Electric motorcycles have been in the headlines for almost 10 years now. Between 2011 and 2015, we regularly saw stories about independents like Chip Yates and Michael Uhlarik building electric superbikes, along with larger companies like Lightning and Brammo (now owned by Polaris, sort of). More recently, we’ve also seen growth in street-legal machines from companies like Zero and Alta.
Despite all that buzz, electric motorcycles have not gained rapid acceptance in the marketplace. Most Canadians don’t even know where to buy a battery bike, and they don’t know anyone else who owns one.
So, we reached out to a couple electric motorcycle enthusiasts that we’ve been in contact with over the years, Terry Hershner and Ben Rich. Both riders have put down serious miles on electric motorcycles, and Hershner in particular was a pioneer in the scene, even managing a battery-powered Iron Butt ride (1000 miles in 24 hours). With some input from the experts, here are six reasons you should think about buying an electric motorcycle.
There are three key aspects to electric motorcycle performance: power, handling and range. All three have seen improvements in the past few years, but improved range has been the most important breakthrough.
When it comes to power output, there’s a wide range in the electric motorcycle segment, ranging from plug-in step-throughs from Honda and Vespa (with power output similar to a 50 cc scooter), to fire-breathing superbikes like the Lightning LS218, supposedly the fastest production motorcycle in the world, at 218 mph.
Most electric motorcycles don’t have the power output of that Lightning LS218, but they do deliver instantaneous torque, with no need for a gearbox or shifting to stay in the motor’s powerband. It’s a tremendous difference, and a huge edge over gasoline-powered motorcycles. For potential customers, a ride aboard an electric bike, feeling that constantly available power is perhaps the biggest selling point.
“It’s not just Teslas that are fast,” says Terry Hershner. “A Zero can go 0-100 km/h in about three seconds. They will blow away all other gas bikes in the hands of regular riders.” Of course, a Hayabusa has a much higher top speed than a Zero, but stoplight-to-stoplight, who’s counting?
Electric motorcycle manufacturers are building more powerful bikes every year, as well as upgrading components like brakes, tires and rims and shaving weight to improve handling. Battery bikes have come a long way from the big-motor barges that were running the land speed circuits five years ago, trying to set new records.
But the biggest improvement of all is battery range, thanks to larger batteries with more density, and bikes designed to house those batteries. In the last six years, electric motorcycles have roughly doubled their range. The 2018 Zero SR with accessory battery is rated at 359 km of city riding, 270 km of combined city/highway riding on a charge.
A 350-km battery range is still no good if the recharge times are too long, but Terry Hershner says that isn’t an issue anymore, if you’ve got the money to upgrade your chargers.
“With the one-hour recharge time with the Diginow Superchargers, you can easily do over 1,000 km in a day of riding, or 2,000 km over a weekend,” says Terry Hershner—and given his impressive resume of long-distance riding on electric bikes, he’d know. Hershner reckons the recharge times could be even lower. For now, the battery and motorcycle manufacturers are keeping it where it’s at, but he figures the technology exists to get to half-hour charge times.
Other manufacturers, particularly Honda and Yamaha, are working on cross-brand swappable batteries, so instead of charging your battery, you simply change a dead battery out for a fresh one at a service station. Expect to see more about this technology in coming months.
Another major advantage of electric drivetrains is improved reliability. While suspension, frame and braking components are relatively similar to conventional motorcycles, electric bike motors have a fraction of the amount of moving parts in an internal combustion engine, and the constant vibration that plagues those engines isn’t a factor either.
For some riders, that’s missing some of the fun of motorcycling, as they like wrenching as much as riding. But you can still work on your bike, even if you aren’t adjusting valves or changing the oil. “There isn’t as much tinkering to do on electric motorcycles as with gas bikes,” Ben Rich says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t improve the bike with LED lights, crash bars, or other farkles. The aftermarket for electric motorcycles is growing and it will get bigger once the market expands.”
Ease of use
For beginning riders, electric motorcycles are significantly easier to master than than their gas-powered counterparts. Not only does the lack of an internal combustion engine mean far fewer maintenance issues to keep on top of, but there’s also no clutch to master. Ben Rich figures that makes electric bikes very appealing in an industry that’s trying to attract new riders.
It’s true that lack of charging infrastructure does impede the usefulness of electric motorcycles in many areas (good luck finding a charging station in rural Newfoundland). But, in urban centres where these machines are designed to run most efficiently, that’s not an issue.
If you’re one of those people who wants to have the latest iPhone, then an electric motorcycle is definitely going to position you as an early adopter. But be aware, just like those buyers who purchased the earliest smartphones, your electric motorcycle purchase will likely be outclassed by whatever comes out next year.
Finally, electric motorcycles should soon be widely available. Zero’s dealership presence in Canada has been small for years, and plans to bring brands like Brammo, Lightning and other high-end electric marques always fell through.
But, Harley-Davidson plans to have an electric bike in its lineup by 2020. Naysayers predicted it would never happen, and then the MoCo turned around, bought into Alta Motors (arguably the hottest electric brand in North America now), and announced plans to develop two machines in conjunction with Alta. Bam! Given Harley-Davidson’s massive dealership reach, this should put electric bikes well within driving distance of most Canadians.
As for other major manufacturers—we wouldn’t expect to see electric step-throughs from Honda or BMW here anytime soon, but those machines are for sale in other markets, and could come here in theory. Same goes for KTM’s E-XC electric enduro bike. Don’t expect it here next summer, but you probably should expect it here before too long.
“The main thing holding back electric motorcycles is the price,” says Ben Rich. Electric motorcycles cost more up-front than a bike with internal combustion engine, and that MSRP is a big deterrent.
However, Terry Hershner points out the high initial cost isn’t the only number to look at. Over the long term, an electric motorcycle like his Zeros offer consistent savings.
“If your total goal is to save as much money as possible, and you don’t ride very much at all, it’s best perhaps to get a Ninja 250 for doing less than 100 km a month,” he says. “The Zero really pays for itself for riders who ride a lot and ride far when they ride. I personally ride a lot, I’ve logged 125,000 miles on Zeros in six years. Between gas and maintenance on my last motorcycle, that would have cost me close to $25,000 USD. About $1000 for every 10,000 miles of travel for gas, and at least that in maintenance and repairs. Just the valve adjustments alone can cost that over 125,000 miles.
“So it really depends on whether you ride a lot or not. If you do, get a Zero.
“If you rarely ride, and still want one, get a used one with less range, but that’s OK as you probably have a backup vehicle for longer distances. If you want to give up buying gas all together, buy the newest Zero with the biggest range and fast chargers. It will pay for itself completely in no time.”