Electric motorcycles: A look at the near future

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We're riding the Livewire soon, and we're psyched. It's going to change the face of Harley-Davidson in a massive way.

Last summer and fall, there was considerable ballyhoo about Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman completing an Argentina-to-LA trip on Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycles. 

This, insiders say, is proof that a battery bike is a legitimate transportation choice.

More recently, in early February, Zero Motorcycles got tired of waiting for the AMA to sanction an all-electric motorcycle race, and ran its own event at The One Moto Show, calling it a national-level event. Is this proof, like Charley and Ewan’s great adventure, that electric motorcycles are on the verge of replacing gasoline-powered bikes?

The answer is, sort of. These two events show the broad divergence in the electric motorcycle industry, but they also show why there’s no immediate replacement for the gasoline-powered motorcycle for many buyers.

The Challenge

First up, let’s look at the Long Way Up trip aboard the Harley-Davidson LiveWire. This is perhaps the best-known electric motorcycle. It’s heavy and expensive, and it doesn’t go far before you need to recharge. It’s got decent in-city range, roughly 250 km, but on the highway, the battery is rated to last 113 km. 

Put it this way: You can’t ride the $37,250 LiveWire between Ottawa and Montreal on the highway without stopping to juice up the battery. 

That worked out fine for Charley and Ewan, as they charged their batteries from people’s houses along the way, but since you and I aren’t movie stars, nor do we have an electric Rivian truck following us to recharge our batteries in a pinch, the LiveWire experience might not work out so well for us.

Also, it weighs 250 kg, and the battery takes overnight to charge, unless you’ve got an expensive Level 3 EV charger. That can bring it to an 80 per cent charge in 40 minutes, and fully charge it in an hour.

The made-in-America Zero SR has pretty decent range, and would be usable by most people, as long as they don’t plan on straying any more than an hour or so from home (or if they didn’t mind waiting around for the bike to recharge).

The LiveWire is a poor example, because it’s got a big price tag and performance that lags behind other battery bike manufacturers. Here in Canada, the biggest competition would be Zero. According to its website, the fully-accessorized Zero SR has 180 km of highway range at 113 km/h, depending somewhat on variables. That’s with the $3,695 accessory battery (Zero calls it the Power Tank) installed.

Once you’ve run the battery down, you can recharge it in 3.3 hours (2.8 hours to 95 per cent charge). Of course, that’s if you’ve got four accessory chargers plugged in (a quick charger from Zero costs $900). Otherwise, if you’ve only got the bike’s main charger plugged in, you’re looking at a 12.1 hour recharge time, or 11.6 hours to 95 per cent charge.

Adding it up, you’ve got a $25,190 package for a 208-kg motorcycle that still doesn’t have the range of a Honda CBR250R, and which requires three hours to recharge if you’ve got all your accessory chargers with you, and if you can find a place to plug them all in at the same time. This is not a motorcycle for travelling any distance, as was proven last year, and this is the best the electric motorcycle industry has to offer Canadians right now.

That sounds really bad, but it isn’t as grim as it appears at first. There are lots of good things about electric motorcycles. 

BMW’s all-electric C Evolution scooter is a good example of a battery bike that has never made it to North America. The electric motorcycle scene is much busier in Europe, where reduced range isn’t as big a deal.

The good things

For starters, bikes like the Harley-Davidson LiveWire and the Zero SR make consumers feel good about their choices. Hang around electric motorcycle forums and Facebook groups long enough, and you’ll see all sorts of barbs thrown at gasoline-powered motorcycles for their supposedly older designs, and their emissions pollution. Some people worry that gasoline-powered vehicles are going to end the world, and an electric motorcycle enables them to continue riding with a clear conscience.

It’s certainly silly to pretend electric vehicles are without their own pollution: the materials to build them come at a cost to the environment, as does the electricity required to power them. However, there’s no denying they’re easier on the atmosphere than a gasoline-powered motorcycle, which is especially attractive to urban buyers. No smog is a good thing.

They also have low running costs, at least for now. Sooner or later, government will start taxing EVs as heavily as it taxes gasoline-powered vehicles. The groundwork is already starting, with a program in Nevada that records odometer readings at the time of vehicle registration renewal. No doubt this is the way of the future: you’ll pay an annual road tax for your EV that’s dependent on how many kilometres you travel.

Sadly, many of the pioneering electric motorcycle companies like Mission have gone bust, and the existing manufacturers haven’t been working too hard to make up the difference. Or at least, that’s what it looks like.

But at this point, electric motorcycles are cheap to run. They also don’t have the same maintenance costs as a gas bike, theoretically (although finding a mechanic to fix something when it goes wrong may be tricky).

But none of that matters to the consumer who just wants an all-round motorcycle at a reasonable price, something that can be used for around-town riding and then longer trips on the weekend — a machine along the lines of the Honda CB500, or a Yamaha FZ-07. The problem is that until now, battery range has been a difficult problem.

Michael Uhlarik (former CMG scribe and motorcycle designer, including the SURU e-bike) says, “It’s not so much the battery that’s the problem, it’s the volume of a motorcycle.”

In other words, engineers are fully capable of building a battery that can take an electric motorcycle a distance equivalent to a gas-powered bike, but it would be impractically large. Uhlarik points to Italian-built Energica as an example. Energica has a superbike with a 21-kWh battery, which is lots of range, but it weighs a whopping 600 lb, he says.

Several companies make interest electric dirt bikes, but they’re all intended for limited-range usage for now. The KTM Freeride is a good example (and also not available in Canada at this point).

However, Uhlarik says designers are slowly but steadily improving electric motorcycle designs. “The batteries are getting denser, which is to say you can fit more in the same space, but it’s about 10 per cent a year,” he says. Uhlarik has high hopes for solid-state battery technology, but, “at that rate, it’ll be about 2030 before you can go do KLR-type riding with an electric bike.”

So there’ll be pricey superbikes; halo products for the people who are currently buying Harley-Davidson CVOs and Ducati superbikes and BMW GSs. And there’ll be battery-powered e-bikes and scooters, that sort of thing. But, says Uhlarik, “regular dudes that have one bike that they enjoy and depend on, it’s going to be 10 years.”

So what’s next?

Major urban centres have made clear their intentions to ban internal combustion engines. It started with bigger cities in Europe and Asia, but now, even Los Angeles is working to replace conventional vehicles with EVs. In coming years, it won’t matter what Canadian consumers want, even if our cities are gung-ho on gasoline (unlikely). If the motorcycle market in the rest of the world demands electric bikes, that’s what we’re going to get, because that’s what’s going to be available.

Goofy bikes like this electric scooter from Super73 are the future for the average consumer, at least for now.

Partly as a result of the stratification mentioned earlier (a class of high-spec superbikes and low-spec commuters), Uhlarik figures, generally speaking, North America is moving into another generation of “lifestyle motorcycling” (our words, not his, exactly). In other words, just like we saw the chopper craze of the early ’00s, or the minibike craze of the ’70s, we’ll see a new fad based around easy-to-ride electric bikes that are perceived as both fun and environmentally friendly.

It’s a guess but an educated one, and we’re already seeing the roots of that. Bikes like the Honda Grom and Kawasaki Z125 have laid a foundation for that movement. Electric motorcycle manufacturers are starting to build similar machines: powered two-wheelers that are designed for hooning about in parking lots or on cottage roads or in back yards, not for middle-class Monday-Friday rides to work and then Saturday-Sunday high-speed riding.

Look at Harley-Davidson’s patents for its new electric scooter (which looks a lot like the Super73 S1). Or the Zero FX. Or the Kalk OR. Or the CSC City Slicker. Or even the new Husqvarna EE 5. These motorcycles come at it from different angles, but they’re all low-range motorcycles designed for carefree or goofy fun, not a weekend of ripping up the Cabot Trail at max speed.

And you know what? That might not be a bad thing. If history’s taught us anything from the first Attack of the Monkey Bikes in the ’70s, once you get a generation hooked on fun two-wheelers, anything can happen.

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