Opinion: Our electric future

Did you catch it last week, in Costa’s story about the BMW E-Roadster?

“I’ve ridden 200-plus horsepower superbikes and have never felt such ferocious acceleration,” he wrote, and then, “The first time I rolled the throttle to the max, the bike accelerated with such brute force that it made me lightheaded.”

This is an astonishing admission from a guy who’s ridden just about every current motorcycle in existence, and ridden them fast and well. The electric motorcycle that’s far from ready yet, and which still looks like a hunk of junk, is quicker than all of them.

During his short time with the bike, Costa drag-raced an S1000R, one of BMW’s fastest bikes. “The E-Roadster immediately took the lead and pulled away by several bike lengths,” he said, “until it topped out at its factory-limited top speed of 176 km.”

BMW’s E-Roadster “proof of concept” is the ugliest bike we’ve ridden in years, but it’s also the quickest.

We get it – electric bikes can be really, really fast. Remember, they don’t have gears, just one motor that winds up the speed all the way to the top. And because of that, they have maximum torque right off the get-go. You don’t need any skill with a clutch – just turn the throttle and every single foot-pound of the E-Roadster’s 1,100 lbs.-ft. is there for you, from standstill to whenever you lose courage (or your licence) and roll it back down.

As a final piece of perspective, the S1000R is at least 85 kg lighter than the porky E-Roadster, but its gas engine creates 84 lbs.-ft. of torque. No wonder the electric bike blew it into the weeds. BMW’s biggest challenge should be to work on the launch control and traction control to make the machine rideable, since acceleration seems no longer an issue.

That’s the thing: motorcycles aren’t just about speed and power, but about rideability. The average person who jumps onto Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP Yamaha, or Eli Tomac’s Motocross Kawasaki, will have a miserable experience, thanks to twitchy engines built solely to be first across the line. BMW’s electric bike may be fast, but can it also be fun?

Costa treats the Harley Livewire like a real motorcycle, because it is.

Fortunately, it’s cars that are leading the way for the research and development of batteries and motors. Cars are made for idiot drivers who just want to get from A to B. Cars are mainstream, and cars are where the money is. Zero’s been building production bikes for a while now, but that’s its sole business and it’s tough to make a profit while getting the product right. Harley-Davidson has just introduced the very capable, and very costly, Livewire, but at least it has a couple of hundred thousand V-twins in production each year to help pay the considerable bills.

Meanwhile, the average motorcyclist pours scorn on electric motorcycles, myself included. They don’t sound right. Their range is too short. They’re far too expensive. All true – as Costa commented to a reader at the end of his E-Roadster story, “It’s good that manufacturers are developing electric bikes but it will be a long while before they become mainstream.”

But the cars are getting there, and they’re not going away. The world’s automakers have teamed up to invest billions in research, development and charging infrastructure, because governments have put them on notice that they’ll only tolerate the emissions from internal-combustion engines for another couple of decades or so. And some of those car companies make motorcycles (Honda and BMW), while others own or are in partnership with motorcycle makers (Volkswagen owns Ducati, for example, while Toyota and Yamaha work together on many projects).

So far, electric motorcycles have slipped under the radar. BMW and Honda are chipping away at them, but they’re not rushing because they don’t really need to – better to be a few years later to a smaller market and get it right straight out of the gate. Harley-Davidson pushed the envelope this year in its determination to be first to mass production, and next year, Ewan and Charley’s TV show will put the Livewire into the world’s spotlight by taking the Long Way Up.

Ewan McGregor prepares to start his long journey north in Ushuaia, Argentina, on a Harley-Davidson Livewire.

I once asked Peter Schwarzenbauer, the then-head of BMW Motorrad and now BMW’s head of “Transformation Electro Mobility,” what it will take to make electric vehicles mainstream. It will happen when your neighbour buys one, he said. You’ll see it in the driveway or on the road alongside your own, and you’ll realize it’s been accepted. You’ll also realize that if you replace your gas-powered car with another, then you may not be able to sell it easily in five or eight years’ time.

Motorcycles will hold out longer because they’re more emotional vehicles, but don’t expect London or Paris to keep giving free access into the city cores to their polluting gas engines. When that happens, maybe five years from now, the big manufacturers will step up to the gate with the electric bikes that have been a decade or more in development. And when they do leave the line, they’ll leave you light-headed.


  1. There is no time in the immediately foreseeable future where battery powered bikes will have a range at real road speeds anything like a decent ICE. And unless they get much more sophisticated batteries (with liquid cooling and active temperature management), and chargers get a lot better, you’re still looking at an hour minimum for a recharge.

    Yes, they’re feasible (if expensive) now for a limited range of use cases, but not for how me, or most riders I know, actually use our bikes. Especially since my (and their) riding is often done away from the cities where you’d be likely to find chargers. Which still take too long. My idea of an afternoon ride on Sunday doesn’t involve riding for an hour and a half and then stopping for an hour (or two) to recharge before continuing. Sure, I could plan a ride around it, but why would I want to ride a bike that makes me conform to its limitations?

  2. Cobalt mining, essential for batteries are very dangerous and only done in Africa. The mines will have health and safety all over them in western countries. Lithium is mostly soured from oil scum. A cheaper source. So how do we save the planet if the energy to produce it pollute more than a normal vehicle do in 5 years plus energy generation that’s unsustainable now. But toys will be toys.

    • You can’t compare Cobalt or Lithium to what the Petroleum industry has done to the planet. Things have to be addressed, but we’re partially in this “existential threat to human kind” as even the mainstream media is calling it due to the petroleum industry. Transportation and electricity production produces a huge amount of co2,

      • So, we do the same as in the past. This is the future and it does not matter how much we pollute doing this. We’re saving the planet for now and will repent 50 years from now. That’s how history repeats itself.

        • Yeah well, what we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. I admit it is difficult to stay positive.

          Extraction industries are messy, but Cobalt or Lithium is still less messy than the petroleum industry.
          The batteries are recyclable if countries are willing to do it. Petroleum is burnt emitting co2, heating the planet, the end. Sweden puts just 1% of house hold waste in landfills. Asking North Americans to behave like responsible adults is easier said than done. China and the U.S. industry are huge emitters of co2, but personnel output of co2 is largest in the U.S. and Canada and neither countries citizens care to the same degree as the Scandinavian countries. It’s up to us to ask more from are governments and make individual sacrifices which include higher taxes. Like I said, easier said than done. North Americans feel it’s their birth right to live large. I’ll save you a rant about Boomers.


          • Tell it to the miners dying of the poisoning and symptom’s similar to asbestos. The recycling process will cause yet more problems. Yes, you are right. Close your eyes and only accept what popular fiction gives you.
            I’ve been to DRC and it ugly, but they are saving your future with their life’s.

    • Well me and Kevin must think the same because a year ago I got out my calculator and figured out the electricity needed by multiplying the number of vehicles in the US by how many amps a Tesla draws and converting that into megawatts and dividing by the largest generating station to get 280 new nuclear plants needed. Not far off his results. I told my friends and they thought I was crazy.

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