate and respectful, and I got the distinct impression that some of the HFL readership enjoyed reading and participating in it. Wasting no time, JT dropped the gauntlet and challenged my prototype to a race across the continent, which I found interesting enough to investigate further, despite having already pleaded no contest. Such a race is pointless since any piston powered motorcycle would easily complete a journey much quicker than any electric one, owing to the long charging time needed for batteries. I publicly offered to buy the first round, the price of defeat, but decided that a deeper investigation of that challenge was deserving of a further conversation. More on that another time.

This week, in Ride Apart episode 4, Wes Siler and HFL publicly opined the severe limitations of electric motorcycles like the Zero DS 9 tested. With a dramatic demonstration of just how limiting battery technology is, not only a a power source but also as an economic barrier that spirals the cost of electric motorcycles past competitiveness, the conclusion was anything but positive. The resulting discussion in the forum was heated and spat out the usual litany of pro and con arguments. These two HFL events and their combined fallout, plus my own investigations and experience as a conventional motorcycle designer and electric motorcycle experimentalist, encouraged me to add to the debate.

The buck stops here
JT Nesbitt is a public proponent of compressed natural gas (CNG) as a replacement propellant for gasoline, and has demonstrated this by building a roadster of his own design and driving it across the country. His challenge to me, to race a CNG powered vehicle against an electric one represents a fait accompli, since CNG is a mature technology with a reasonably established distribution network, while the charging infrastructure for interstate (or international) travel by electric vehicle (EV) is at least a decade away. As a liquids and gasses, fossil fuels are easy to store, easy to move and fast to replace. Until recharging can be safely done in under 15 minutes, then for most North Americans the EV will remain a distant second option for urban areas only. I have absolutely no bone to pick with CNG as an interim solution, replacing gasoline for internal combustion engined (ICE) ground vehicles. But Mr. Nesbitt, perhaps, plumped me into the same category as most EV proponents by thinking that I was an absolutist; a person bent on eliminating carbon based fossil fuels at all costs and with no room for compromise. If that was the case, then he was mistaken.

My personal view of EVs was and will likely continue to be that there simply is no reasonable, scientifically based argument that can demonstrate how internal combustion can prevail over electric drive, given the current trends in R&D, sharply rising global energy demand and the laws of economics and chemistry. An electric motor has one moving part instead of hundreds, consumes virtually no ancillary goods such as lubricating oils or self destructing parts like pistons and rings. Most importantly, electric propulsion is 3 times as efficient at converting stored energy into motion, because at best, 75% of the energy stored in a unit of fossil fuel is converted into waste heat through friction. Even in a frictionless universe, the theoretical best case scenario for piston engine efficiency is 37%, while todayʼs EV motors regularly attain over 90% efficiency in the real world. These are easily verifiable facts, proven with todayʼs readily available technology. And electrical energy storage is a technology that is far from standing still.

Although inadequate today, it has been doubling roughly once every decade and promises to increase at a geometric rate in the near future, just like computing power or other electronic technologies have in the past. EVs are coming and there is no technology currently imagined that is going to save the piston engine when the tide rushes in.

Combustion alternatives, such as the Wankel rotary engine, while more efficient than reciprocating pistons suffer from the same basic flaw: burning hydrocarbons to create motion is crude and wasteful because it involves converting chemical energy into kinetic energy, and that translation involves unavoidable losses.

This is not an ecological or political argument, it is a economic one. Energy equals money, and the less of it you use to obtain the same result, the less money you spend. History has always sided with efficiency, if observing natural evolution or the evolution of human technical and social development is any indication. The horse was the main method of surface transport for centuries, helping open up the American west and literally dragging the world into the industrial age by caravanning millions of tons of resources from out of the way places to the factories and cities. Steam power, invented around 1700, took nearly a century to go from curious novelty to railway locomotive, and another 50 years before the train dislodged the horse as the bulk cargo carrier of choice.

By 1900, the motorcycle and car had introduced gasoline power but would need a quarter century before they fully replaced the horse in developed countries. At every stage, and with every new technology, resistance was fierce, and a largely incredulous public focused on the defects rather than the potential. But in the end, inevitably, increased efficiency equaled time and money saved, which forced change.

So it will be with the adoption of electric drive.

My point, if it not sufficiently clear by now, is not that EVs are perfect, or the ideal solution for North Americaʼs transportation needs today. It is rather that they represent the best possibility for the future, and one that is not a hundred, or fifty, or twenty years away, but within this decadeʼs grasp. Not science fiction fantasy talk, or the intellectual ramblings of some eggheads in a basement lab at MIT, but real, tangible and available.

Last year, China made 28 million electric bikes, using 100% locally manufactured drive technology. That country now leads the world in energy storage production and export, with the obvious scale effect making affordable electric cars a near future reality. Global EV motorcycle production is growing faster than any other vehicle type. Given that amount of added value, that much potential for profit, and the overwhelmingly superior efficiency of electric propulsion and itʼs work multiplying effect, the only reasonable conclusion is that electric drive is going to take over as the practical choice. A complete takeover may need forty or fifty years to happen, but its finality is assured. The power source will shift across a variety of sources including a battery, capacitor, fuel cell or some as yet uninvented device, but the motive power will be electric. The whole world runs on electricity, from banking to governments to the hundreds of powered devices in every room. Electrification of personal transport is merely the next act in human energy consolidation play.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
In the debate last week, Mr. Nesbitt was not simply arguing against EVs. If I read his carefully crafted statements correctly, he is arguing for a more balanced approach to mechanical design and future development. He cites the Colt automatic pistol and indirectly with his own work such as his CNG powered car, as examples that there is an entire world full of capable, well developed vehicles and machines that have decades, perhaps centuries more service life in them. I cannot agree more. The real debate isnʼt about what energy storage solution should power our future, but what should it power.

Fossil fuels are unbeatable in some applications, and will continue to serve for a long time in many areas of power generation. Conversely, electric drive can only make sense under certain conditions, at least until the storage technology is mature. But propulsion aside, what is also clear is that designing and manufacturing products with a 3-5 year lifespan is a foolish waste of materials and energy, and some things just donʼt need to be replaced. I think that craft, great design and exceptional quality are not only compatible with economics, but that they are actually essential to each other. If something is well made and thoroughly designed, fulfilling its mission, then it should be examined for its merits and evaluated objectively.

I have watched old airplanes working hard every day at Yellowknife airport, delivering cargo across the Canadian arctic 70 years after they left the factory in Long Beach. My 40 year old Laverda delivers high levels of satisfaction and robust performance that would shame many modern motorcycles, and at a fraction of the operating cost.

Replacement fork kit? $45. Digital fly-by-wire avionics upgrade package on an Air Buffalo Douglas DC-3? $0 (flight control surfaces are old fashioned mechanical/hydraulic linkages). Good design lasts, and the effect of lasting products is another kind of efficiency. That there is room for an infinite number of hybridized machines to coexist is granted, older vehicles upgraded with new power plants, electronics and the like.

This potential of electric propulsion has not yet begun to be realized, since most EVs today are little more than conversions utilizing the same basic design and architecture of gasoline vehicles. This situation is not unlike the transition from piston powered flight into the jet age. The first jet planes such as the Gloster Meteor and Bell P-59 looked like WW2 propeller fighters with turbines strapped on (I deliberately omit the Messerschmitt Me262 because unlike the others, it featured an airframe design that broke many moulds, but I digress). Most seasoned pilots and the general public swooned for the shapely lines and aural magnificence of a Spitfire or Mustang roaring past, their supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12s on full chat. They were also totally dependable, cheaper to produce and therefore absolutely the right choice in WW2.

However no one can argue that by design, the jet was not only superior in performance but ultimately superior economically. Despite the significant increase in metallurgical and manufacturing complexity, the jet engine had fewer moving parts and much longer service life while providing an order of magnitude increase in power per unit of weight.

Put simply, the jet engine moved more things faster and for less energy than its piston counterpart over the same distance, which is why the DC-3s in Yellowknife were long ago converted to turbo-props (turbine driven propellers), ditching those magnificent sounding, but antiquated radial 24 cylinder piston engines. Once we started to explore the architectural potential of planes with jet power, the performance envelope expanded in ways that no one in 1945 could have imagined. In fifteen years, we went from a Lockheed Constellation crossing the Atlantic in 18 hours at the mercy of weather, to a Boeing 707 gliding over the storms in 6 hours. Jets broke every speed and altitude record imaginable, and some that were unimaginable with piston flight. True progress always begins slowly and expensively at first, but accelerates dramatically over time.

I think that the aforementioned example of Jack Northrupʼs masterwork, the Douglas DC-3, modified and operated by Air Buffalo represent a synthesis of what JT Nesbitt and and I talked about. To JTʼs point, the DC-3 is an example of a design archetype, a vehicle from three quarters of a century ago that still demonstrates the ability to fulfill its basic mission. Armed with a modern communications suite, navigational aids and upgraded engines, it continues to perform tasks that few other vehicles could at an economical level. To my point, there is no measurable way in which simply swapping the fuel in the original piston engines could have achieved the same benefit. The DC-3 today needs modern technology integration to remain viable.

Huzzah for the rabble-rousers!
Todayʼs electric motorcycles are, as I said in the forum, almost totally inadequate for most North American users. They are handicapped by elevated weight and cost, painfully slow recharging times and an overwhelmingly sophisticated field of gasoline/fossil fuel-powered competitors. As I have said many times, we are living in a golden age of motorcycling. Never before have so many brands, types of motorcycles and seamless inexpensive technology allowed virtually anyone to afford and enjoy travel on a powered two wheeler. There is literally something for everyone out there, and I have enjoyed playing a small part in this fantastic industry, coaxing some of my dreams into two wheeled reality. Having said that, the conventional motorcycle is past the apex of technological development and is fast approaching an evolutionary dead-end. That is, unless some significant disruptive technology is introduced. I believe that that disruption is unarguably electrification.

As with the aerospace analogy I used above, the piston airplane had almost nowhere left to go. Not even by introducing 21st century digital avionics, fly-by-wire or advanced fuel could a piston-powered plane be competitive against a turbo-prop, much less a jet, which is why no one manufactures piston aero engines for commercial use anymore.

The piston powered motorcycle has reached the same end game. More power and better handling is yet to come, yes, but only in tiny, incremental amounts and only at terrific cost. The basic architecture of motorcycles is trapped in an involutionary dogma dictated by more than 125 years of development optimization for piston engines. Like the introduction of jet power for airplanes, electrification of motorcycles can break us from those paradigms that block further advancement, while perhaps enhancing some of those design ideas that have worked well all this time. The electric motorcycle should not be ridiculed like some freakish monster perverting our favorite vehicle. It ought to be welcomed as an immature new member of the family, one that needs to gain experience and requires guidance, but one that nonetheless contains inherent genius and great potential within.

Thanks to the efforts of a handful of passionate outsiders such as Cedric Lynch, Azhar Hussain, Michael Czysz, Chip Yates, Craig Bramscher, Neil Saiki, and the three or four dozen other early tinkerers around the globe, the motorcycle is being thrust into the 21st century. We are in a transitional time, and many of these early fruits will demonstrate negative qualities that will be easy targets of ridicule. Most people dislike change, and associate it with the fear of losing that which they already know and are comfortable with. Electric motorcycles are not going to take away my Laverda, or your ability to enjoy the smell of freshly burnt synthetic 2-stroke oil, or whatever your particular motorcycle fetish is. They are simply going to offer an alternative, a new technical solution attractive to those that want to experience it. As time goes forward, that technical novelty will find its place, strengthen and flower into an accepted part of the contemporary motorcycle establishment. The EV motorcycle is the new horse in the race, and you donʼt have to ride it if you donʼt want. But if the debate is about which technology is going to win the long game, then you should bet on the one that is the most efficient, because the house rules always stack towards efficiency.

  • http://twitter.com/metabomber Jesse

    Damn, I love this magazine of record. Thank you, Mr. Uhlarik.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

      Yes, thank you HFL and MU. Great essay with many eloquently presented analogies.

  • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

    A cross-country race is a really misplaced performance target. Like challenging a bird to a foot race, you’re picking the format in which its worst just to prove it the worst. We (BRD) would gladly challenge JT to a standard supermoto race – a format that is cleanly defined, in use under conventional bikes, and a whole lot more relevant to day to day urban riding than a cross-country endurance ride. He can bring whatever he wants to build. Whether it runs on gas, CNG, or chopped up huskeranian puppies, in a race with equal rider and equal suspension setups I’m pretty sure we’ll win.

    • Adrian

      “misplaced performance target”.

      Same could be said of your challenge. Real world challenge is range AND speed. The electric bike still suffers the range and ability to quickly recharge. You can say “we’ll win” all you want, but in the real world electric bikes aren’t there yet. Battery technology is getting better, but with fast recharging requirements required for practical use, I don’t see this technology being viable anytime soon.

      • randry

        I see these guys as the Erik Buells of the EV bike world. Persistence will bring the break through they are looking for. One discovery can change the game, if it happens today or tomorrow remains to be seen, but it will happen.
        Great article and keep up the good work. Thanks HFL

      • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

        Thanks for pointing that out. Made me realize I’m making two arguments at once. First, to treat one specific test as definitive test of “superiority” in a field of diverse needs and uses is dumb (including my proposed supermoto race). Second, if you’re going to have a test, at least make it useful. As I see it, there are two good reasons for a test/contest. First provide a spectacle, and second learn something. We already know an electric won’t win a race across the continent. There’s nothing to learn, prove or watch in that process.
        Supermoto happens to be a space where we don’t know the outcome, which is why I said “pretty sure.” No electric has beaten a best-in-class gas bike there yet… I’d say there’s something to be discovered in that test.
        As for a “real world challenge”… well it IS one for a supermoto rider. Just as a transcontinental race IS a real-world challenge for a Goldwing rider. It might not be your real world, but they are real world tests. If a longer range and shorter recharge times are requirements for your use, then electric won’t work for you. We already know this – why bother with a test? We get asked pretty regularly if our bike is good for XC (in the off-road sense not transcontinental), and we have to tell people “no.”

    • Gregory

      Would my KLR win a standard supermoto race?

      I think it _would_ win a cross-country rider-endurance race.

      • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

        Your KLR is an awesome bike, but neither generation would stand a chance in a supermoto race. We smoked one in a drag race, and it definitely won’t outhandle the RedShift. Cross-country? Absolutely, the KLR wins. There’s a reason I keep my KTM – for long days I need a tank of gasoline – but on any day where the electrics range is enough, that’s the bike I’ll be on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben W

    Great article, Michael. I agree and eagerly await our electric overlords when they do arrive.

    Also, outstanding move for HFL in light of the controversy of the video. I love this community.

  • Ankur V

    Obviously, the answer is jet powered motorcycles.

    • http://www.ninja250blog.com R.Sallee (Ninja 250)

      That’s what I was gonna say :)

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]


    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      Another answer that has already been taken care of in Louisiana. Must be something in the water…


    • GGno


    • Campisi

      If I remember correctly, a problem with jet-powered land vehicles is that there’s a considerable disconnect between throttle inputs and motive response due to the jet engine having to essentially spool up. If that is the case, why not pair an electric motor and a supercapacitor to a smaller jet turbine? The electric motor can pick up the slack off of the line until the jet engine is on its feet, and the supercapacitor can recharge fast enough from the engine or regenerative deceleration to be loaded for the next use.

  • Frosty_spl

    Maybe electric motorcycles will take over the closed course racing world first, dirt and street.

  • Edward

    I disagree with this statement – “History has always sided with efficiency, if observing natural evolution or the evolution of human technical and social development is any indication”

    On the natural evolution front – If we were (as animals) designed by, say, economists, with efficiency in mind, we would have one eye, one kidney, one lung, no appendix, etc. Having duplicates is an inefficiency in terms of energy spent to both build and maintain the second organs. And keeping organs without a function is also inefficient. Do you think that over time we will lose our ‘redundant organs’ because we will be more efficient that way? I seriously doubt we will end up with one eye.

    On the technical/social innovation front, think about agriculture. We rely on a vast network of trucking and shipping to bring fresh produce from around the world to our local supermarket, because the thinking was that ‘efficient’ production of food would increase labor availability for other things. Very long term though, does it make sense to use vast amounts of energy shipping something that can be grown nearby? As agriculture becomes more concentrated it becomes more unstable, with greater chances of crop failure and chemical resistance among weeds and pests. Technology is good at delaying crises, but will never end them.

    Efficiency in nature (and therefore everything) leads to weakness, and technology will delay the energy/transportation crisis, but not make it go away.

    More to the point – thinking about electric vehicles as being a successful option purely because of the efficiency of electric motors is answering a very complicated issue with a simple one.

    What about the very scarce resources required to make the magnets the electric motors? Rare earth metals are called such for a reason. This is also true of the batteries.

    What about the complex processes required to make such high energy density batteries? You can say modern gasoline engines require very complex processes to manufacture, but they also can be built with fairly simple tools, as they were originally. Batteries and motors can be built simply as well, but yet again they cannot perform as well as simple gas engines no matter that they are more efficient.

    What about the distribution of electricity, not just in the US but around the world? If EV’s are going to become more than just a niche product, they have to sell in large numbers. Are the vast numbers of people around the world with extremely limited access to power (i.e. those who don’t live in cities) going to charge their electric scooters next to their water buffalo? Because they can go to the dude with a 50 gallon drum of gas and get their scooter filled up.

    Sorry this is such a long comment but I think conflating the question of what propulsion system is best based purely on their end efficiency is a dangerous simplification of a very, very complicated problem.

    • Jeromy

      I think you examples are very poor. If you really think we have an extra lung you should consider retaking high school biology. Yes we have two and technically we could function with one but at a reduced capacity. Thats like saying you can cut off a wheel of a motorcycle to get a unicycle and it’s just as good. Additionally you need to keep in mind the way the bodies cells divide shortly after conception. There is a reason we are two identical halves that can be cut down the middle (with the exception of the heart), and that is because it is the most EFFICIENT way for the new body to grow from one cell to billions.

      As for farming I think a class in economics may help you. It IS MORE Efficient to have large centralized farms because there are fewer tractors, simpler distribution network, less infrastructure to support the farm, and less land used for farming. Let me put it this way which is more efficient going to the super store and spending an hour or spending the day going to half a dozen shops? Each shop using land electricity and workers, and are spread out all over town.

      I do agree with you that minerals and mining needed to make the batteries is one of the biggest problems, but to think that our current method of making batteries, transmitting power, and making motors is not going to change is naive. Technology is constantly changing, just in the last ten years battery tech has made EV possible in the first place, no one knows what batteries will be like in another ten years.

      And ultimately your points seem to miss the point of the article, Yes there are problems but technology IS going to change and will probably make EV more and more practical until finally it’ll take over as the primary means of transportation.

      On a side note, agree or disagree, this article was a fantastic piece of writing, the flow, organization, and presentation of arguments was great.

      • DoctorNine

        A quibble here. Your biological argument is specious.

        Vertebrates have bilateral symmetry, but it isn’t because that is the most efficient way for the body to grow from one cell to billions or trillions. Many animals use radial symmetry. Sponges are asymmetric in toto. And the most frequent type of symmetry in flowering plants, is pentameric (five sided).

        So umm… Mebbe YOU should reconsider the bio refresher?

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

          Next thing you know we’ll all be arguing the pros and cons of the validity and ultimate failure of the Linnaeun system.


          • http://twitter.com/metabomber Jesse

            Grant, buy yourself a beer and send me the bill.

          • DoctorNine

            Yeah. Actually had that discussion over at ‘Wired’ a couple months ago. One of the occupational hazards of being an overly enthusistic bio-geek professor type.

        • Jeromy

          Your know what DR. I could easily write a ten page paper on that subject, but that would be a huge waste of everyone’s time. What I will say is that my statement was not an ignorant one, I have reasons I said it.

          I was just trying to bring up some evidence to support efficiency in biology.

    • Chris

      Yes one eyed animals lacking depth perception would surely have an evolutionary advantage over those inefficient creatures with two.

      • Campisi

        Beat me to it.

  • ike6116

    We don’t need this egg-head hippy bullshit, we need building and competition.

    Kidding of course. I’m of the opinion that JT is bringing a wrench to a physics fight.

    • http://www.cdavisdesigns.com Chris Davis

      What is interesting here to me is this particular application of an EV technology as it applies to the market. In the US, the bulk of motorcyclists already have that second, traditional, long range vehicle. The bulk of motorcyclists ride for leisure. When it comes to leisure, energy efficiency is not the primary goal. To the rider who pretty much only rides track days, The Life Electric premise does not apply. To the rider who hops on and goes to a bar or the guy that cruises around town on the weekends, The Life Electric premise does not apply. Maybe he rides now and then on a clear day to work 15 miles away, but you wouldn’t really call him a commuter.

      So where does the electric bike fit in for these riders? Certainly energy consumption has nothing to do with his bike decision. Motorcycles require crazy high miles and serious commitment to pay off financially. Because, for the most part, that doesn’t happen, the electric motorcycle will have to dominate other areas; outright performance, i.e. lap times and visceral qualities.

      The Harley owner with the damn loud pipes: where is his electric? The liter bike track guy: where is his electric? What of the hipster on the CB550? The flat biller at the MX track?

      What is the obsessive focus on range with the electrics? True, all those bikes above can go cross country, but they don’t. They’re a pain in the ass for that. The electric bike manufacturers may do well to diversify into the fringes than try to beat the ICE at a game its owners by-and-large don’t play. Cede the ADV and touring markets. They’ll be the DC-3s of the future.

      I loved the Life Electric series. HFL sought to answer a specific question, “Can you live with this electric bike as your sole means of transportation?” The answer is “no” unless you want to put up with a lot of B.S. So now that we’ve gotten that answer, at least for now, can we get to ask what they’re like in typical ownership experiences? Give me one that can handle a session or two at the MX track, one that can handle the road course, one that can get me through the city. What’s that like?

      • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]


      • ike6116

        Most people don’t buy a motorcycle for their needs. They buy it for their dreams. (Honda is that you?)

        The harley guy? He dreams of going cross country, fists in the wind, going his own way seeing The Greatest Country On God’s Green Earth, interstate by interstate, diner by diner, bar by bar. His dream needs range.

        The CB550 guy? Not much different than the Harley guy except rather than diners he wants to see national parks and other romantic locales that he imagines would have inspired Kerouac or Thorough. Ditto on range.

        ADV Riders are the same, there are people on this forum who love to crap on BMW GS’ parked at Starbucks’ super clean.

        The track guy? Well there’s two of those, the guy who genuinely loves it and the guy who bought his Rossi replicas to be seen in them. His dream includes going somewhere and picking up a chick and having her cling to the back as he drives her back to his place… he can’t be made to look like a fool asking for help pushing.

        MX flatbiller… I’ll concede that one but I think KTM has some interesting work in that direction.

        It’s been said here many times that motorcycles are an emotional purchase, I agree with that even if I did buy (to me) a super practical bike.

        And when you’re buying on promise, currently, electrics satisfy no one but brammofans.

        • http://www.cdavisdesigns.com Chris Davis

          Maybe he buys his first motorcycle for his dream of going cross country. Then he takes a long trip and wishes he had his car half way through. For most people range is not a matter of refueling/recharging, but a matter of discomfort. That epic tour dream gets shattered pretty quickly. I’m talking about the general rider, the bulk of the market, not the guys who pay for HFL articles.

          Track guys won’t care, as long as they have the fastest tool to get around the track. Track-guy-poser won’t care either as long as the real track guys have already adopted it. In fact, track-guy-poser will gladly tell you all about how fast his electric bike could go and how it’s better than gas bikes. As soon as e-bikes get there, it’s all for the taking. No need to jump through the fiery hoop of range anxiety.

        • protomech

          Definitely agree that people buy things (not just motorcycles) based upon dreams or desires .. particularly if it’s their first widget of that type.

          And perhaps the initial EV market is the “true believer” crowd. Certainly the current tech has a parcel of limitations that require careful consideration of their impact.

          What about people that buy scooters, or own multiple bikes? Once you have a continent-swallowing ADV bike, do you need to be able to cover the same range on a second bike?

      • protomech

        Re: sole form of transportation, it’s an interesting question, in a way it’s a form of adventurism. Can I climb this mountain, can I hike the Appalachian Trail, can I live with just a bike or an electric motorcycle or just a motorcycle. Some type of departure from the norm.

        All of these questions are nearly equally relevant to most people’s lives.. eg, not at all. The question is rarely “can I make do with just one form of transportation”, it’s more often “what if any role does this vehicle have in my life, under what conditions is it worth pursuing, what limitations does it have when integrated into my life”. I would have loved to see HFL’s response to that question, instead of to the question they asked.

  • DoctorNine

    Lightweight vehicles, like aircraft and motorcycles, have the best performance envelopes, if they are designed to use the densest energy storage medium available. I suspect that batteries will never have the energy density of hydrocarbon fuels. Therefore, engineered hydrocarbon fuels will continue to be the preferred energy storage media for these lightweight vehicles, even if their ultimate derivation, is from solar power, nuclear power, or some other, non-fossil fuel source.

    In short, I disagree with your conclusion regarding electric cycles.
    Edward is correct.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

      I know a lot of radio-control hobbyists who said the same thing 10 years ago, and some that are still talking this way. Looking at what today’s electric RC vehicles (ground, water, or air) are capable of doing and why electric RC now dominates over ICE, it’s easy for me to believe that EV will eventually overtake ICE, at least in numbers of motorcycles sold.

      I also believe that greater acceptance of electric drive will allow manufacturers to push the envelope of design, just as it has done in the world of RC. For example, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that direct-drive outrunner motors will soon be powering 2WD motorcycles just like outrunners made multi-rotor copters viable.

      • pplassm

        I have flown RC for many years, and battery packs are slowly taking the place of jugs of fuel in my shed. RC electrics are amazing! And you can fly anywhere without pissing people off!

    • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

      Lightweight vehicles have two critical metrics – specific power and specific energy. Electrics already have an advantage in specific power. Where they fall short is in specific energy. Pick a race biased towards energy, not power, like say a race across the country and hydrocarbons will win because of their extremely high energy density. Pick a race biased towards power, not energy, like say a drag race and an electric will kick the shit out of a combustion option. Between those two extremes there’s a lot of pie. As batteries improve, electric will make sense for more and more of that pie. The question is not IF. The real questions are how much of the pie and on what timeline.

      • DoctorNine

        Excellent point. It’s physics, in either case.

        Also, my argument was about the energy density of the storage media, not the motor type.

        It is entirely possible that fuel cell technology -with an energy dense hydrocarbon fuel, and electric motors for drive- will be the engineering solution which is ultimately most efficient.

  • coredump

    You know I did a LOT of looking around when I was arguing on another corner of the internet about whether or not the Nissan Leaf made any sense. Looking at a lot of census data and some DOT reports I made a discovery, the assumption that electric cars and motorcycles are best suited for people in urban environments is wrong. Electric cars and motorcycles meet the need of the majority of people in the suburbs.

    The reason I come to this conclusion is that I assume that most major metro housing is apartments, where you can’t install chargers. Where you can install chargers is a single detached home. Most of the housing, 60%, in the US is detached single homes, like the kind you see out in the burbs. Furthermore, the vast majority of those, I think it was like 80%, had more than one person living there. This is important because DOT statistics puts car/vehicle ownership at roughly 1 car per person. So that means most households are not single car households.

    Combine this with the fact that most people can have 22 days of each month transportation needs met with a commute of less than 20 miles (dot omnibus statistics) you get a large chunk of the population who could have the majority of their driving met by an electric vehicle a majority of the time with a backup vehicle in the same household.

    Now I know this is car centric type ownership but I assume a lot of this can carry over to motorcycles. Few people are going to have a single motorcycle as their sole means of transportation, meaning that an electric bike with a 60 or 75 mile range can meet a large part of their commutes during the month.

    The sad part is as I started typing this I went looking for my other posts and realized they got lost to the gas chamber. So I can’t drop all my links to the statistics at this time.

    • http://rider49er.blogspot.com Mark D [EX500]

      Great analysis, except for the fact that you have to drive 40 miles out of the suburbs to get anywhere worth being.

      If I lived in the ‘burbs and only had a Leaf, my life would make American Beauty look like Normal Rockwell.

      • coredump

        Ha, more like 25 miles if you buy right!

      • protomech

        Depends on where you live. My “greater metro area” is 300-500k people depending on how you count. It’s 20 miles from one end to the other, and interstate speeds are not required. Electric works for me.

        My grandparents and brother both live in the Atlanta area, but one in the northwest and one in the northeast. It’s a good hour of driving and 40+ miles from one to the other. Electric, at least in 2012, wouldn’t work for them.

        Your reasoning is spot-on, coredump. Multi-car detached home with < 60 mile typical daily non-interstate travel is the ideal operating environment for a 2012 EV; that excludes a lot of folks, but it's a pretty big market nonetheless.

      • BMW11GS

        Shrug, I guess I dislike LA and city folk. Much prefer my Ventura suburb life.

    • Clark

      Interesting to hear this coredump. I suspected that to be the case.

      Mark D — I think coredump addressed this with the mention of most families being multiple car households. I read that to mean that they would also have a ICE car to “escape the ‘burb”.

    • http://www.lgdm.fr stempere

      The same point can be made about most european countries.
      I’ve said on other EV articles that an electric bike (and they definitly are the future, and faster comming than electric cars) needs a better range (to allow a weekly charge, be it impractical) or swappable batteries to be carried home or at work to do daily (or even twice a day) charges.

      I live in paris, my commute to work is a 5.5 miles round trip and only go to meetings inside the city (16 miles at the most and back, usually no more than 2 or 3 meetings a day). My usage would be perfect for an electric bike during the week (and keep a ICE for the weekend), but both my home and workplace are appartments, one of which doesn’t even face the street. It could be worked around, but not easily.

    • Holden and Annette

      Because your analysis fits my situation, I conclude that you are 100 percent correct, coredump.

      I’d have to keep my ICE bike for vacations and weekend jaunts, though.

  • Your_Mom

    I guess someone has to nitpick – so why not me? I’m rather certain there never was any sort of “…antiquated radial 24 cylinder piston engines…” in any DC-3 or its military version the C-47. Did you mean “14 cylinder”?

    Great article by the way. Cheers.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      I stand corrected. The ships I saw waddling into the air were definitely DC-3 conversions, not C-47s. Lovely to watch one struggle to make the runway flat out, with a B737 3 miles behind it with full flaps, wheels out and still overtaking.

      • Your_Mom

        Thanks Michael. The original DC-3s had Wright 9 cylinder engines (single row of cylinders). They soon switched to P&W 14 cylinder Wasps and later Super Wasps (two rows of seven cylinders). It may be my favorite aircraft – of all time.

  • rohorn

    Well said – great aviation analogies.

    The first cars were “Horseless Carriages” and didn’t work very well.

    As long as single track EVs are nothing more than “Gasless Motorbikes”, they aren’t going to work very well, either.

    The TTXGP rules allow for some radical changes in design – nobody has tried any – yet.

    • Kevin

      Couldn’t agree more. The more they make electric bikes look like the motorcycles we already have, the more they come up short. The ultimate would be a $30,000 electric Gold Wing that goes 100 miles on a charge. Kinda missing the point.

      Small, light, cheap, and short range alternatives to expensive gas powered vehicles is what already *sells* in China. In trying to build electric versions of the motorcycles that we’re already happy with, we’re trying to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  • protomech

    “Most importantly, electric propulsion is 3 times as efficient at converting stored energy into motion, because at best, 75% of the energy stored in a unit of fossil fuel is converted into waste heat through friction. Even in a frictionless universe, the theoretical best case scenario for piston engine efficiency is 37%, while todayʼs EV motors regularly attain over 90% efficiency in the real world.”

    That’s fine, except that we’re still getting 70% of our grid energy from fossil fuels.

    Large natural gas turbines are pretty efficient, a good bit better than a car’s ICE .. especially if we’re talking a combined heating & power plant. But when you look at the total chain: chemical to heat to kinetic to electrical (AC & DC), transmission, AC to DC to chemical potential in batteries, discharge to DC convert back to AC, electrical to kinetic again … usually you can beat that by combusting the fossil fuels locally.

    We’ll certainly continue to move away from fossil fuels in the future, and in many places the payback on local solar generation is very short. And while I find the efficiency argument to be pretty compelling simply due to aesthetics, from a national energy viewpoint it seems a little bit narrow.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      I never talked about EVs as a solution to US national energy problems, only as the next form of surface transportation evolution. When I argue for efficiency, I am talking about what scientists and economists both call efficiencies: saving energy and money together. There is no contradiction.

      Your point about local power generation holds no water at all, if you mean that it is more efficient to burn fuel in a motorcycle engine than to burn it in a coal-fired plant, then transmit the power to a battery. The economies of scale are widely in favour of centralized power generation, regardless of fuel type. A hundred people cooking a meal for one person will never be as efficient as cooking a meal for one hundred at once.

      In Canada we have different provinces each with different power generation strategies. In Québec where I lived until last year, the overwhelming majority of it comes from renewable hydro plants along the Hudson Bay river system. As a result, power is cheap and so plentiful that Québec sells its surplus to many north-east states in America. EV adoption is the highest in the country there, but it has nothing to do with power costs, but rather the cost of gasoline, which in Québec is highest in the country at about $1.45/litre.

      In Nova Scotia where I live now, previous governments bet the farm on coal-fired power generation, because there used to be large coal mining operations in the area. As that dried up, they began importing coal at astronomical cost, which has caused significant cost increases annually and made us the most expensive province in the nation in which to buy electricity. The current government is pushing for large scale renewables to take over, a hard sell in an economically depressed area, but as the cost of fossil-fuel power goes up in a cold place where 90% of homes get their heat from oil, everyone from the politically opposed to the ignorant leap onto the renewable bandwagon. Last week they announced another electricity price hike, in the order of 6%, and already the talk on the street is about advancing the Bay of Fundy tidal power project.

      EV adoption is not driven by the cost of electricity. It is by the cost of fossil fuels, as in gasoline for transportation, a source of electricity, and heat. Money drives consumer and political decisions more than any other factor, as any observer of say the current US election or Wall street will notice. The promise of saving money and future prosperity is an easier sell than just accepting inevitable price gauging from now on.

    • Gabriel DeVault

      You do realize you can purchase electricity from any source you wish? For example: http://www.greenmountain.com/ or your own PV array, or whatever. That’s the beauty of EV’s, it’s up to YOU to choose your energy source. Sure it may come at a premium, but at least you have the option, if you care enough to put your money where your mouth is.

      • protomech

        Most of the “green credit” type programs are really more guarantees that the utility provides a certain quantity of energy. It requires some pretty serious hand-waving to call that “your energy source” – if a thousand people covered under the program turn on their ACs at once, the utility isn’t going to check their individual meters and note they’re “green” customers and turn up the tap on the landfill methane / wind farm / solar farm.

        TVA’s program is called Green Power Switch, and it’s largely landfill methane. I do cover all of my power through the GPS program, but I’m looking at a small solar installation to take its place (though using the grid as “energy storage” for solar also requires some hand-waving). Payback is ~6 years if I do the installation myself.

  • Erik

    So…, whatyer sayin is the way of the future is jet powered bikes? Cool!

    • aristurtle

      Perfect! I can see it now, a future when 500hp turbobusas are now boring starter bikes, and people are posting YouTube videos of top-speed runs on public highways on a rocket-assist ramjet on wheels, passing normal motorists fast enough to experience relativistic time dilation.

      Or something like that.

  • Charlie

    Ok, if we are going to talk about the state of nature, we are going to need to level off at the socio-economic level. Teleology or entropy as states of nature will not lead inexorably to any one technology. The fetish of transportation will rule until the race is extinct – probably long before we run out of fossil fuels. Even if the kinder, welfare state is eclipsed by the State capitalism of China, consumerism and leisure will prevail. Technology bought us free time and we don’t know what to do with it. People will pay $300k for a Ferrari FF to have fun and impress the neighbors. I’m going to buy a new MV Agusta triple because I will look great on it. I just bought a ’70 BMW 1600 Cab because I don’t want to see the same vintage car coming in the other direction. It’s all about me and how we all spend any wealth as diversions. I’m going EV and keeping the R60/2. Efficiencies will produce new and good options, and will no doubt influence the majority of transportation, but I will pay $100/liter for gasoline to power my toys. Nietzsche’s will-to-power, Adams Smith’s invisible hand – in our modern world (Google’s paid search, Instagram, Facebook) it’s all about vanity. We are what we ride, drive and fly.

    • BMW11GS

      Very interesting, I don’t know if this is a critique of our modern existence or a reflection on it’s natural progression since the dawn of man. But either way it leaves me a slight bit depressed.

      • Charlie

        Well, honest descriptions of our natural state are almost impossible to find. We shouldn’t BS ourselves. I don’t think the joy of riding is much more complicated than a hound sticking it’s head out of an automobile window. Of all diversions, nothing is better than my ’74 Ducati GT. The perfect motorcycle engine, and with the Conti’s the sweetest note of all time. Renders the range of an EV irrelevant.

        If you want some cheer read “All Things Shining” by the Chair of the Harvard Philosophy Dept. The best recent work on our modern predicament – and readily accessible

        • BMW11GS

          I agree, perhaps there is something more than diversion, or perhaps diversions are less distractions and more an elevation of our natural faculties. I looked up “All things Shining,” I will see what it has to say.

          • Charlie

            All Things Shining is about democratizing the sacred to realize value in a rudderless modernity. Luring back the gods. Not only that glimpses can be experienced in mundane things, but that authentic experience is essentially shared. For instance, everyone standing in a park in unison to watch the arc of a ball. This is generally counter to the Western tradition of a passive subject. The book is designed for non-technical people using literary references. He calls these shared experiences “whooshing”. Diversions, then, do indeed become elevations of our natural faculties. Suffice it to say…the pious were quite critical of his case. There is also a blog by the same name.

            If you want the best on the state of nature from the Physicists perspective, read Brian Greene’s latest work (The Hidden Reality). Mind bending speculation from one of the brightest people on the planet

            Excuse the hijacking…

  • BigRooster

    Thanks HFL and Michael Uhlarik for putting this together. I very much enjoyed reading this article and appreciate the writer’s skill in presentation and craft.
    I don’t have much to add other than I can’t help but agree with Michael’s view of the future. I really identified with this line: “… plumped me into the same category as most EV proponents by thinking that I was an absolutist; a person bent on eliminating carbon based fossil fuels at all costs and with no room for compromise.” Not just regarding this subject, but basically any “conversation,” on the internet or otherwise, all too often seems to go this direction. Why must EVERTHING be polarized with one party assigning a complete understanding of the other party’s complete life outlook with one grain of information (not presuming JT did this, just capitalizing on the example)?

    It’s refreshing to read a motorcycle publication and not feel dumber for it. HFL raises the bar on motorcycle discourse and the readers deserve much of the praise by contributing interesting and thought provoking comments. It is awesome to read dissertations on biology, physics and evolution rather than the tired snarky comments consisting of some iteration of “FAIL!”, “FIRST!!!” and your (insert preference) sucks ass.

  • Fizzy Fox

    I’ve been hearing that this tech is a mere decade away for at least 20 years now.

    Excellent article, though. Very interesting.

    • protomech

      20 years ago we didn’t have production EVs (that were selling in thousands of units). We had

      Today we have three traditional manufacturers (nissan, chevrolet, mitsubishi), each of which has sold > 10k of their initial EV line. New manufacturers are popping up and scrabbling for viability (Tesla, Fisker, Brammo, Zero). The difference between GM showing off a concept that will eventually become a lease-only experiment and Nissan selling tens of thousands of affordable EVs is rather large.

      The ability to recommend an EV without reservation is at least a decade away. Buying an EV today does often require a set of compromises that many people will reject reflexively .. but in time the fear of the unusual will fade.

      • protomech

        We had* concept cars that would eventually be developed into lease vehicles then crushed.

  • Devin

    All I can think of is terrifying plane rides to Moose Factory on Air Creebec. Everybody comes back scarred from those plane rides. Seriously, old planes are scary as fuck when you aren’t used to things creeking and clanging on your normal air flight. Not to mention you can see into the cab, watch both pilots shrug their shoulders at a blinking red light and then start thumbing through an instruction manual.

    I agree with everything except the “decade out” thing. I think it will still be a little bit longer. Once people realize fully electric for cars sucks and is only awesome for bikes, R&D is going to slowdown.

    • BigRooster

      That reminds me of time spent in the back of CH-47 Chinooks. Often told leaking hyrdraulic fluid was normal and nothing to worry about.

      • BMW11GS

        That applies to BMW final drives too right?

      • pplassm

        We don’t worry until it STOPS leaking!

      • JVictor75


        I remember being given the following spiel from a crew chief, the first time I rode in a Chinook:

        “OK, Marines listen up! See this valve? See how it’s leaking Hydraulic fluid? That’s normal. If it leaks more quickly than that, it’s a problem because that means that the seal inside is completely gone and that we will run out of Hydraulic fluid and imminently crash.

        If it isn’t leaking, that is also a problem because that means the system is now completely out of Hydraulic fluid and that we will imminently crash. Please make every attempt to get my attention as soon as you notice either event occuring. Thanks and enjoy your ride eith the Evil Eyes.”

        Cue 30 Jarheads staring fixedly at the aforementioned valve.

  • doublet

    The interesting thing about all this comparison with aircraft is the fact that economy of scale seems to be neglected. Yes for military aircraft (winning a war is a great motivator) and moving things in mass quantities, we can support the cost of a jet engine. Saying a jet engine is ‘cheaper’ is very relative.

    When you get to a CONSUMER LEVEL, who has a jet aircraft EVEN TODAY? Of course you could say who has an aircraft, period.. but for the sake of comparison, the privately owned JET POWERED AIRCRAFT (or turboprop) is way off for most private pilot aircraft owners. Most don’t even have NEW aircraft, as they really haven’t changed much of the years, aside from avionics an engine updates which can both be done much cheaper than buying a new aircraft… but I digress.

    Point is, I see the comparison on a visceral level… but I believe it ends there!

  • http://www.TroyRank.com Troy R

    Electric for commuting. Gas for touring/distance of any kind. That’s my motto for now.

    Commuting miles at 85% of my miles, and I don’t live in the city.

    This is a fantastically well produced article. I really enjoyed it.

    At over $4/gallon you already save over $100/1000miles.

  • Gabriel DeVault

    I really take exception to the statement “todayʼs electric motorcycles are, as I said in the forum, almost totally inadequate for most North American users.”

    Every single person at my company can commute “both ways” on a 2012 Zero ZF9. Some live over 50 miles away. And we are as diverse and as good a random selection of riders as you will get.

    I understand that it’s not an “only vehicle” sort of solution, but then, who says it has to be? You apparently, and that is the crux of the dis-agreement. Within the confines of it’s limitations, it performs admirably. It’s like complaining that your Cessna 172 won’t make trans-continental flights. It’s an artificial barrier and you seem un-willing to concede that others requirements may differ from your own. Define “North American Users” and their requirements. Back it up with data. Then maybe your argument will at least have some factual basis. Until then it’s just a bunch of sensationalist hand-waving.

    • protomech

      How many people at Zero commute on Zeros?

      • Gabriel DeVault

        About a dozen on any given day. Out of about ~70 people, there is not one who can’t use a Zero for their commute.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik


      I understand and fully agree with your point of view. My point was to counter the argument presented by the vast majority of consumers, who will not compromise. If I understand correctly, you are an employee at Zero, so you know the how difficult breaking that “artificial barrier” is.

      Our problem as an industry, is that we are pandering to the out-of-context arguments of a public that is largely ignorant of EV technology and potential applications. The correct strategy to winning over hearts and minds with EV motorcycles is to change the conversation, and hit the consumer where it really counts : the heart.

      When EV bikes are sexy, and I mean *really* sexy and not just conversions, then price and range be damned, they will come.


  • Campisi

    Totally worth whatever my subscription costs (I don’t bother to check anymore).

    • Devin

      I just have mine set to auto-pay. No more antsy “WHY U NO SHOW FULL ARTICLE” issues while you are on the run.

  • http://respectthetrade.tumblr.com/ KR Tong

    The cliffnotes version seems to be: You cant separate a vehicle from its infrastructure. I think that’s a great message.

    It’s been a few years since I talked to anybody doing this, but I remember when lots of people were putting solar panels on their homes. I think the idea fell off after home equity plummeted, so nobody wanted to make the investment. Every summer your electric company would send you a check instead of a bill for the electricity you produced from the panels.

    It was so popular that a lot of that ’08 stimulus bill was dedicated to making every home in america solar. If Solindra had better accounting and didnt have to compete with China and Japan (they’re even more subsidized) every house in California would be able to afford solar and we’d be looking at electric vehicles very, very differently.

    The bigger picture of the stimulus was to have cheap, affordable manufacturers in every corner of America (the one in Chicago is doing very well) so there would be more jobs, and less importing, but solar panels are extremely subsidized in China and Japan, in a way that’s designed to make companies in other countries unprofitable.

    Electricity is undoubtedly the future. Consumers just need to realize it and start adopting more ways to save on their electrical bill and the infrastructure will follow suit.

    And the reason why a $2 barrel of oil is sold for $110 is because OPEC has an 80% monopoly on all crude oil. If countries did what Argentina did and expropriate all the oil companies then gas would be much, much cheaper and nobody would be looking at EV’s at all. Not suggesting we do that, just sayin’ we could.

    And I think another important thing is to look at your stable of bikes holistically. People have one car because it’s a versatile, albeit clunky machine. People have a stable of bikes because you can have a few of them to do specific jobs more efficiently than a car. Adding an EV bike to your stable is the same as trading in your car for a hybrid, but it’s more efficient because you can select the ev when it fits the situation, instead of dragging both motors wherever you go.

  • Emmanuel Meris

    Just wanted to express a thought about the time it takes to store energy vs the challenge to race across the continent:

    Gasoline is a pre-stored variant of decomposed vegetable matter, which is itself pre-stored solar energy. What if the rules said you could not use pre-stored energy? The gasoline powered vehicle would need to grow, bury, decompose, refine and then fill while the battery powered vehicle would need to store its solar energy to battery. Who wins then? Else what if both could use pre-stored energy. The gas powered bike can use fuel cells prefilled with gas and the electric bike can use pre-charged batteries. Who wins then?

    • ike6116

      Except that’s utterly ridiculous.

      • Emmanuel Meris

        No, ridiculous is comparing filling a petrol tank with charging a battery.

        Current forms of battery technology are based on slow, chemical processes.

        Charging time aside, the performance of EVs is excellent. The TT Zero this year was proof of how far things have progressed, in a single year!

        Battery powered bikes in China are so successful, that they are becoming victims of their own success. They can do 30mph, completely silently, ergo, the lunatics in the city where I was working were doing 30mph. On the footpath. In the dark…

        The obvious did occur and EVs are now facing the prospect of bans, since electronic beepers in a place with so much ambient noise are about as useful as broadband to the Amish.

        I say, the race is feasible. Instead of recharging, let the EV simply switch battery packs. Let the LPG bike do the same, instead of refueling, allow them to switch fuel cells.

        Measure the bikes based on their performance, not their refueling times.

        • ike6116

          Except refueling time is a part of overall performance which is where electric bikes currently puke on their shoes.

          • Campisi

            Having the IC machine switch fuel cells each stop is a bit extreme, but I don’t see why the EV hot-swapping batteries is a problem. Back when EVs were in wide use at the turn of the twentieth century, swapping batteries multiple times during the day was a common (and much-maligned, due to the weight of the batteries) task for electric work and delivery truck users.

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