Opinion: Electric woes

Sabrina phoned me last weekend, and she sounded pretty harried. “I’ll be near your place later tonight,” she said. “Will you be around for, say, a couple of hours?”

Sabrina used to write for us here at Canada Moto Guide, and she once told us about her ride home from Toronto to Montreal on a Yamaha Super Tenere. That was a pretty straightforward journey, but this time, she’d bitten off a bigger challenge: a ride from Toronto to Montreal, and back again, on a Zero electric motorcycle.

The 2020 SR/F is Zero’s flagship motorcycle, with a more powerful motor and potentially faster charging time. It lists in Canada for $24,890 with a 3.0 kW charger, or $27,590 with the faster 6.0 kW charger. Its numbers are impressive, with 140 lbs.-ft. of torque and 110 horsepower and a top speed of 200 km/h. Sabrina didn’t sound impressed, though.

“I’m on a road trip on an electric motorcycle and I’ll need to plug in near you to recharge,” she explained. “And if I ever say the words ‘road trip’ and ‘electric motorcycle’ again in the same sentence, just punch me in the face.”

The Zero SR/F plugged in at the Cobourg Best Western’s Level 2 charger.

When she finally called from the charge point, plugged in at the Best Western near my home in Cobourg, it was 9 pm. She’d been travelling since 8.30 that morning. The 550 km ride should normally take about six hours with a stop for gas and lunch, but on her way to Montreal it had taken her 17 hours. This return trip was on schedule for about 16 hours, but the poor woman seemed almost delirious. She was grateful for my offer to sleep on the sofa and head home the next morning.

She was riding the Zero SR/F Premium, which claims to charge from empty to full in 90 minutes at a Level 2 fast charger. She’d found it actually took about two hours. It also claims a range in the city of 259 km, where it benefits from stop-and-go traffic to be able to regenerate power from its brakes. At a steady cruising speed of 90 km/h, however, that range drops to a claimed 159 km, and at 115 km/h, it drops further to 132 km.

In other words, if you’re travelling on the main highway at the average speed of other traffic, you’ll ride for about an hour, then stop for about two hours to charge. On that initial ride to Montreal, Sabrina had set the cruise control at 100 km/h and she still had to stop four times to recharge.

She found pretty quickly that riding wasn’t the challenge: it was the recharging. Headed to Montreal, she’d ridden through a thunderstorm, then had to stop for the first charge at Cobourg, doubling back about 15 km to find a Level 2 charge point. She plugged in and went to a coffee shop, but the coffee was finished within the hour and she still had another hour to kick her heels. The storm passed over, and when she eventually set off again, she caught up to it and was soaked a second time.

At the next charge point, there was no friendly coffee shop. It was a public park with no facilities, and wet. She sat at a picnic table with her laptop and shivered while the bike refuelled. By the time she reached the final charging point, just an hour from her parents’ home in Montreal, she was so fed up and dejected that her dad drove out to meet her with warm, dry clothes. She arrived after midnight and spent the next two days dreading the ride home.

Don’t take my word for it – you can read Sabrina’s account of the journey here.

Sabrina gets ready for the final leg home to Toronto on the charged-up Zero.

The thing is, electric motorcycles are very clearly limited to city use. They’re bound by their batteries, and because they’re bikes, the batteries can only be a maximum size. With electric cars, you can just stuff more batteries in to increase the range, but that’s not physically possible with a motorcycle. You can also sit inside them for shelter while they’re charging, if you wish.

When Costa rode the Harley-Davidson Livewire last month, he was impressed at its ease of recharging at a Level 3 charging station, which is considerably more powerful (and more expensive to install) than a Level 2. But Costa lives in Quebec, which has a rapidly expanding network of Level 3 charging stations. More than that, he lives in Montreal, so much of his local riding is urban. For him, such a motorcycle can make sense.

On a road trip, however, it just doesn’t make any sense. The Zero’s power and agility was wasted with its cruise control set at 100 km/h. On the ride back, Sabrina took the country roads and improved her range by riding even more slowly. She would have been happier on almost any other motorcycle.

It was a hard-learned lesson, but somebody had to do it. An electric bike is great fun to ride with its ludicrous power and smooth delivery, and let’s be honest – many people never go much farther on their motorcycles than the coffee shop on the other side of town. But for more serious riders, even the best electric bikes have their limitations. I’m sure those limits will be stretched as battery development and power density continues to improve, and this will happen sooner rather than later, but they’re not there yet.

9 thoughts on “Opinion: Electric woes”

  1. “It also claims a range in the city of 259 km, where it benefits from stop-and-go traffic to be able to regenerate power from its brakes. At a steady cruising speed of 90 km/h, however, that range drops to a claimed 159 km, and at 115 km/h, it drops further to 132 km.”

    This is the real world test information we need to know.

  2. Still not logical in motorbikes. Who would pay 25 grand for a commuter motorcycle in Canada? Riding in the city is slow and boring and dangerous. Maybe 6 months/year. A small electric scooter would work, especially in Vancouver (year round). I had a Prius which got 4 l/100 km in the city, still working perfectly at 300 K km and 14 years when I got smoked near my house. That is viable, plug in hybrid is best. Electric only when commuting to work/running errands, gas kicks in for longer trips. Win:win. Cam

  3. Before I moved out of the city lasy year, I seriously considered a Zero for commuting and errands. When I sat down to do the math, I realized I would still need to have a petrol powered bike for road trips, and I could not afford to run both. If I could have done it I would have. The time may still come as battery technology and infrastructure advances.

  4. I’d only ride one in the city and backroads on van-isle but to think that they’re charging such a sum of money for that bike with it’s limitations is ridiculous and kind of criminal. The Harley Davidson school of business? All show and no go; all crown and no filling etc… They should get hit with a class action.

  5. When the switchout batteries are readily available, then electric bikes will make their mark! OK, BIG 4, bring them on!!

    1. I want to see what happens when they swap your brand new battery for a piece of crap with a100,000 Km. on it and when you go to swap it they tell you it won’t hold a charge and you’ll have to buy a new battery. Happened to me with a propane cylinder swap.

  6. It hurts to read such stories featuring the unadjusted rider niavely transitioning to EV and taking a trip based on marketing claims instead of experience. A recent EV road trip a fellow charged at an all you can eat buffet, and once eaten enough switched to a station 7 miles away to hike a state park taking full advantage of the charging time. If it was a race, I won by hours, but I think i lost, arriving home sleepy and hungry. Changing from “trip is the destination” to “trip is the journey” can make a big difference.

  7. Actually, nobody had to actually try this to know it was a bad idea. Simple math and the manufacturer’s own stated range figures at highway speeds would tell you this.

    I believe it’s actually possible to get 12 kW charging on the SR/F, reducing the charging time to about an hour, if you can find a level 2 charger with that capacity. They do exist.

    Even “just” an hour of charging every 130 km seems like a gigantic pain in the ass to me, though.

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