Saturday, 20 August 2011

Electric Motorcycles? I was shocked, but not literally.

Probably like me, you have at some point wondered what the future of motorcycling will be when the world can no longer afford the remaining petrol, or gas. It will be horrible, right? No longer will we be able to enjoy the wind rushing past us, the throaty sound of our engines, nor the feeling of exhilaration as we power around those bends. It will be a sad day when the freedom our bikes give us, will be gone.

The future can only be weak electric bikes with no character or potentially dangerous hydrogen-powered future craft. Ho hum.

At least, that’s what I thought.

WRONG!

I have just returned from a couple of weeks on holiday with the American side of my family (many of you will know that my wife Jackie is American) and this year we rented a house in Santa Cruz, California. While there, we did all the good touristy things like go to the boardwalk, rode the train at Roaring Camp and saw the Mystery Spot. But, I hadn’t been on a bike for a couple of weeks, so I took a look at the web to find something motorbike related I could go see.

I found an electric bike company based there called Zero Motorcycles, so I gave them a call and went to  meetthem, and to go for a test ride.

With an idea that was formed in a Santa Cruz garage, the firm is now one of the world’s leading electric bike manufacturers. Zero saw that there was only one way for people to be convinced about their bikes. To use their own words “Since 2006, when the first prototypes were produced, Zero has invited motorcyclists to go for a ride. Some things are better experienced than explained”. I liked this approach and so after a quick tour of their facilities in hills of Santa Cruz, I went for a ride on an electric bike, for the first time.

I rode this S model....





























































I was given a quick explanation of the bikes controls and then Zero’s Service Manager, Matt Feinstein and I headed out for a test ride. It takes just a few minutes to get used to the bike. There are essentially just three main controls – throttle, front brake and rear brake, which are all pretty much the same as on a petrol-engined bike. There is no clutch, but one long gear, so no gear lever either for your left foot. It is pretty much twist and go, and oh boy, does it go!

Two things immediately struck me. The bike is almost totally silent and wow, it is just like riding a “normal” bike. The only noise you can hear is the wind, some tire noise and a slight noise from the electric motor, but the latter is very quiet indeed.  The bike handled very well, the brakes were good and acceleration was a lot better than I thought it would be. Sure, it doesn’t have the initial grunt and low-down torque normally associated with bikes, but it wasn’t that far off. The bike handled just like any other and within just a few minutes, Matt had lead me down a section of freeway to get an idea of the speed (we were doing 70 mph) and then onto a twisty road to see how the machine handled the bends, which was very good indeed. Overall, I was surprised by just how good this bike was. We arrived back at the Zero premises and I had a huge grin on my face – it had been a blast!





















Zero make a range of seven bikes... The Zero S, which was the street bike I rode, for normal urban street riding.....

















The Zero DS, a street bike with on/off road capabilities, with longer suspension travel, slightly wider tires....

















The Zero XU, which is more like a city commuter bike, including a removable power pack, so it can be charged in an apartment.  This bike would be very easy for a complete novice to ride....
















Then four dirt bikes, the first being the Zero X....

















Then the same bike, but in street legal mode, with lights etc....

















The bigger and more tuned Zero MX....

















Finally, the same MX bike, but with lights etc making it street legal....

















I found this Zero Motorcycles promotional video on the web.....



Range is obviously important on any bike and especially so on today’s electric bikes. The Zero street bikes do about 43 miles (of simulated urban riding) before needing to be charged, the commuter bike gets about 25 miles and the dirt bikes about 30-60 minutes of riding depending on how hard you twist the throttle. Speeds are just under 70 mph for the street bikes, 51 mph for the commuter bike and 53-57 mph for the dirt bikes. Batteries in all the bikes are Li-ion technology and the cost to charge the bikes is very cheap at $0.48 for the street bikes and $0.21 for the others.

I was told the cost of the bikes is between $7,500 for the smaller bikes to about $10,000 for the bigger versions.

For all electric bikes, the future is about improving the range and getting the battery charge times down. The launch of the Zero 2012 models will see street bikes with a range of about 100 miles, which isn’t too far away from some traditional engined bikes now. Present day charge times are about 4 hours for street bikes and 2 hours for the dirt bikes, which Zero hope to get down to about 40 minutes. That will make using future generation bikes as a replacement for petrol-engined bikes very possible, as a street bike with a 100 mile range that can be recharged in 40 minutes while eating lunch very realistic.

Thanks must go to Matt for taking me out for a ride and telling me about the company and the bikes, at short notice. He did a great job. This is Matt....
























A couple of pictures of the Zero facilities. They were careful not to let me see the R&D department....










































Finally, in the reception area was a Zero electric racing bike, which was entered into the TTX GP series for electric powered bikes....





















Zero Motorcycles have an expanding dealer network. If you want to take a ride on one of these bikes yourself, check out their website.

Before I went to see Zero, I was worried about the future of motorcycling. What I found pleasantly shocked me. 

I left there with the knowledge that the future of motorcycling would actually be quite good.

19 comments:

Radar said...

Very cool post, Gary.

There is definitely a place for electric bikes in our emerging "green" world, though I suspect it will be based in the commuter realm. I'm curious, how did the cages (cars, trucks, etc.) react to the bike. Did you disprove the "loud pipes saves lives" theory?

Chris Luhman said...

Electrics are fun! Mission Motors, Zero, Brammo, and more :)

bluekat said...

Interesting bike. I could get into an electric. A little more range, and it would be great for the commute and not bad for hopping around on weekend afternoons. I would miss shifting gears, and would want it to be a little peppier than your average car.

Gary France said...

Radar – I am not so sure about it being confined to the commuter realm. When gas is hard to get or costs rise to maybe $25 a gallon, there might not be an alternative but to use some other fuel and at the moment, the best guess is that will be electric bikes and cars. Take a look at USA gas prices. In August last year the average price was $2.75 a gallon. Today it is $3.60, a rise of a $0.85 in a year. That is a huge 30% in one year. Yes, I know the price does fluctuate up and sometimes down, but the trend is always upwards. If that last 12 months trend continues, by 2021 (just ten years away) the price of a gallon of gas in the USA would be an average of $49. Who is going to be able to afford gas at those prices? I know the chances of such a rise are slim, so let’s halve that rise and call it $25 a gallon – still a problem, huh? In the UK, we currently pay about $10 a gallon, caused mainly by huge taxes on fuel to reduce demand, so maybe $25 a gallon is not that unrealistic! Still thinking electric is for commuting?

On my test ride, I didn’t really notice a difference in the way cagers reacted. The big I rode was almost silent, but some modern bikes are getting that way – a new touring BMW for example is very quiet indeed. I did think about this when I started out on the test ride of the electric bike and made sure I knew exactly where the horn button was!

Gary France said...

Chris – I agree. They are a lot of fun. I certainly came back smiling and I can see in a few years they will be even better.

Bluekat – I too would miss shifting gears. In fact I kept grabbing at first for the non-existent clutch! I think at the moment, a commute is the best reason for getting one now, but it won’t be that way for long....

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Gary:

This is certainly one view of the future, and the folks at "Zero" are certainly tackling the toughest parts of it. But tthe big day will come when the options are a 400-mile range, a 90-minute charge time, and 70 mph+, with extra lighting. Hopefully, that point will be reached before gas hits $23.00 (USD) per gallon.

Interstingly enough, the price of gas has declined in the US. I think this is a false sense of security.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep
Twisted Roads

FLHX_Dave said...

Thanks for sharing this. The real shame is I live right there and I have never checked this out for myself.

Great info. Don't know what I'll do about the lack of noise and vibration though...it's one of the things I love about my hog. I know it's totally dumbass but I really love the vibration on my FLHX.

This would be a killer short commute bike though...and actually considering it so I can save the beast for long distance. The short trip, cold starts are starting to really kill the glide.

Great seeing you again. It was a real kick and thanks again.

RichardM said...

Thank you for posting this. I had seen several "road tests" and they really sounded more like commercials. I think that the range really needs to increase before they would be accepted. Otherwise the price would have to come down. Maybe with the wider adoption of full electric cars and trucks, the infrastructure would start to be put in place and the cost of the technology may start to come down. I think that if I was able to commute by bike year 'round, I would consider one of these.

Geoff James said...

Thank you Gary! My knowledge of electric bikes was close to zero so this was a really interesting post. I guess that the purchase prices aren't too outrageous either.

Nice-looking bikes too.

Charlie6 said...

Great writeup Gary, much more thorough than my own posting of my test rides on Zero Motorcycle's offerings back in May of last year: LINK

I still think something that quite is "unnatural", the range limit keeps them in the commuter niche it seems....

dom


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Mr. Motorcycle said...

Super cool! I'd like to see a more street bike look, than a dirt bike or rocket though. Maybe some playing cards in the spokes for some noise?

Gary France said...

Jack – I did see the price of gas had fallen slightly but sadly I think it will soon be on the way back up again. I don’t know if or when a 400+ miles range will be met, but when I think back to my first mobile phone (which resembled a traditional telephone handset connected via a sprung cable to a battery that looked if it came out of a car) with cell phones of today, it is easy to see how battery technology can move on over time.

Dave – It was good to see you and Becky as well. With the improved range that is coming on the 2012 models, I might get one then, for running around on. The vibration issue is probably not one that could be solved by the bike manufacturers, but a few sex toys in your pockets might do the trick! As zero are so close, I hope you go up and see them for a test ride.

Richard – I absolutely agree about the range issue and as soon as the 100+ mile range is hit, this will no doubt make the bikes more feasible. You make a good point about the infrastructure. At the moment, the bikes simply connect to any normal domestic electric outlet, either 110v for the USA or 220v for the rest of the world. It would be a novelty to ask say, a restaurant, if you could charge your bike while eating lunch, but in 5 years time when there might be a lot more bikes asking to do the same, that novelty will wear off and proper infrastructure will be needed.

Gary France said...

Geoff – Mine knowledge was zero as well, so I was surprised just how well these bikes worked and how good they looked too. No doubt the prices will come down in real terms over time.

Dom – I just read your post and we seem to be saying much the same thing. Agreed about the range, but that will soon change.

Mr Motorcycle – LOL about the playing cards!

Canajun said...

Thanks for sharing this. It's encouraging to see some real progress being made in this area, but like Jack, I think the 400 mile threshold is the one to reach before they get serious traction for anything other than in-town, short hop commuting.

Diesel Performance Parts said...

Never tried an electric but it looks like fun.

Axel said...

Tempetd, very tempted, and once they have get more milage out of the battery, they can afford a amp with 2 huge speakers, imitating the patato sound of our Harleys. All that is then missing is a vibrator to make it perfect ;)

Gary France said...

Canajun – Good progress, yes. I think it will be a long time before a range of 400 miles is reached. I think it is also improving the style of the bikes that will improve sales – that is just as important as range.

DPP – Yes, it was fun.

Axel – They are tempting, but not quite yet. Not sure about the big speakers though....!

George F said...

Great post on a subject where there's going to be many opinions. I don't see electrics on cars or bikes as the future unless there's some major new discovery. Yes, for commuting and short weekend rides to the mall or beach is fine, but for long distance it's a killer no matter how fast they can be charged, will NEVER be a 2 minute fill up like you do with gas.
I see 2 bikes needed by guys like us, one to go to work and another to have fun :-)

Gary France said...

George – I would have to agree with you looking at it from today’s viewpoint – the electric vehicle technology is not good enough yet. However, when gas is a lot more expensive many people won’t have a choice and will have to use electric cars and bikes because they won’t be able to afford the gas. Many governments already add huge amounts of tax to gas prices in an attempt to lessen its use to protect the environment. That hasn’t happened in many countries yet, including the US, but without a doubt, that will come and it will gradually become very expensive. As we continue to get affected by man-made extreme weather that we are beginning to see the start of, governments will take drastic action in an attempt to minimise those effects. One day, electric cars and bikes will not be a choice – they will be inevitable. We all hope that the electric motor technology will be as good as gas engines before that happens.