Native, Brammo and Zero are three U.S. electric motorcycle manufacturers that within the past three years have begun offering road-legal models for under $10,000, a price considered attainable by average consumers.
Alongside their move into a world long dominated by gasoline power, questions persist: Will they merely carve a small niche and go no further? Will they have what it takes to earn increasing respect? Could there even come a day when they take preeminence over traditional motorcycles?
According to a study publicized mid-February by Boulder Colo.-based Pike Research, 466 million new electric-powered two wheelers will be sold between now and 2016.
"China is already switching at a rapid rate to small electric bikes..."
However, 95% of these sales are predicted to be in China. Of them, 56% will be electric scooters, 43% will be electric “motorcycles” – defined as any powered two-wheeler that can exceed 12 mph – and less than 1% will be electric bicycles.
In a country still dominated by foot and pedal-powered traffic, China is already switching at a rapid rate to small electric bikes, and is seen as having nowhere to go but toward greater acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs).
But what is “made in China” has a way of finding its way everywhere else. And besides this, the U.S., Europe and other nations have their own economic, political and technological motivations that together could jump start the electric motorcycle’s future.
A lot of money, innovation, and desire are already pushing to make it so.
Although the fledgling industry has yet to prove itself to some, its potential has already been bought by others, as evidenced in part by funding from private investment firms and government subsidies.
Electric vehicles are also gaining traction among those wanting to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut global emissions, or just save a buck on their daily drive.
Advocates are dogmatic that electric motorcycles are ready – enough – to begin the road toward their goals, and some do predict a day when most people will no longer need or want gasoline-powered transportation.
Motorcycles are seen as a natural place to begin advancing the frontier because they can be built and sold for less money than cars, while delivering greater efficiency and performance.
And whether new electric cars such as Chevy’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf, and others could be seen as additional votes of confidence, it’s at least clear that significant players in the global transportation industry agree that electric power is ready to be invested in.
What is more, intense research and development toward hybrid and all-electric powertrains is advancing in the face of otherwise depressing economic conditions.
Yes, despite a recession that led Suzuki this year to save money by importing essentially zero streetbikes to its U.S. lineup, others are risking money to let startups like Zero Motorcycles launch its first two road-legal machines.
California-based Zero is largely backed by a private equity firm, Invus. And according to Brammo Inc’s founder, Craig Bramscher, in addition to his own money, his Oregon-based company receives significant support from Best Buy Capital.
On the other hand, Electric Motorsport which produces its Native Cycles brand, has been around longer, is self-funded, and even helps its potential competitors on their way.
The California-based company runs its own “open source” parts distributorship, and for around 10 years has provided educational tech info, wiring schematics, electric motors, controllers, batteries and more needed by do-it-yourselfers or larger concerns to build electric vehicles.
Electric Motorsport’s President, Todd Kollin, says the company currently sells to 10 other motorcycle manufacturers. It began offering its own streetbikes and scooters in 2007 before Zero or Brammo, and in the past year began distinguishing them with the “Native Cycles” name.
According to Harlan Flagg, co-owner and founder of Hollywood Electrics, the first all-electric bike dealership in L.A., Native’s GPR-S street bike can be configured to a few performance levels, and sells for around $5,000 to $10,000 depending on setup.
With KTM, Yamaha, and others talking about entering the electric motorcycle market – and Honda having just announced its scooter-like “EV-neo electric motorcycle” – in question is whether U.S. companies will remain competitive when the big boys show up.
Native, Brammo and Zero all suggest they will.
Brammo and Zero have pushed hard for recognition, while in contrast Native has spent very little on marketing and promotion. Instead it has focused on producing results that speak for themselves, including a first place finish at the first Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race for electric motorcycles.
“We have been pushing the envelope with the TTXGP. Our pro bikes can do over 120 mph,” says Kollin, “FIM is adding electric motorcycle racing to MotoGP. When this happens you will see a lot of major manufacturing companies getting into the sport. We know because they are already buying parts from us. We offer a full build list of materials for bikes with this level of performance.”
It is said that racing improves the breed, but help for consumer-oriented EVs is also coming from Uncle Sam – although at this point, Zero’s CEO Gene Banman says the last U.S. stimulus package primarily benefitted battery and car research.
In Aug. 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $2.4 billion in grants had been awarded to 48 U.S.-based efforts, including $211 million to the Chevy Volt project and $249 million to A123 Systems, a battery maker that sponsors the Killacycle 7-second electric dragbike.
Additionally, loans were conditionally issued between June and October last year under the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. Included were $5.9 billion for Ford, $1.4 billion for Nissan, $529 million for Fisker, $465 million for Tesla, and $24 million for Tenneco.
Unfortunately, U.S.-based electric motorcycle manufacturers were not on the list of important recipients.
Even so, to earn some respect for two-wheelers, Bramscher says his people staged an electric motorcycle ride last fall from Detroit to Washington following the route that failing auto industry execs had taken to ask for bail-outs.
But rather than begging for money to float questionably-run businesses, Bramscher says the “Shocking Barack” tour proposed solutions for the energy crisis.
To drive the point all the way to Obama, he says his people rode Enertia motorcycles instead of flying in a corporate jet. They say their bill for energy costs was about four bucks.
Bramscher says electric motorcycles deserve federal incentives, and he supports legislation to give equal rights to U.S. two-wheeled vehicle manufacturers.
“Imagine what [only] $50 million could do,” Bramscher says of potential legislation that could yield jobs in the new industry, and advancement for the U.S. to a leadership role in world production of electric motorcycles.
Other countries support their leading innovators, he says, so why shouldn’t the U.S.?
But whether the Obama administration really gets the message or not, there are at least government-backed incentives to make it easier for consumers. In addition to a 10% federal tax credit, at last count 21 U.S. states also offer incentives.
"And beyond assistance from politicians and investors, there are strong social forces ready to embrace EVs."
For those willing to buy now, a mixed bag of rebates and deductions for “early adopters” could save from a few hundred dollars to over half the cost of an electric motorcycle.
And beyond assistance from politicians and investors, there are strong social forces ready to embrace EVs.
This said, EVs have also been roundly criticized by some as being the misbegotten hope of liberals. This accusation is not entirely justified however.
Regardless where one stands on topics like Global Warming, Peak Oil, or the Iraq War, reasons remain to support EVs that are generally agreed to transcend partisan lines. Included would be a desire to boost American industry, increase national security, and reduce the foreign trade deficit.
However, while EVs can appeal even to conservatives, another concern is over where all the extra electricity would come from if the EV phenomenon really took off.
Critics observe that some power grids in the U.S. are already overburdened, and many receive their energy from dirty oil- or coal-fired plants.
Alternative energy proponents respond that byproducts of electricity generated by even the dirtiest plants are significantly less than tailpipe emissions would be from equivalent hydrocarbon-powered vehicles.
Otherwise, observations about potential infrastructural deficiencies are one area in which EV proponents at least partially validate critical views.
But as is typical in many ideologically-divided questions, where EV proponents and opponents differ is how they view the same set of facts.
For their part, utility companies serving regions known for progressive politics are said to be leading the way as they prepare to cope with more and more EVs – not just two-wheelers, but especially larger vehicles.
It is estimated, for example, that recharging one electric car would consume enough power for an entire household or even multiple households.
In anticipation of greater energy demand, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric has proposed such innovations as chargers set on timers that would replenish EVs during off-peak hours overnight.
For now, power companies have only to gain by selling unused capacity, while early adopters also seem willing to accept what others perceive as sacrifices.
In the meantime, according to Dr. Mark Duvall of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the move toward EVs is expected to be gradual enough for the next several years to handle the extra load.
As EPRI’s Director of Electric Transportation, Duvall says if EVs did gain widespread acceptance, it would be similar to when air conditioners in the mid-20th century made moving to places like Arizona and New Mexico a far more comfortable proposition.
At first there was more electrical demand than supply, he says, however utilities did eventually meet demand.
But critics also correctly point out that while gasoline stations are practically everywhere, electrical recharging facilities are sparse or nonexistent.
One answer is coming from retailers that are beginning to see the value of allowing consumers free or nominally-priced electricity. Some Wal-Marts, for example, already offer a few EV-only parking spaces complete with power cords. The idea is EV drivers will spend money, and the tradeoff will pay for itself.
Making 110-volt charging outlets available is especially viable for motorcycles. The cost to top off a Zero is little more than its namesake – not quite zero cents, but maybe some pennies, nickels, dimes or quarters.
Additional adaptation is being pioneered by employers, such as Google Inc., and others managing fleets are likewise working to increase the number of recharging stations, including faster high-voltage facilities.
Even so, all solutions are not in place, and Duvall readily says as much. But from where he sits, he sees reason to believe answers will come.
So we asked, is the electric vehicle a matter of faith or a matter of time?
“It is inevitable,” Duvall says.
Critics however say the majority of Americans will never accept the limitations put on them by the present state of development of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.
This fairly new technology is actually a key to the entire move to persuade Americans to accept plug-in vehicles.
"So we asked, is the electric vehicle a matter of faith or a matter of time?"
Those on the vanguard say Li-ion batteries today do provide solutions for some needs. But at the same time, several also say they need further development or replacement altogether by even more energy-dense chemistries.
But again, perspective makes the difference as to whether this is good or bad news.
According to Zero’s VP of Strategy and Sustainability, Jay Friedland, the race to develop better batteries is akin to the acceleration through the 1990s and 2000s to develop faster computer chips.
Friedland is energized by his observation that “some of the brightest minds in science are working on this problem right now.”
Already, nanotech and other technologies related to batteries are being researched around the world, and promises of five to 11 times a Li-ion battery’s energy density are already reported, with promising news coming forth regularly.
It is this prospect of faster recharge times and massive amounts of energy in compact form that spur Zero’s Banman to speculate an electric motorcycle that will match the capabilities of a gasoline-powered sportbike could be produced sooner than some think.
Even, we asked, one with the performance of a Yamaha R1 or other literbike?
“Oh, I think so,” Banman says, while making sure to qualify he knows where Zero stands now, and many things will have to happen before his dream is a reality.
Where Zero stands now is with street bikes comparable to a 150-250cc 4-Stroke, based around a “usage model” of around 40 miles per day.
This is basically in line with Brammo and Native, and it means that plug-in bikes purchasable at prices anywhere near average gasoline-powered bikes are really pretty slow and only good for short-hops.
Ho hum. So much for all the hype …
But then again, could they be onto something?
In their own way, electric motorcycle companies and other EV sellers hope to follow the road-more-travelled that Henry Ford did with his Model T: attempt to appeal to the masses.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a whopping 75% of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day, and it is from this potential market that some hope to earn most of their bread and butter.
But that’s not a bad thing, says Brammo’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Adrian G. Stewart. Whether or not radical battery developments come soon or not, he says Brammo is ready to profit now.
Likewise, Duvall says that many consumers need not wait any longer.
“There’s this opinion that there needs to be a breakthrough in lithium-ion technology, when actually lithium is the breakthrough,” he says.
There is “a lot of room in the technology space to make further improvements,” Duvall says, “We absolutely haven’t scratched the surface of what existing technology can do.”
Just as important as new tech, Duvall says electric motorcycle manufacturers will want to make the best engineering decisions with the materials they already have.
“If it’s a joy to own and ride, those people will go out and be their best sales people,” he says.
Duvall also says today’s EVs are not attempting to deliver a “silver bullet” replacement for the internal combustion engine.
Like others who say their time is now, he bypasses objections that in order to be acceptable, they need to be rechargeable in minutes, deliver 100 mph-plus speeds, and ranges of 150-300 miles on a charge.
“You’re not going to steal business from BMW and Honda... You’re going to steal business from the guy who rides the bus.”
Anyone who wants this will be dissatisfied, Duvall says.
Otherwise, there are those who will vote with their checkbooks, he says, and in so doing they’ll buy time and create momentum for further development.
Duvall also disregards questions, such as “could they ever make an electric R1?”
A better question at this juncture would be, “When can they build the equivalent of an entry-level sportbike?” he says, or, “When can they make something that does a reasonable job?”
Depending on your needs and wants, the answer could be now. Or if you’re waiting for more proof or performance, stick around.
According to Bramscher, the electric motorcycle is here to stay, and he asks experienced motorcyclists to consider that this could [be] a good thing for all riders and the industry.
“You’re not going to steal business from BMW and Honda,” Bramscher says of electric motorcycles, “You’re going to steal business from the guy who rides the bus.”
When Brammo demonstrates its Enertia, he says, crowds tend to form, and interest comes also from those who say they’d thought about riding, but for whatever reason never got started.
“This lets you be two-wheel cool without all the investment,” Bramscher says of bikes that look like real motorcycles but have no gears to shift, noise to deal with, and require negligible maintenance.
Bramscher told about a man who’d never ridden but bought an Enertia. One day when he went out for a burger, he was approached by a little kid who asked, “Hey, are you a motorcycle rider?”
The rider had bought a helmet and a motorcycle jacket and looked the part, but he told Bramscher, it only dawned on him when he answered, “Yeah, yeah, I am.”
It was then that the rider realized, “Hey I’m in the club now, even if it’s a neophyte, a junior,” Bramscher says.
“I think if a motorcyclist can think back to when they were [new] in the club,” Bramscher says, “they have to open their heart at least to electric motorcycles.”
Whether he and others selling electric motorcycles are right, time will tell.
In the meantime, we plan to get these electric motorcycles for a comparison review, and give you more first-hand impressions.
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