At some point, we’ll have to stop saying “the electrics are coming,” and start saying “the electrics are here.” And I suspect we won’t realize when that moment has come and gone. We may already have passed it.
I didn’t think we were there until last week, when MD Contributor Alan Lapp and I spent a long afternoon cruising around San Francisco on a pair of battery-electric motorcycles, a 2009 Brammo Enertia and a 2012 Zero S ZF6. Let’s be clear: this is not a comparison test between these two vehicles. The Enertia is a four-year-old design, so in electric-vehicle terms the Zero has a huge technological lead, as battery, motor and software developments have leapfrogged mightily every year. We rode both bikes so we could get a feel for the different approaches the two companies use and see how well they’d hold up to what’s a pretty tough environment.
The $7,995 Brammo is the slick and polished product, as well as the less-expensive one. That’s because it’s an older design, with a much smaller lithium-iron-phosphate battery—3 kilowatt-hours instead of the Zero’s 6 kWh lithium-ion unit. The battery is wrapped in an extruded-aluminum frame, suspended by a compression-adjustable Marzocchi fork and an expensive-looking Elka rear shock. Brakes are by Brembo. The motor is a sealed, brushless AC unit with permanent magnets—that means low maintenance. There’s no clutch or gearbox, just a chain and a big sprocket. It weighs 324 pounds, and is wrapped in futuristic, rounded bodywork that looks much more like a flowing, integrated design than the Zero.
Zero’s offering is the techno-champ here… to be expected from a three-year lead. It uses the distinctive basic frame design we first saw on the 2009 Zero, a very light structure composed of aluminum tubes and beams. A large metal box conceals the Z-Force power pack. Behind it is a double-stator axial flux (I don’t know what that means, either) sealed, brushless motor. Power goes to the rear wheel via belt—that change and numerous others to styling and components were made by former Buell engineer Abe Ashkenazi—and suspension is from a nameless Asian supplier, but is fully adjustable (the Zero is made in Santa Cruz, but much of the parts list comes from Taiwan, I was told at the factory last year). It weighs in at a reasonable 297 pounds.
So they sound like pretty similar bikes, but show very different characters. The Zero is the hooligan. It has two drive modes—eco or sport—which gives you a choice of good acceleration or better range and regenerative braking. It won’t stun you if you’re used to middleweight sportbikes, but it’s more than enough to stay well ahead of car traffic or to merge safely onto the freeway. The no-name brakes have good bite and power and, as befits a supermoto, the rear brake has enough grab to easily skid the back tire. Decent stoppies are also possible. Ride quality is very nice on the Zero, and it steers quickly but doesn’t give up much in the way of stability—until you get over 80 mph, when the front end starts to feel vague.
The Brammo is more composed and staid. The seat’s a little lower, the bars are higher, and you don’t feel you have to pin it everywhere. Acceleration—especially midrange—is ample, plenty to maintain your safety cushion in city traffic. The brakes have enough power and control to meet your braking needs safely. A new rider should be able to ride either of these bikes with no difficulty, which I think is a problem—a clutch and gearbox is just a small part of operating a motorcycle safely, and I worry about a flood of untrained riders getting hurt on these things. Get proper training before you buy or ride any motorcycle. Please.
Actually, getting started on an e-moto is harder than it looks. The Brammo has a complex start procedure intended to minimize accidental motion. Though the Zero is easier to figure out, they both have big green lights on the instrument clusters to tell you the bike is energized and ready to ride. Instrumentation on both bikes includes the all-important ‘charge remaining’ meter, with the Brammo’s telling you how many miles you have before you have to plug in somewhere. Both bikes include on-board chargers, and have enough storage space to stash rolled-up power cords.
Charging is something to think about. A full charge on the Zero is good for 76 miles of slow, around-town riding going by the EPA’s ‘City’ UDDS standard, 43 miles on the higher speed (cruising at 70 about half the trip) test. Opt for the $14,000 ZF9 version of the Zero S (and its 9kWh battery) and you may go 114 city or 63 miles at higher speeds. The older Brammo will do 42 miles on the city loop, ‘20-plus’ miles in higher-speed commuting, according to Brammo. To achieve those numbers on either bike, you’ll need a full charge—easy to do with the on-board chargers. The Brammo charges in four hours, the Zero in six. For faster charging (as little as 1.8 hours for the Zero), you can get accessory quick-chargers, which may or may not make your house burn down, depending on your wiring. Check with an electrician. Zero offers an SAE J1772 charging socket so you can take advantage of public charging stations (and primo parking spots).
Battery pack life is more of an issue with the Brammo—it’s rated for 2000 full charge/discharge cycles (so 80,000 miles at city speeds according to my hasty calculations), although topping the charge off before the battery is flat will prolong life. Two thousand cycles is about eight years of Monday-Friday commuting, after which the pack will still have 80 percent capacity and have core value (as recyclable material or as back-up batteries for solar systems, for example). A new pack costs about $3500, and I’m guessing by the year 2020, that pack will be a fraction of the current price and offer several times the performance.
The Zero, on the other hand, offers serious battery life. Like 205,000 miles to 80 percent capacity, according to Zero, and the ZF9 will go 308,000 miles, or about my total moto-mileage for the last 20 years. If you want to geek out and do the math, batteries and electricity are really cheap for the Zero: at 40 miles per charge, it’ll cost you about two cents per mile before you have to buy a new battery in the year 2032. My Triumph Street Triple R runs about 14 cents per mile when you factor in the expensive regular services and $4.50 cent-a-gallon gas. That’s a savings of $1800 per year at 15,000 miles—spread over five years, that’s about the cost of an entire motorcycle.
Okay, that’s the practical, economical argument—if you’re using your bike less than 50 miles per day (as are most moto-commuters), an e-bike may be right for you. But what about soul? Won’t you miss the roar of the V-Twin, the top-end hit of your inline-Four, the Tito Puente ritmo of your Thumper? As Alan points out below, isn’t an e-bike just a rideable computer? An appliance?
That’s what I thought until I decided to take the long way back to Munroe Motors (San Francisco’s Zero dealer who was good enough to loan us the bike) with the Zero. It was a 16-mile trip through surprisingly light afternoon commute traffic, and my main worry was getting back to Munroe before the battery wore down. But the charge was still well above halfway by the time I rolled through Daly City, and the experience of riding was not so different from a gas-powered steed. Quick off the line, and then midrange like a Twin, except that there was no noise or vibration—at all. That smooth, silent torque, that magic sensation is character, if a subtle one. I’d even call it soul.
At the big 280 interchange, I lane-split to the front of the pack, worried the bike wouldn’t get up to speed quickly enough as I silently rolled past dozens of grim-faced commuters. The light turned green, I put the cheesy-looking toggle switch to the ‘sport’ position, and pinned the throttle. We took off, not blazing fast, but plenty fast enough to stay ahead of any potential road-rager, and I experienced the weird feeling of coasting uphill as I turned the throttle. The speedometer reached 75 in a hurry, and 80-plus was no problem at all. Again, completely silent, the only noise the wind rushing past my helmet.
Do you remember your first high-speed ride on a motorcycle? It was like magic, wasn’t it, the way a movement of your wrist translated into effortless acceleration as you whipped past all the suckers trapped in their ugly rolling boxes? That Zero made me feel that all over again. I had another gratifying moment as I whizzed past a BMW K1600GT rounding a big curve on highway 101. Sure, that $25,000 motorcycle can do 160 mph and go 220 miles on a ($30) tank of premium. But the Zero, though slow off the line, accelerates well between 60 and 80 mph, where I spend most of my freeway time. It may have been that little rush of torque I felt at higher speeds that really convinced me e-motos are here. In fact, my Zero ride was a transformative experience that made me feel (for a change) very good about the motorcycle industry’s future.
So: what got you into riding in the first place and keeps you riding today, so many years later? Is it the camshafts, carbs, gears, clutchplates and exhaust pipes? Is it the vibration, the leaking oil, the 14 cans of almost-empty chain lube in your garage? The passive-aggressive notes your next-door neighbor slips under your door on Sunday afternoon? (“I hate to bring it up, but do you think you could maybe push your bike down the street before you start it up at 6 am every Sunday, instead of under my bedroom window? Thanks!”) Yeah, I like that stuff too, but what drew me to two wheels was freedom, and while two cents a mile isn’t free, it’s pretty freakin’ close. Rather than snubbing electric motorcycles, enthusiasts should embrace them, because they represent the best chance we have of getting a new generation onto two wheels.
Before you assume I’m just pimpin’ for a long-term test bike (Zero S ZF9 in black, please), go down to an e-moto dealer—Vectrix, Brammo, Zero seem to be the best-established brands so far—and test ride one on the freeway. If you don’t have a huge grin when you get back, if you’re not amazed at how fun and practical these things can be, I’d be very surprised. And if you think they’re good now, what will five or 10 years bring? I think we’ll get $5000 motorcycles with 125 mph top speeds, 250-mile ranges and 20-minute recharge times. And that’s when you can have my gas-burning relic to use as a lawn ornament.
Second Take: Alan Lapp
I had never ridden an electric motorcycle before Gabe tapped me to help with this review, so I was uncontaminated by previous experience. I am a bit of a technophile, and I have friends who are avid e-bike fans who drip-feed tidbits of information about the electric-vehicle industry to me. So, even though I lacked experience, I had opinions; some political, some pragmatic.
Pragmatically speaking, the e-doubters raise a number of issues: range, speed, recharge times, etc. In other words, people want the convenience we are accustomed to with petroleum-fired vehicles. I fall into the camp that see e-bikes as inevitable, but remain skeptical about how useful they are in real life.
To find out what is it like to use an e-bike for a day, I met Gabe and our staff lens-slinger and Senior Editor Bob Stokstad at Scuderia West in San Francisco ( to pick up Scuderia owner Don Lemelin’s personal Brammo). Since Don’s Brammo is three years old, it simply cannot be directly compared to the new Zero S. The e-bike industry is making improvements by leaps and bounds, so three years is an eternity.
Astride the Zero, we set off from Scuderia and headed uphill toward Twin Peaks, then out to the Cliff House for photos. The first thing I noticed is the absence of a clutch lever. No transmission, no gears… no clutch. Every time I hopped on, I whiffed two or three times thinking I’d missed the non-existent lever. It’s not a problem, but it is disconcerting.
The next thing I noticed is that the bike simply accelerates at its own pace, more or less regardless of where you put the throttle. All e-bikes have computerized controllers that manage how much torque is delivered to the wheels, handle regenerative braking, and feed the dashboard information about remaining power level and current power usage. What I find extraordinary is the smooth power delivery: it is regal, refined, and gentlemanly. With no interruptions for shifting, and no coming on the cam or peaky power delivery, acceleration is velvet-smooth, and feels as if you are being swept away in a fast-moving river. Because the computer controls torque delivery, you simply pin it and go. It’s the ultimate beginner bike: there is simply no way to do anything wrong with the throttle when leaving from a stop, other than forgetting it’s turned on. It’s not an on-off switch like a two-stroke, but a rheostat that works as smoothly and precisely as your dining-room’s dimmer knob.
Speaking of sound, it is truly a unique experience to ride next to another e-bike at 30 mph, and hold a conversation with the other rider without shouting. These bikes aren’t quite silent, but nearly so; just the whir of the final-drive belt and the tires on the road.
One perception I have harbored over the years is that e-bike design has typically put the emphasis on the ‘e’—the electric power—and less emphasis on the bike. Many early e-bikes looked like bicycles with hormone problems, hampered by spindly frames and weedy brakes. The Zero S demonstrates that this company is paying attention to the whole package and have produced a comfortable, properly suspended motorcycle equipped with effective brakes. It was quite fun to toss around the curves near the Cliff House.
My sole complaint about my brief time on e-bikes is that they aren’t hooligan-y enough. Sure, you can do stoppies all day long, and skid the rear tire into your parking space in front of the cafe where you hang out for all to observe your conspicuous conservation. But—and this is big for me—you simply can’t wheelie one, no matter what. Anti-social adrenaline junkies need not apply.
However, I predict that e-bikes will continue to improve, that eventually range and acceleration will become comparable to internal combustion, and that costs (if you evaluate the performance/dollar ratio) will decline. I believe e-bikes will offer a riding experience that will satisfy nearly anybody…. except people who are actually ideologically opposed to conservation, clean air, or bikes made outside Wisconsin. Furthermore, I believe that since e-bikes, at their core, are computers, that hacking them will become very popular. It is undoubtedly possible to program the controller to execute perfect, effortless balance-point wheelies. The Zero S already has a two-position switch for Sport and Economy modes. Why not add a setting labeled “WHEELIE”?
How did I like my day on e-bikes? I’ll just say that afterwards, the first few miles on my KTM 690 Enduro were dismaying: it felt like it was shaking itself to bits, the noises my brain had automatically filtered out flooded into my ears—the rattling fairing bolt, the clicking valves nagging me for adjustment, the clattering gearshift, and the bleating intake honk. My state-of-the-art fuel-injected six-speed 63-hp dual-sport bike suddenly felt like an antique.
Richard Harmon: Living with a Zero S ZF9
So what is it like living with a 2012 Zero S? Two words, cheap and easy—if you can get past the $14,000 MSRP, of course. The Zero requires little maintenance. You don’t need to change oil or filters, maintain and clean a chain, replace sparkplugs, replace batteries, adjust valves, balance throttle bodies, adjust the clutch, or spend an hour removing bodywork to get to all that stuff. That really cuts down on maintenance costs.
How about running expenses? The other day I rode the Zero from my home in Pacifica, California to the town of Fairfax to visit my daughter, a round trip of 76.8 miles. I adhered to the speed limit during my ride. About 10 miles of my travel was on the freeway and the rest was on surface streets. Using a ‘Kill-A-Watt’ meter to measure the power consumption needed to recharge the battery pack, I used a total of 7.6 kWh of electricity for the trip. The local utility charges me 13.7 cents per kWh, so the round trip only cost $1.04, or about 1.35 cents per mile. If I had ridden my Triumph, which gets 42 mpg, my fuel cost would have been $8.21, based on the $4.49 a gallon price for gas at my local station that day, a savings of $7.17 on just that one trip. When you add the lack of any substantial recurring maintenance costs and the likelihood that the motor and battery pack will outlast the chassis, it shouldn’t take too long to recoup the greater purchase price of the Zero if you ride it a lot.
That’s the cheap part. But the bike is also easy to use. You just turn on the ignition key and ride off. You no longer have to play with the choke and/or wait for the motor to warm up. What the Zero lacks in its ability to go long distances it makes up with its ability to do all those daily short trips (within a 40-mile radius) quickly and easily. And of course, commuting to work is where it excels. Plus, since the bike has no transmission or clutch, getting stuck in a traffic jam is a breeze. You can do the ‘beep and creep’ easily just by turning the throttle slightly to move at a walking pace, or you can ride between stopped cars as the bike is very narrow. No smoking clutch, overheating engine, or cramping left hand. And if the bike gets dirty it is easy to clean since it has no exhaust system or chrome to polish.
You might ask if the lack of noise is a safety issue. So far it has not been for me. No one has moved into my lane any more than usual and my only real concern is when riding around pedestrians or bicyclists. I tend to be very careful riding in an urban environment since the bike is so quiet. But that’s probably a good thing, no?
Finally, there is the issue of reliability of a new product and customer service from a small start-up manufacturer. I had a minor issue with my bike twice stalling at stoplights. The staff at Zero heard about my complaint on the Internet and called me to say that they would pick my bike up at my home, take it to the factory in Scotts Valley and return it to me with their latest programming and a new throttle assembly. They did as they promised and the bike has been running great ever since.
While an electric motorcycle may not be for everyone, it works for me.