One by one, the objections to electric motorcycles are crumbling, even if they aren’t completely gone yet.
First, it was performance: internal-combustion motorcycles offered so much more speed, acceleration and range that e-bikes, with their weak-as-kitten pulling power, seemed silly. And then e-bikes started racing in serious competition, like drag-racing, top-speed trials and club and professional road racing. Then advances in battery technology lead to increased speed and range, until actual and affordable, soon-to-be production e-motos like the Brammo Empulse and Zero S promised speeds of over 100 mph and ranges into the triple digits.
Next, it was price. Batteries are expensive, and while e-motos still don’t offer the price/performance bargain of even the lowest-performing streetbikes, given the right customer and generous government incentives, pricing is becoming competitive enough to support a small but viable market. A Zero S can be had in Colorado, for instance, for about 1/2 price thanks to state and federal rebates and credits. And with millions–billions–of dollars (or more accurately, Japanese Yen and Chinese Renminbi) pumping into battery R and D, it’s looking like we could be getting into a situation reminiscent of Moore’s Law, the corollary that states computer-memory density doubles every two years. But even if the energy density of automotive batteries only doubles every four years, by 2019 we’ll have 150-mph motorcycles that can go 400 miles on a single charge and are rechargable in 30 minutes or less.
Finally, we have the problem that the mainstream OEMs had yet to introduce electric motorcycles. Until that point, e-motos may have looked like an empty fad exploited by get-rich-quick vaporware salesmen to critics. But already, numerous OEMs have shown electric concept bikes, and at least one has an electric motorcycle for sale in more than one market.
One important concept e-moto is the RC-E from Honda. It will be on display at the upcoming Tokyo Motorcycle Show, and while it is a non-running concept, it hints at the way Honda is poised to take advantage of the big-bore (I guess that’s not so descriptive–maybe ‘big volt?’) e-bike market. Honda gives no details about the machine’s range, performance or price, but it does have street-legal equipment and Honda hints that it is sized like a 250cc racer. Öhlins suspension and monobloc Brembo calipers may be just for show, or it may indicate this is a very serious sportbike indeed. Is this next year’s TTXGP contender? Or will it be for production once battery range and price gets to a certain level?
But if you don’t want to daydream, just move to Europe and walk into an orange-painted KTM dealership. For 2012, the Freeride E–a 211-pound electric dirtbike with a 300-watt battery and 90-minute recharge time will be available in most European countries. A video of the Freeride E below shows two stunt riders having a great time riding through vacant lots and abandoned buildings in Barcelona, hinting at the advantages a clean and quiet e-moto may have over its noisy, smoky two-stroke trailbike or motocross cousin.
Those advantages are reminders of why e-motos may be the majority of the global powered two-wheel market in 10 years. Not only are they pretty much free to operate (my utility bill would go up less than $10 if I charged a Zero S in my garage 20 nights a month–contrast that with the $120 my thirsty little Triumph Street Triple drinks in gas), but they are whisper quiet, basically maintenance free, and thanks to their light weight and lack of clutch or gearbox, appealing to entry-level riders–or even non-riders. Don’t believe it? Consider Time magazine reported in 2009 that China already had over 100 million electric bicycles, motorcycles and scooters in operation, with 12 million more added every year.
But not to worry — the ubiquity of e-motos will make your experience as an ICE bike enthusiast even better. It will revitalize a shrinking industry with new customers and perhaps keep the price of gas low as more ICE cars and trucks switch to electric and hybrid drive. It may also have the same effect on the public that Honda’s “Nicest People” campaign did for small-displacement motorcycles in the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe ICE motorcycles won’t get the level of development they get now, but if you’re like me, maybe you think that’s okay — the motorcycles we have now are way beyond my abilities as a rider, and I think I have more fun on older, cruder models anyway.
The future is electric, sooner or later — and I think it’s going to be okay.