Photo: Grant Ray
Electric motorcycles are slow. Electric motorcycles are expensive.
Electric motorcycles don't go very far before they run out of juice.
Electric motorcycles don't go "vroom vroom." Electric motorcycles look
like bicycles. Here's why none of that matters. >
10. Electric motorcycles are creating new bikers
When we interviewed Brammo CEO Craig Bramscher, he talked about the Enertia as being an item of "consumer electronics that you ride," not a motorcycle. If you're a bad ass biker you're probably shouting "rabble rabble rabble" at your computer screen right now, but hold on, this is a good thing.
For a long time, gas-powered motorcycles have been failing to attract new riders. Sure, sales of motorcycles in this country increased 58 percent between 1998 and 2008, but the people buying them were overwhelmingly of the same demographic: middle-aged men.
Last year, baby boomers outnumbered Gen Y buyers two-to-one, a decrease from a six-to-one ratio in 2003. Despite that strong uptick, traditional motorcycle manufacturers are still almost exclusively focussed on the grey hairs. A Honda representative recently told us, "boomers will continue to bankroll the industry for the foreseeable future." Which helps explain why they're making $15,999 sport tourers like the VFR1200.
Now think about the Brammo Enertia. Craig says its buyers are going to be those that have always thought "I want to ride a motorcycle, but.." Maybe that "but" was "the dealer's a dirty scumbag." Brammo's are available at Best Buy, they shower and smile there. Maybe that "but" was "motorcycles are dangerous." Could you imagine something more cuddly and friendly than an Enertia? Maybe that "but" was "I don't want to be perceived as Sonny Barger." The Enertia looks like something out of a sexy, high-tech future, not a lame past.
In the last year, we've seen motorcycles on the nightly news, written about in publications that never have before and on sale in new places. All thanks to electrics. All that's going to translate to new people getting on bikes. The hope is people who start off on an electric will end up becoming lifelong riders. Making a bike that's more like an iPhone is going to mean those new riders are going to be younger. More younger riders means more products catered to people like you and me.
9. Electric motorcycles are improving access to off-road riding areas
One of the coolest things about the Zero X? Hit a switch on the dash to restrict it to 30mph and it's legal to use on most bicycle trails. At a time in which access to riding areas is rapidly disappearing, that probably doubles if not triples the miles of trails on which you can ride. All at the flick of a switch.
Think of the negative image the washed masses apply to dirt bikes. They're noisy; they're dangerous; they tear up nature and killed Bambi's mother. Now whisper "zero emissions" in the average voter's ear and see the glazed look of adoration wash over their eyes.
As the population of the country inevitably continues to increase, more and more off-road riding areas are going to be under threat. Change the perception of dirt bikes and that threat is partially ameliorated. If people out walking their dogs or camping don't hear engine noise coming over the next hill, they're unlikely to complain or pursue political action to get your hobby banned.
Of course, if all that fails, no one's going to hear you breaking the law anyways.
8. Electric motorcycles are changing the world
When was the last time world-changing technological innovation took place on two wheels? When was the last time the whole world looked at something happening in motorcycles and said, "wow." That's what happened this summer in the wake of the TTXGP, the first ever electric motorcycle road race that took place on the Isle of Man.
Cars are currently too heavy to manage much performance without necessitating the use of thousands of expensive battery cells. That's why the Tesla Roadster adds over $50,000 to the price of a Lotus Elise. That kind of cost means it doesn't make sense for people to use cars as a platform to develop the technology.
Michael Czysz is currently developing electric technology for a future mainstream electric car from giant Indian automaker Bajaj. He's proving that technology on a motorcycle, the E1PC.
Brammo started as a car company, but when they started to go electric, they realized it made more sense to do it on a bike. Not only because of cost, but because electric power is just such a better fit on two wheels instead of four. That's because electricity combines well with all the inherent advantages of motorcycles: lightness, simplicity, efficiency, size and never having to get stuck in traffic.
The Government's even getting in on the act, offering tax rebates for electric bike purchases and giving some limited grants to companies developing them.
The same advantages that make electric motorcycles a better fit for electric power also make them a better fit for people looking to reduce the cost and environmental impact of their commute. Those people will even be able to shave large chunks of time out of that commute by switching from a car to a motorcycle. If electric motorcycles can continue to grow their own market, converting new riders and car drivers in the process, this could be the beginning of a major two-wheeled shift in American society.
7. Electric motorcycles make us look better
I recently wrote a pro-bike political column for Newsweek. Inevitably, the first comment was something along the lines of, "BUT I H8 BIKES, THEYRE SO LOUD!!!1!" Sometimes, the danger and rebellion that likely attracted us all to motorcycles in the first place comes back to bite us. There's a reason we get more traffic tickets, there's a reason anti-motorcycle laws are always getting passed, there's a reason no one listens when we say we want to lane split in New York City. Electric bikes change all that.
It's not just the noise either. It's the image. Currently, when a politician or a voter or an SUV driver pondering whether or not to run you over thinks "bike" they don't think a nice young man trying to get to work, they think doo rags and assless leather chaps. Our position in society is totally marginalized. All the efficiency and lack of congestion arguments go out the window once someone remembers the last time they heard a straight pipe. Because all those same people think zero emissions is some sort of holy grail we're suddenly on their radar again. Politically, they make all our arguments bulletproof and give us allies in the green movement; socially they mark as as leaders and innovators, not neanderthals. Suddenly, people are thinking of motorcycles not as the past, but as the future.
6. Electric Motorcycles bring performance benefits
This is the dyno chart for the Mission One electric superbike. Notice anything missing? There's no dips in the power delivery, no sky high revs necessary to reach real power, no muss, no fuss, just maximum torque available at the twist of a throttle at any speed. Nice, huh?
A single gear means there's no gear changes and no being in the wrong gear. Want to overtake someone, just twist the throttle, no downshifts necessary. Less time spent shifting gears is a real riders on real roads performance benefit. A single gear means a decreased top speed, right? This bike still reaches 150mph.
No clutch lever means the back brake can be moved to the handlebar or, in the case of the [name of top secret electric superbike redacted] a lever to actuate the kinetic energy recovery system can be placed there. Moving the back brake from foot to handle control makes it easier to modulate for fine control and means you can use it at extreme right-hand lean angles.
Like two-strokes, electric bikes don't have any engine braking. Any motorcycle purists out there that don't miss the two-stroke experience?
The lack of heavy parts spinning at high speeds inside electric motorcycles means there's no reciprocating inertia to negatively impact the handling.
Want to adjust your power delivery for specific corners on specific tracks? The maps for electric motors can quickly and easily be altered, they're basically computers on wheels.
Bought your bike last year and a new, more powerful motor has just come out? Buy it and swap it in. They bolt in and out with minimal fuss. The same goes for aftermarket parts.
If I was to describe to you an eminently adjustable chassis capable of being optimized for any individual environment that produced power with no negative effects on handling, carried its weight in the ideal position and essentially did nothing but provide the optimal platform from which the suspension brakes and tires could do their best possible work, you'd think I was describing the perfect motorcycle, right? That's what electric bikes can be.
5. Electric motorcycles are changing the industry
In a meeting with a senior communications representative from a Big Four company that will remain nameless, we were told, "Google is not an important search engine." That lack of perspective and the lack of will to look outside for information, inspiration and influence is pervasive throughout the industry. And, like the military, there's a significant problem with senior executives promoting people that think and act like they do rather than in a way that's good for the company. You can totally spot those guys too, just look for the '80s haircut to match the '80s business ideas.
But electric motorcycle companies aren't like that. Instead of cowering in their cubicles fearing change while allowing sales to drop over 40% in 2009, electric motorcycle companies are taking risks, inventing new business models, pursuing an entirely new audience and doing all that really, really well.
Zero is cutting dealers out of the equation, selling its bikes on the Internet and shipping direct to customers. After clicking "buy it now" and waiting a few days, all a new customer has to do is put the handlebars on and connect the battery, sort of like ordering a cell phone. Want to take a test ride first? Call them and they'll arrange for a rep to swing by with a demo bike.
Brammo is selling bikes at Best Buy, one of the largest retailers in the entire country. Want your bike fixed? Take it to the Geek Squad. Want to ask the CEO a question? Hit him up on Twitter, he'll respond. Bitching and moaning about the products in Hell For Leather's comments? The bike's designer will be there to talk you down.
Think all that is just because those two companies are small? The Big Four regularly display knowledge of what goes on in our commenter discussions, yet their approach to taking action isn't to respond directly to a customer's concern, it's to wait until we ask for access then complain about something written by a reader. See the difference?
Those are just a few, admittedly narcissistic examples, there's many more. Brammo is looking at integrating Twitter into its bikes; Zero regularly upgrades its bikes based on consumer feedback then sells the upgrades to existing customers at or below cost; Mission hired a designer from outside the motorcycle world who created one of the most exciting looking bikes of this decade.
4. Electric Motorcycles will bring racing to you
Remember the Goodspeed 500? It wanted to bring bike racing to city centers in an effort to pursue an audience that doesn't have a permanently sunburned neck. It didn't work out, but, because of all the stuff we've written above, it could work with electrics.
Look at the picture on top of this article. That's me riding the Quantya Strada around my 7th floor loft in Brooklyn. Unlike everything else that we do, we didn't even get in trouble for that. That's because it was quiet.
Because they're quiet, because they're zero emissions, because politicians and the media like them, we could see motorcycle racing close to or even inside cities. Imagine a dirt bike race through a large, undeveloped dirt lot in Brooklyn, or maybe even a road race on some closed-off streets in town Monaco-style. Thanks to electrics, it could happen. At the very least, motocross tracks should stop getting edged out by the gradual creep of suburbs.
3. Electric motorcycles are easy to maintain and extremely rugged
Unlike internal combustion motorcycles, there's virtually no moving parts inside an electric motorcycle, which means virtually no maintenance and virtually nothing that's going to break. Really. All the other stuff -- the brakes, the suspension, the bearings and whatnot -- are standard motorcycle stuff, which means you can probably service them at home.
Zero founder Neal Saiki says that you could ride any of his products underwater if you let him seal the ECU first. At some point, they plan to do that for a promo. He's also been selling a few bikes to the special forces for use in Afghanistan. Why? Unlike gas bikes, they don't explode when they're shot by snipers.
2. Electric motorcycles will makes our bikes look like Kaneda's
With battery packs and electric motors, comes the ability to reconfigure the motorcycle archetype. Batteries are small and, as proved by the MotoCzysz E1PC's secret weapon tail battery, can be split up and located around the bike. Motors are smaller and also bring an element of repositioning. All the means we may no longer have to ride bikes with a shape based on the horse.
They're also bringing new rules to racing, streamlining is on the rule books for the first time since the 1950s in both the TTXGP and its copycat, the FIM e-Power series.
All the above means we could see designers radically rethink the relationship between rider and machine. We could see feet-forward bikes like the Gurney Alligator, we could see Cavefish-style lay-down bikes, we could see bikes straight out of Akira. We don't know, but the possibility of increased comfort, increased aerodynamics, increased performance and incre
ased control intrigues us.
1. Electric motorcycles sound good
Everyone thinks that electric motorcycles are silent. They aren't, as witnessed by this video of the MotoCzysz testing at PIR. The motors whir, you can hear the chain going over the sprockets, the tires rolling over the ground. Granted, most don't sound as much like a TIE fighter as the Czysz. Most are really, really quiet.
That lack of noise is actually a good thing. Just because people have it stuck in their heads, let's establish first and foremost that loud pipes don't save lives, they just annoy others. That stupid bitch with her cell phone clamped to her ear in her Cadillac Escalade couldn't even hear a 747 if it landed on her, much less your wimpy little sports bike and its can. What saves lives is not relying on other people to hear you and react accordingly, but assuming at all times that everyone else on the road is out to kill you. What saves lives is defensive riding.
Once you get over the lack of engine noise, the experience is actually empowering. You can hear things like squealing tires to warn of an imminent accident. You can hear sirens. You can talk to people you're riding with when you're stopped at a light. You're suddenly more a part of your environment, accentuating one of the main appeals of riding a motorcycle in the first place.
Of course, there's other advantages to being quiet too. I ride way too fast on public roads. Like serious go to jail stuff. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do is advertise the fact that I'm breaking the law to every person within earshot. With a loud pipe, that could be up to two or three miles. I don't want to say that electric motorcycles will keep you out of jail, but they help.
Photo: Grant Ray