Electric Motorcycles Primer
Ready or not, here they come!
Of all the motorcycle segments, it’s the electric-powered bikes that are seeing the most rapid developments. Each year there are new advancements in technology, and the resulting vehicles continue to push the bounds of range and performance while using rechargeable batteries for power. This article discusses some of the bigger issues surrounding e-bikes, including a heightened focus on the American companies that are leading the way. Look for more coverage to come as we continue to get further plugged in…
In the U.S., Brammo and Zero are the two main players offering road-legal electric motorcycles for under $10,000, a price considered attainable by average consumers. Though their flagship models, the Empulse and S models, respectively, are priced considerably higher.
But by no means are Brammo and Zero the only e-bike players out there. Lightning, Native, BRD and Brutus are but four other American manufacturers producing electric motorcycles. Across the pond, Italian manufacturer eCRP is the first European firm to bring a production e-bike to market, while Austrian KTM will likely be the first to enter e-bike production among the major OEMs with the off-road Freeride-E.
But while we’re noticing e-bikes gain in popularity, 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 2010 by Boulder Colo.-based Pike Research, 466 million new electric-powered two wheelers will be sold between now and 2016.
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 spreading 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 future of electric motorcycles.
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 to begin the road toward their goals, and some predict a day when most people will no longer need or want gasoline-powered transportation. However, that day appears to still be in the distant future.
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. If the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S could be seen as additional votes of confidence, it’s clear significant players in the global transportation industry agree that electric power is ready to be invested in. Intense research and development toward electric powertrains is rapidly advancing the state of the art.
Yes, despite a recession that led Suzuki in 2010 to save money by importing essentially zero streetbikes to its U.S. lineup, others are risking money to let startups like Zero Motorcycles become the first e-bike manufacturer to offer a complete range of production vehicles you can buy today. California-based Zero is largely backed by a private equity firm, Invus. Brammo, meanwhile, is partially funded by founder, Craig Bramscher, but receives significant support from Best Buy Capital, Polaris, Chrysalix and Alpine Energy.
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, providing educational tech info, wiring schematics, electric motors, controllers, batteries and more needed by do-it-yourselfers or larger concerns looking 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 2010 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 announcing its scooter-like “EV-neo electric motorcycle” – the question is whether U.S. companies will remain competitive when the big boys show up. Brammo, Zero and Lightning suggest they will.
Brammo and Zero have pushed hard for recognition, while in contrast Lightning Motorcycles, near San Francisco, California, has spent very little on marketing and promotion. Instead it has focused on producing results that speak for themselves, including first-place finishes at numerous TTXGP and FIM e-Power races. And we were proud to hook up racing legend Miguel Duhamel with Lightning for the FIM e-Power/TTXGP race at France’s Le Mans circuit in 2012. The multi-time AMA Superbike champ beat all comers on the world’s stage, taking his first race win in several years. Read the story here.
But it was the exotic the MotoCzysz E1PC that became the first e-bike to record an average lap speed above 100 mph in the 2012 Isle of Man TT Zero race. In fact, both riders Michael Rutter and Mark Miller lapped their E1pc motorcycles past the threshold, achieving a 104.056 mph and 101.065 mph average speed, respectively.
While this feat is no doubt impressive, Michael Czysz, owner and namesake behind MotoCzysz says his business is not to produce electric motorcycles for the masses. Rather, he uses racing as a test bed for his proprietary electronic components, like the D1g1tal Dr1ve D1 electric-drive system.
Not to be outdone by the MotoCzysz team, John McGuiness, 19-time TT winner and current lap record holder on a gas bike, also broke the 100 mph barrier on a Mugen Shinden, setting a 102.215 mph average. Interestingly, Mugen is a performance-minded business by Soichiro Honda’s son, so there are some tenuous links to the mighty Honda corporation. One can infer Honda is paying close attention to the e-bike world.
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.
To encourage more of the public to become early adopters of electric motorcycle technology, Uncle Sam has been offering tax credits for two- and three-wheeled electric-powered vehicles. This covers 10% of the purchase price, up to $2500 maximum, and applies only to vehicles with a 4kWh (or larger) battery pack that can go over 45 mph.
These credits were due to expire at the end of 2012, though the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (aka the Fiscal Cliff Act) extends these credits at least through 2013. Keep in mind, at last count, 27 states also offer their own incentives.
Still, that’s not keeping Richard Hatfield of Lightning motorcycles down. Hatfield’s superbike put down an astonishing 218 mph pass at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The same machine went on to win a handful of TTXGP and FIM e-Power races with Michael Barnes at the controls in 2012.
Associate Editor Troy Siahaan also got a chance to sample the Lightning, which makes more than double the torque of a GSX-R1000, according to Hatfield. With that kind of performance, it’s easy to see why Troy came away from the test calling it “The fastest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden, gas or electric.”
Regardless where one stands on topics like Global Warming, 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.
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.
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.
With the J1772 receptacle becoming the standardized outlet for EVs (at least in North America), we’re seeing an increased infrastructure of charging stations pop up throughout the country. These stations are also easily accessible via a simple web search on a smartphone. Here, e-bikes like the Brammo Empulse, which uses the J1772 charging port, can recharge completely from a drained battery in less than four hours.
However, companies like Zero are taking the recharging game a step further. Using CHAdeMO technology, the 2013 Zero model line can recharge to 95% capacity in just an hour. While an impressive feat, the lack of a common, universally accepted charge port is a major hurdle to further e-bike advancement. Still, an hour to recharge is much longer than the seconds it takes to refill a gas tank. With this in mind, why not develop a power source other than lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries?
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.
This prospect of faster recharge times and massive amounts of energy in compact form spurs 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.
The Lightning superbike mentioned earlier is partially there, with performance easily on par, if not greater than, today’s sportbikes. However, the major issue for consumers is still range anxiety.
But even this is lessening as e-bikes are increasingly able to travel farther per charge — enough to satisfy the average American commute. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a whopping 75% of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day. This distance is easily achieved with the Zero S, DS and Brammo Empulse. If you fall within this statistic, maybe it’s time to consider an e-bike.
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.
Duvall adds there is a lot of room in the technology space to make further improvements. “We absolutely haven’t scratched the surface of what existing technology can do, he says. “If it’s a joy to own and ride, those people will go out and be the best sales people.”
Case in point? During our Brammo Empulse test, crowds would form whenever we stopped, and skeptics of e-bike performance would change their tune when we rocketed away. And let’s not forget the entry rider, looking for an easy entry into motorcycles. “This lets you be two-wheel cool without all the investment,” Craig Bramscher says of most e-bikes that look like real motorcycles but have no gears to shift, noise to deal with, and require negligible maintenance.
There’s no doubt electric motorcycles are gaining traction. Sure, the strongest foothold is in America, but the rest of the world is catching up. The advancements e-bike manufacturers have made in just a short amount of time is incredible, and we plan on being there when the next big step is introduced.
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