Electric Motorcycles in the Cruiser Market | Tech Matters

Look out, here they come

Is there an electric motorcycle in your future? Quite possibly. It's estimated that by 2016, there will be 466 million electric motorcycles on the road, and while the vast majority of them are slated for the Chinese market, there's no doubt that some proportion will end up here, especially since American manufacturers like Brammo, Zero and MotoCzysz are at the forefront of the technology.

E-Bikes are nothing new. One of the earliest, the Humber Tandem, was built in 1898, and while I'm not quite old enough to recall that particular model, I did ride a prototype Corbin Electric motorcycle in the summer of 1974. While the machine certainly had a few bugs, the concept-even at the time-struck me as being an extremely viable one.

Electric motorcycles (and by that I mean a motorcycle powered solely by a battery pack, as opposed to a hybrid) have a lot going for them. Electric motors are relatively cheap to run, require practically no maintenance, and emit no tail pipe emissions-and yes, that includes noise as well as hydrocarbons. All of which makes them an attractive alternative to fossil-fueled bikes, and even more so when the main considerations are ease of operation and a small environmental footprint. Furthermore, they produce maximum torque at all times, which obviates the need for pesky torque multiplication and transfer devices like clutches and transmissions. In fact, the MotoCzysz E1pc (which, granted, is the motorcycling equivalent of the Ferrari F-430) produces 250 lb-ft of torque. That's more than double what a Ducati 1198 pumps out.

To their detriment, the current crop of electric motorcycles are relatively expensive when compared to gasoline-powered equivalents. In broad strokes, the average price hovers around the $10,000 range, and the performance is equal to about what you'd get out of your average 150 to 250cc utility bike.

Another problem is the electric motorcycle's range, or lack thereof. On average, electrics manage about 40 miles between recharges, a problem compounded by the fact that the bikes can take anywhere from 2.5 to 8 hours to recharge. That's the deal breaker for me, but I'd expect it's not when the bike is used strictly as a commuter.

Lastly, I'd point out that some testers have complained that certain electric motorcycles exhibit a "notchy," difficult-to-modulate throttle. Since this seems to be peculiar to individual models, I'll assume it's a detail problem.

At this stage, e-bikes seem have fallen into two broad categories. First and foremost are the commuter utility bikes. According to the DOT, the average American drives less than forty miles per day, so an e-bike's lack of range isn't that big a consideration, and since they require no special skills to operate, anyone that's reasonably coordinated can learn to ride one. All the bikes can be recharged via a standard 110AC outlet so costs are minimal. To underscore that, I understand some Wal-Marts have already installed free parking lot recharging stations to encourage the use of electric vehicles. Presumably, the cost of the recharge-typically a few pennies-is outweighed by what drivers would spend in the store.

The secondary market would be for sporting bikes, and this includes both on and off-road versions. Off-road electrics are appealing on several levels, but mostly for their seamless torque delivery. The Zero X off-road bike produces 50 lbs-ft of torque and weighs just 172 pounds, which compares very favorably with the Honda CRF450, whose numbers are 37.5 lbs-ft of torque and 234.8 pounds. It goes without saying that the electric requires far less maintenance and since there's no transmission or complicated starting ritual, the bikes are much easier for novice riders to learn to use.

Riding time is limited to two hours or forty miles, which is problematic for some types of off-road use, but that will certainly improve. Since many land-closure questions revolve around environmental issues, an electric motorcycle, with its miniscule carbon footprint and nearly silent operation, would seem to be a natural solution for both trail riders and moto-crossers.

Electric sportbikes also look promising. MotoCzysz is a little less mainstream, but others, including the Brammo Empulse series, which is capable of over 100 mph and 60 - 100 miles per charge, and the Zero S, appear to be viable alternatives.

How electric motorcycles will affect the cruiser market is an open question. Excluding the technical aspects, which are solvable given enough time, an electric bike just wouldn't have the right look, feel or sound. While those intangibles may not matter as much to off-road and sportbike riders, they matter a great deal to cruiser riders who in the main are traditionalists. Whether electric motorcycles can "shock" them into a new way of thinking remains to be seen.