Five months ago, I wrote an April Fool column that declared Canada will mandate all new motorcycles to be electric by 2030. It was pretty funny if I say so myself and it fooled some people for a while. It even prompted a comment on my Facebook page from the Minister of the Environment, Jonathan Wilkinson, who I knew 30 years ago and quoted in the column.
“Nice story Mark,” he said. “I have no idea how you came up with that. I liked the picture. That feels like a long time ago…”
It was a good chuckle because, after all, while our federal government really has mandated all new cars sold in Canada to be electric by 2035, similar to many other national governments, motorcycles are a completely different prospect.
For a car, the concerns for electric power usually come down to charging speed and range, and both are increasing exponentially thanks to billions of dollars of research. Motorcycle makers are able to piggyback onto that research and electric bikes can now charge more rapidly than before: for example, the Harley-Davidson LiveWire (now its own brand), uses a Level 3 fast charger to fully recharge its battery in no more than an hour. That’s impressive, and it will only become faster.
The challenge for motorcycles is the range. Cars can just stuff more batteries under the floor for extra distance, and if you’re happy to pay the premium for those costly batteries, then a Tesla will carry you at least 500 kilometres before needing a charge. As batteries become more compact and more densely powered, more power can be installed in the vehicle and the range will increase further, or the amount of weight it can carry will grow.
But it’s not possible to stuff more batteries into an electric motorcycle. They’re already as fully packed as they can manage, not to mention heavy, and the only way to increase distance is to either make their batteries more dense or just limit their performance. Put the LiveWire on the open highway, for example, at highway speed, and it will struggle to cover much more than 100 kilometres before needing an hour-long charge. Ride it in stop-and-go city traffic and you might double that distance, at best.
So it’s pretty funny to suggest our government will mandate nothing but electric bikes in nine years’ time, right? It’s so far away from realistic that it’s just unbelievable. And this isn’t even getting into the loss of the potato-potato rumble, or the high-revving sound, or the Saturday morning once-over.
But how about 14 years’ time?
Here in Canada, we’ve started to follow the laudable example of many European governments for a timeline of emissions controls. And in Britain, the Department for Transport is proposing that all new motorcycles must be electric by 2035.
The U.K. government’s plan – Decarbonising Transport, a better greener Britain – is not yet law, but it’s absolutely serious. It recognizes that, “While cars and vans outnumber motorcycles on U.K. roads, motorcycles are an important and sizeable vehicle population, with 1.4 million licensed in 2020, and we do not want to see them remaining fossil fuelled as the rest of the vehicle fleet cleans up.”
The plan goes on to commit to “consult this year on a phase-out date of 2035, or earlier if a faster transition appears feasible, for the sale of new non-zero-emission powered two and three wheelers.”
That’s a little fudgey, allowing for a later date but also making it clear that an even earlier date is preferable. And it’s not just motorcycles and scooters: the ambitious plan wants to get rid of all petrol- and diesel-powered transport by 2040, including heavy trucks, before moving on to ships and aircraft by 2050.
This is not just a “make it so” – the U.K. government is supplying all kinds of investment and stimulus to speed up research and adoption of zero-emissions technology, including a billion-dollar grant for plug-in cars, vans, taxis and motorcycles.
Needless to say, the National Motorcyclists Council in the U.K. is concerned. “This landmark announcement marks a fundamental change to the nature of motorcycling as we know it and is not unexpected given the recent announcement for zero emission car production,” said Craig Carey-Clinch, the NMC’s executive director. “The implications for motorcycling are profound and the NMC will be playing a full part in the forthcoming consultation on the proposed phase-out date for new petrol-powered motorcycle production.”
I can picture the man biting his lip as he said this, and wiping sweat from his brow. He continued: “Although zero-emission motorcycles are increasing their market share in the lower powered commuter end of the market and there are opportunities for the electrification of certain types of motorcycling activity right now, there is clearly some way to go before zero-emission products will be available at a cost, specification and battery range that can encompass the needs of riders across the entire motorcycle range and for the diversity of reasons that people ride. Measures to encourage rider training and education to raise awareness of the new technologies will also be required.
“We can appreciate why the Government will wish to lay a target date as this will create focus. But this ambition may need flexibility if market and economic ‘shocks’ in the motorcycle sector are to be avoided in the event that both technology and market acceptability does not meet rider expectations by 2035. Government will need to be sensitive to this and also to the views of those who ride today – not just focus on tomorrow.”
This is not an April Fool – this is happening, and it will probably happen in Canada sooner than we think.
“That feels like a long time ago…” wrote Wilkinson to me on Facebook. He was referring to 1991, but if he wrote it now, he could just as easily be referring to last April.