My time with the 2012 Zero DS is up. The nice man from Zero came and picked it up this morning. For three whole weeks, the fastest, longest-range electric motorcycle ever was my only transportation. I didn’t drive any cars, I didn’t ride my bicycle, I didn’t hop on any other bikes. I might have walked a little bit once or twice. Why? I wanted to know if it was possible. Early adopters and techno geeks and and greenie weenies aside, can a normal person with normal transportation needs really make the switch to zero emissions? Well...the answer is not what what I was expecting.
Photos: Sean Smith
HFL has really gotten behind this whole electric thing. We’ve ridden and written about every electric bike out there. We’ve interviewed the CEOs. We’ve covered the racing. And I have personally too, writing about electrics for everyone from GQ to Wired to PopSci and even once appearing on Fox News to talk about them. Yeah, that last thing makes me feel pretty dirty, which is another reason why I’m probably the right person to try and fit an electric bike into my life.
Living in LA, a city that can only be travelled by motorcycle, and living in a standalone house with outdoor outlets, I figured the electric would probably be a good fit. With an official 112-mile range (estimated in a mix of city and highway driving), I figured an honest 80 miles would probably be pretty useful too. 80 mile is a long way, right? That could totally cover the majority of my daily riding. 84mph is plenty fast too, more than enough to get on the city’s congested highways.
Perhaps out of vanity, I also looked forward to whizzing around on a silent, futuristic bike. Something that marked me as a trendsetter, a bike that your average, young, city-dweller might actually think was cool. Completely the opposite of my normal superbikes or knobbie-equipped 1,200cc ADVs. Finally, I’d be able to brag to my non-riding friends about something they actually cared about.
I get around.
Last summer I broke my wrist on a Ural and had to get around by car for a few weeks. Against the doctor’s advice, I got back on a bike, an Aprilia Mana, while I still had a cast on. I wrote an op/ed about it for Wired that I wanted to call “Why the fuck do you people still drive?!” before wiser minds intervened. It still broke their commenting system. Basically, I’ve built a life for myself that’s totally predicated on the motorcycle.
Living in LA, where the metropolitan area sprawls across 4,850 square miles, I need a bike for its ability to (legally, mind) split lanes. The good fuel economy helps too. As I patiently explain to people constantly, “I live in very different LA.” One where East and West are minutes and cents away rather than hours and a Twenty, minimum. I happily run errands for SUV bound friends, half an hour and a couple dollars will get me to Long Beach, which may as well be the dark side of the Moon as far as most Angelenos are concerned. Running between civilization and the suburban hinterlands in that time is how we swap around press bikes, how I see friends and how I do all the stupid shit that I do. 5pm on a Friday? Sure, I can go camping. What traffic?
An average day sees me riding from my house in Hollywood to Downtown for meetings (10 miles), then maybe to Venice for lunch (20 miles) then back home (another 20) to a cafe, to the gym, to the grocery store. Maybe WeHo to spend the night or there and back again if I forgot something. Maybe I’ll stop by Grant’s or Sean’s or somewhere else. I’m on a bike a lot. You should text or email if you want to get ahold of me, I’ll never answer the phone, it’s impossible with a helmet on. The 42 unchecked voicemails from the last week or so attest to that.
Toy or transportation?
Yesterday, I got to do something I’d been itching to do since we first got the DS: ride it on a good road. There’s a plethora of them in the LA area and I could maybe even get to one of them on the 9kWh Zero, but doing so would rule out much riding and I certainly wouldn’t get home. So, we loaded the bike into a Nissan Frontier and headed for GMR.
Riding, fairly upright, around town, indications were good that the Zero might be a handler. Suspension is fully adjustable, has relatively soft, long-travel springs, which are controlled by quality damping. Wide bars give good leverage over the 17-inch front wheel to make for sharp steering, something that’s backed up by fairly steep geometry and a quite light, 341lbs curb weight. Some hard use bedded in the pads and even the brakes began to deliver good feel.
The twist-n-go throttle is more intuitive and linear than on most scooters and a tiny bit of regen delivers traditional engine-braking feel when you roll of the throttle. Good to go right? Well....
The thing preventing you from riding fast on the Zero isn’t the relatively limited performance or lack of gears or anything like that. Instead, it’s a bizarrely short-sighted cost-cutting choice on Zero’s part. The tires? Yeah, those are “Deli Tire,” which everyone knows is a quality, performance brand, right? I’ve never heard of them either, but some Googling reveals that they’re made in Indonesia and aren’t for sale anywhere in the US. At least anywhere that’s aware of Google. I’d like to tell you how cheap they are, but lacking any online outlet, I’ll simple have to guestimate: these tires cost $3. Yeah, they’re that bad. Not only don’t they bother gripping or leaning or any of that fun stuff, but even with just the 700 miles the bike arrived with, they were already totally squared off.
Yeah, yeah, this is supposed to be a dual sport. But, I can ride a stock WR250R pretty hard on a mountain road. Or even a TKC80-equipped Super Tenere for that matter. These are basically street tires with dirt-look tread. Trust me, they’re garbage.
Of course, the Zero isn’t the only bike to come with shit tires stock. The Dunlop D204s on the Yamaha R1 are awful too. But unlike that bike, which comes with standard wheel sizes, making the Zero work right doesn’t just involve mousing over to Motorcycle Superstore. Putting something worthwhile on the 2.50 x 17-inch front would be easy, but what on earth are you going to put on the 3.00 x 16 rear? Until you can answer that question, the DS isn’t worth trucking to a mountain road.
Those tires are just the last in long list of curiously cheap components on the Zero. At $14,000 there’s really no excuse for a headlight that doesn’t illuminate squat or a parts-bin taillight or the ugliest plate hanger/rear fender in human history or mirrors that show only your elbows and won’t stay adjusted or a front brake line that obstructs the clocks or a plug-in point underneath the bike or LED battery indicators you can’t see or bodywork made up of an uneven assortment of .01 cent pop studs and cheesy Phillips heads. Come on guys.
How fast is fast?
There’s something the Zero has made me want to get off my chest. With an 84mph top speed and the off-the-line acceleration of a 50cc scooter, it’s a remarkably slow motorcycle by any standard. But, I don’t think that most motorcyclists actually understand what that means. All the guys that I see riding around on liter bikes or Monsters or million cc cruisers or anything in between? I pass them on that remarkably slow motorcycle. Talk all the shit you want on slow bikes, but until you’re passing that Zero DS, you’re riding a slow bike too because you make it slow. A motorcycle is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But only once you actually learn how to use it. Until then, keep the tough guy talk to yourself, anything with two wheels is capable of being very, very fun.
Truth #1: 60 miles is about as much as you’re going to want to rely on.
Truth #2: Even with a quick charger, full recharges take five hours.
Truth #3: Outdoor, easily accessible outlets are much harder to find than you think.
Truth #4: Plugging in for 45 minutes here or an hour there at some random outlet (the quick charger is too big to conveniently take with you) does absolutely nothing.
Truth #4: Distances aren’t one way when you can only really charge at home. A 10-mile journey has to be thought of as 20 miles, or one-third the 9kWh Zero’s effective range. That’s right, something that’s 10 miles away is one-third of your maximum reliable travel distance. You can travel there three times a day max and, once you’re there, your next move has to be limited accordingly.
Sean MacDonald just stopped by to drop off a Moto Guzzi Stelvio NTX (awesome, by the way) and we got talking about the Zero. Apparently, he’s been describing it to people as, “Like that Justin Timberlake movie, In Time.” In case you haven’t seen that (not awesome, don’t bother), JT lives in some alternate LA in which a green thing on his arm tracks the amount of time you have left. Time is a currency you spend and earn. If you run out, you die (surprisingly violently, it turns out). The Zero’s battery is like that, except you can’t simply add more time. You sit there all day, watching the range tick down, feeling closer and closer to death. Also unlike the movie, your mom is not creepily hot.
It’s not so much the maximum range that’s the limiting factor, it’s actually the recharge time. Essentially relegated to overnight for anyone that doesn’t sit still all day, it makes the Zero utterly inflexible transportation.
In that Wired article, I hyperboled that getting stuck in a car ruined my life. I could probably make the same exaggerated claim about the Zero DS for the same reason: it limited me. Limits are something I don’t like.
Here’s an example: On a half charge, I rode Downtown for a meeting. There went 10 miles. Then a friend asked me to bring her lunch in Santa Monica. No fucking way. I used half the remaining juice just getting home.
Let’s say your commute averages half a “tank.” That leaves you with 30 miles to play with. Now what if your significant other forgot their wallet and you’d like to drop them some cash at work? What if you want to go by a speciality hardware store you found on the Internet to pick up that tool you need to finish your project? What if you just want to blow off some steam at lunch time? What if you want to do anything that’s more than 15 miles away? Remember, there and back means you need to double your distance.
You could hop on pretty much any brand new motorcycle right now, with no preparation of any kind, and ride it across country. Doing so on a Ducati might be a little uncomfortable. You’re not going to, but that ability highlights the usefulness and versatility of even some ridiculous superbike. The motorcycle, fundamentally, is a useful thing. Being utterly unable to travel a reasonable distance is the antithesis of useful.
Could you do it?
So, after reading all this, you still want one? Here’s what you need to exist in your life to make that possible:
1. A living situation with extremely easy, convenient access to power outlets either adjacent to a parking area or in your garage.
2. $14,000 to spend on a second or third (or whatever) vehicle.
3. A commute or travel routine that’s as much under 60 miles a day as possible.
4. Regular (as in you own it) access to a traditional, gasoline-powered vehicle. Preferably a motorcycle.
5. Access to a pickup truck if you want to ride anywhere but within 30 miles of home.
6. A daily routine that doesn’t often require you to transport yourself places on an impromptu basis and preferably involves urban riding.
7. If you work at a static location, extremely easy, convenient access to a power outlet and an employer that condones such behavior.
Unless you have all seven, an electric bike isn’t the right choice for you.
What’s this mean?
In short, the idea of a fitting an electric motorcycle into your life without making significant sacrifices is still a ways off. That’s not to say electric motorcycles don’t have an exciting, viable future, just that that future isn’t quite here yet. As battery technology advances, longer ranges will find their way into cheaper, smaller, denser packs until eventually some watershed of practicality will be achieved. More necessary though is the need for a real electric infrastructure if vehicles like these are to become viable. If it took five hours and a pump in your own home to fill up your gas bike, then they’d be just as impractical. If it took five minutes on pretty much any street corner in the country to fill up your electric bike, they’d be just as practical as a regular bike. At some point, hopefully soon, I’ll happily make the transition to electric transportation. Just not yet.
For three weeks I lived with an electric motorcycle, it was the Life Electric.