All the car shows these days are filled with electric vehicles, and now the motorcycle shows are starting to catch up – even though hardly anyone is buying them. The cars are already in with both feet, and they’re in for good, but it’s still baby steps for bikes.
At the Tokyo Motorcycle Show this month, Yamaha showed off an all-electric trials bike, and almost every manufacturer is now working to produce something electric within the next couple of years. There are plenty of production bikes from small makers, of course, most notably from Zero motorcycles and now Alta Motors, which just teamed up with Harley-Davidson to produce a successor to the Livewire concept by 2020.
Zac prepared a primer on electric bikes earlier this month and it prompted plenty of critical comments, mostly about high price and limited range. Like electric cars, which our far-sighted governments are foisting on us whether we want them or not, you can have as much range as you like if you’re prepared to pay for the extra batteries, as Tesla offers, but they add both cost and weight. Bikes are different: there’s only so much space for a battery. As Zac points out, though, range has doubled in the last few years within the same-sized unit.
There was something missing in the comments, though, that’s intrinsic to motorcycling, and I thought of it last week when I attended a Porsche event in Germany. Porsche is spending $10 billion – that’s billion with a ‘b’ – on electrification over the next four years, and will produce its all-electric Mission-E coupe concept late next year. A partly-electrified 911 will follow soon after. The CEO stood in front of a roomful of journalists to tell them about the car, and in all the questions about cost and range and the establishment of charging stations, one question stood out: What about the sound? Electric vehicles are silent, and in some countries, there’s legislation for them to produce a noise in order to prepare blind people, or just distracted people, for their presence. This is a Porsche, don’t forget. Sports cars are guttural and emotional – what about the sound?
“It’s an issue for us,” said Oliver Blume, and he promised there will be no artificial sound of a gas engine created through the speakers in the cabin, “but we’re a generation who has grown accustomed to it over decades. The sound doesn’t really contribute to the speed and dynamics of a car. Maybe future generations won’t associate that sound with that vehicle dynamism.”
Good luck with that. You’d better believe cruiser riders don’t want a silent motorcycle. It’s not just about power – it’s about feel and presence. Silence is great for trials bikes and dirt bikes, but sport bikes and cruisers? People don’t really put loud pipes on their bikes because they think they’re safe (although they’ll swear that’s the reason). They do it because it feels good, and it sounds like they believe a motorcycle should.
I expect electric motorcycles will be a much harder sell than cars for mainly this reason, at least in the next couple of decades while our generations associate them more with emotion than transport. And this bodes well for bikes. Fortunately, I’m not the only person who thinks this way. I chatted a while back with Edgar Heinrich, the head of design for BMW’s futuristic Vision Next 100 motorcycle, and he told me that “the semantics of mechanics is very, very important, I feel. In a world where everything is artificial intelligence and virtual reality, you want to be grateful for mechanical engineering. In an environment where everything is so fast changing, what is still true? You need something to cling to, and some of these very iconic things must always be there. And this is much more important for the motorcycles than for cars.”
And then I chatted with his boss, Peter Schwarzenbauer, the head of BMW Motorrad, and I asked him about the future of motorcycles. “I’m not worried for them,” he said. “I think that in the far-off future, the last vehicle on Earth will be a motorcycle.”
I hope so. And I hope it makes a decent sound, too.