Like them or not, agree with the philosophy behind them or not, electric bikes are here … although time will tell if they stay. They are now commercially available for the street and for the dirt, and as more electric bike race series spring up, there are road racers too.
However, they’re all handicapped by one main flaw: very limited range.
Despite this, every year seems to see another electric vehicle company spring into the fore, which last year included a small start-up company called Lito, based right here in Canada, in a suburb of Montreal.
Lito is responsible for producing the Sora electric motorcycle, which has (at first sight at least) a more useable range than currently available on other e-bikes, claiming up to 300 km of gas-free riding.
That’s a pretty impressive figure, achievable partially due to its 12 kWh lithium-polymer battery pack (which is good for a 150,000 km lifespan at a steady 70 km/h). This is considerably more power than what is available in Zero motorcycles, which offer up to 9 kWh from lithium-ion batteries that can provide a range up to 180 km.
But here’s the catch, the Sora’s claimed maximum range may be attained under ideal conditions, in an urban setting — where the juice isn’t gobbled up by fighting highway wind resistance, and its regenerative braking helps maintain a charge — and with the bike set to eco mode. (The Sora has three modes including eco, performance and safe range, the last adjusting available power to ensure you to get to your destination before the battery goes flat).
A more realistic range under normal riding conditions would be closer to about 180 km, which is still reasonable for daily use, but if you hit the highway and tap it out at the claimed maximum speed of 200 km/h, the battery would be drained in a mere 30 minutes or about 100 km – providing you’re not pulled over first!
But with a charge time of eight hours using the onboard 110-volt charger, which is compatible for both a standard wall outlet and an SAE J1772 coupler, or two hours with an external quick charger. Yet with no infrastructure to charge the machine up and get you on your way again, isn’t the Sora effectively just a very trick commuter bike?
To find out more about the new bike, CMG caught up with company founder Jean-Pierre Legris at the recent Montreal Motorcycle Show and picked his brain on some of the technology behind the Sora, as well as how he sees his bike fitting among the current offerings of electric motorcycles.
First off, Legris has no intentions of competing with current electric bike makers, namely Brammo and Zero. He sees his product more as a luxury/performance offering in the segment – think of it like Ducati versus Hyosung in normal terms.
This is why you’ll find unique features like an electrically adjustable seat (750 to 850 mm) and an LCD touch screen integrated into the faux gas tank that includes a GPS, and a programmable computer via a USB port to connect it to your laptop.
Other indications as to its performance-oriented intentions are carbon-fibre bodywork, a fully adjustable inverted fork (currently sourced from a Kawasaki ZX-14, though Kayaba will provide the front suspension on production models), a fully adjustable Elka single shock, and supersport-spec 17-inch radials at both ends.
All of the in-house components, including cast aluminium pieces like the swingarm, are manufactured using local suppliers. Only the German-made motor and Japanese fork and brakes are sourced externally.
It’s a contemporarily styled naked roadster (overall lines are similar to some Confederate designs) powered by a liquid-cooled, three-phase brushless AC motor that produces 59 lb-ft of torque throughout its 6,000-rpm rev range – one advantage of an electric motor is that it is capable of generating its maximum torque as soon as it begins spinning.
This brings us to a feature that is unusual for an electric bike but is incorporated into the Sora: a CVT transmission. Almost all current electric bikes on the market use direct drive (the 2012 Brammo Empulse is available with a six-speed gearbox). It makes sense in this segment; no transmission means less weight, fewer losses due to friction, and reduced cost. Electric bikes can get away without a variable-ratio transmission because of the unique torque characteristics of their electric motors.
However, there is one main drawback to using direct drive: it isn’t flexible. When resorting to direct drive a manufacturer must make a compromise, choosing a final-drive ratio that provides both adequate acceleration for city riding and a reasonable top speed for short jaunts on the open road.
To achieve the Sora’s current rate of acceleration without a CVT, it would have been limited to about 80 km/h. Alternately, if it were geared to achieve its current top speed (200 km/h, claimed), acceleration would have suffered. Although there is some loss in efficiency due to the CVT, it was considered a fair trade-off for the added return in performance. It is also factory tuneable, so if a buyer prefers acceleration over top speed they can be accommodated.
If it weren’t for the Sora’s respectable range, all the go-fast chassis componentry would be of little use. But this bike isn’t meant primarily as a fuel-saving, eco-friendly alternative for commuting (though, technically, it is). It’s meant to be high-end ($42,399 high) addition to someone’s already growing stable of wheeled toys.
Orders have already been placed in Europe and in the Middle East, reportedly by affluent motoring enthusiasts attracted to its unique blend of styling, performance and eco-friendliness.
Despite the limitations that currently face all electrically-powered road vehicles, the Sora is a serious effort backed by the latest advancements in electric bike technology (as well as Quebec government funding). It’s also something that the company will continue to develop with an all-new model scheduled for 2014, and variants in the pipeline as well.
For more information about the Sora go to Lito’s website.
ADDENDUM – IS THE FUTURE REALLY NOW? by Costa Mouzouris
I have a problem with electric bikes. I like them. Spend some time commuting on one and plugging it in at night for another day of urban riding and you’ll like them too.
But I think in their current state of development, they’re simply not very useful. And they’re expensive to boot.
The problem as I see it is that people like you and I are designing them – the enthusiasts. Take a look at the Sora, the Zeros and the Brammos and you see rigid aluminum frames, trick suspension and naked bike styling, all factors that appeal to us, but do little to attract the consumer most likely to find its real world abilities the most appealing: the commuter.
An enthusiast won’t take a weekend ride with buddies or attend a track day on an e-bike; because the limited range simply won’t allow it. So why the complex adjustable suspension, stout chassis and sport-bike-spec tires? These items only serve to raise production costs, making already expensive e-bikes even more so.
A commuter on the other hand will gladly overlook the limited range (they don’t really need it) for quiet, lightweight and gas-free operation.
Having said all that, Lito might be onto something, as the bike’s main selling point is that it’s aimed at the high-end buyer. It’s a niche product, unique with low production numbers. That exclusivity might just convince someone with the available cash to hand it over. Otherwise, turn the focus towards the commuter buyer until technology allows for a full days ride without need to charge.
I’m not saying electric bikes must be patterned after scooters; they can keep the large-diameter wheels and motorcycle styling, but they should offer some protection from the elements as well as some storage space, for a briefcase, maybe a small duffel bag – and they should, no, need be more affordable too.
Looking forward to the release of the Empulse! I for one, think they went with the 6 speed because it helped them maximize the effect of a smaller more efficient motor. ICE motors have always relied on transmissions to morph the power or torque peaks to improve acceleration while still allowing low revs while cruising. While torque is found at very low rpm, the electric motor’s efficiency is not constant at all speeds and loads. It’s reasonable to assume their development, and racing experience, brought them back to the obvious conclusion that a gearbox might aid in ways. Frankly, I think it’ll be one less compromise when I still have a clutch and the familiar ascent of gears as I ride. Same reason I chose stick shift on cars.
I tend to agree with Costa’s assessment. There may be a small niche market available for these limited-range sport-oriented electric bikes, but for the most part they’re too limited in range for the average enthusiast rider (for the money), and just too expensive to justify for the average commuter user. Small, practical, and economically priced would seem to be the sweet spot.
Nice to see a comment from someone who actually owns and uses an electric bike.
Nice summary – I had similar concerns before I bought my first electric motorcycle in 2008, but found they were unnecessary. I bought an ’07 Vectrix, knowing that I would be using it for local commuting – which is what I did. I rode to work, plugged-in, rode home, plugged-in and saved hundreds of dollars over the years by not using gasoline.
I recently bought a 2012 Zero ZF9, which is even more practical with longer range. I knew when I bought these bikes that I wouldn’t be riding them across the country, so for me the decision was based on the practicality of saving fuel during the local commute.
As far as the cost – yes they are more expensive than a comparable gasoline-powered motorcycle, but the convenience of never going the to gas station or having to change the oil/plugs/oil filters, etc., more than makes up for the higher cost. The most amazing aspect of owning an EV is that they literally pay for themselves in fuel savings if you ride/drive them long enough.
The technological breakthroughs in battery technology that have occurred recently and that are still occurring – will make electric bikes (and cars) more and more practical and affordable. The future is bright.