A continuing discussion on electric motorcycles


Category: Dailies

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, 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.

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