Opinion: Turn up the volume

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.

Peter Fonda takes a ride on the Harley-Davidson Livewire. But where do you stash the cash?

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.”

Motorcycle Exhaust
You just know it’s going to be loud…

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.”

Edgar Heinrich, in the centre, has a chat about the BMW Vision Next 100 with a couple of members of his design team.

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.


  1. A few years ago a 2stroker moved ahead of my bike.his or hers open exhaust destroyed my ears.still ringing till this day. My days of loud noises are done. I hope it saved somebody’s life.

  2. I’m all in favour of quiet. I can appreciate the sound of a bike once in a while (I used to own a Ducati 750 GT with Conti “mufflers”) but the legions of throttle-blipping cruisers and sport bikes have become oh, so tiresome. As for cars, most noise is from the tires now and you can’t really separate the Teslas from the gas cars on that score. I read that Harley was putting some kind of noise into its Livewire. Don’t do it on my account.

  3. One street bike with a barely audible whine. Now imagine a freeway clogged with high pitched whining cars, bikes and Tesla semis. Might be enough to drive one to go postal.

  4. When e-vehicles ‘take-over; as some predict, I predict there will be a huge rise in pedestrian accidents and deaths. Since everyone is staring at their phones now while walking, wait until all the vehicles are quiet. Of course, the govern will then make all e-vehicles mandatory to make a minimum amount of noise.

  5. One trait of humans that has helped us survive millennia is our ability to adapt. However, we can also be “set in our ways.” Anytime technical transitions/advancements occur (horse-buggy to steam engine locomotive to ICE cars/motorcycles to Electric cars/motorcycles) one will have a certain segment that wish to hang on to & pine for the “good old days” of XYZ. Currently, we’re in this wave of transition, & like it or not, it will occur. For better (for some) or for worse (for others), the quiet/silent vehicles are now arriving. Enjoy the last carcinogenic exhaust fumes, grinding of gears, & vibrating engines, because that sound you hear… It’s gasoline’s last death rattle.

    • Well said. I can’t wait for the noise to be reduced or eliminated. The ride would only get better. It would be trivial to design a helmet that lets you recreate any sound you want, tied to acceleration, motor loading etc, for you to privately enjoy. However, I suspect for most noise enthusiast a big part of their enjoyment is for other people to hear them.
      Eventually the associations will change. It won’t be long until the words weak, clumsy, and dirty are what comes to mind when you hear a loud exhaust.

      • The phone will be the key. The app will choose what classic motorcycle model sound you prefer to be heard, with which after-market exhaust type. The matched throttle position up through, and roll-back will match down-change sounds. The virtual speaker outputs will exceed the physical sound levels heard from the roadside in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. The same neighbor who just rocketed their e-bike past your house as a Kawi Triple with stingers, will return as a Manx Norton with open megaphone on the way back from getting a qt of milk. One cycle with a whole orchestra of outputs. Image it! Even on Eastern Prom Mr Ford.

  6. Riding loud is abusive behavior and our tolerance for abuse of any kind should be zero. Hopefully electric bikes will become common and they’ll be as quiet as possible.

    • It is self evident, that operation of all traffic-types, standard or not, on a public way, is offensive human behavior of some form, between all operators and traffic soundscape recipients. Legal traffic loudness, is not direct abuse, it is universally public.

  7. A big part of the excitement of an ICE bike – is the noise!
    Imagine walking out to the garage, gazing at your machine, inserting the key, turning it on, watching the dash light up, then hit the On button and… nothing? Where’s the excitement?! I get goosebumps when my steel steed fires up. No Thanks.

    • I’m sure there will be a market for vintage bikes and cars using combustion engines. At some point you can expect governments to forbid manufacturing , only those already in circulation will remain.

      Outside of that the future is electric, it’s happening whether you like it or not. Either way riding a bike a 300 k will always be exciting, not to mention the massive torque.

  8. The Livewire if I’m not mistaken has a Star Wars type turbine wine that’s sounds pretty high tech and might even catch the attention of the video game generation.

  9. I believe you are wrong. As electric vehicles become more common people will become accustomed to the sound they make or in this case the near absence of noise. People will change their behavior for example by using their eyes more. People will adapt.

    If range doubles a couple more time in the next few years there will be no practical reasons to keep driving combustion engine vehicles, except nostalgia which I admit in the case of bikes might remain pretty strong.

  10. Great point Mark, and dont write off dirt bikes so easily or forget about racing. I was at the Toronto Supercross last year with my sons and afterwards we all commented on how different that spectacle would be if the bikes were silent. No roar off the start, no sense of tension from the changing rev note. It would really turn it into a bicycle race… I suppose all racing will suffer that way.

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