Hell For Leather has extensively covered electric motorcycles from an enthusiast's perspective, but we haven't really looked at their impact on the mainstream motorcycle industry. Luckily, bike designer Michael Uhlarik is here to break down the reasons why electrics are carving out a market niche all their own and what that could mean for companies that make a living off internal combustion. Could battery power really be the biggest thing to happen on two wheels since Japan invaded western markets? -- Ed. >

On Sunday, May 16, 2010 the first national electric motorcycle racing series in history kicked off at the Infineon circuit near San Francisco.  The TTxGP series, based in England, hopes to run three parallel series this year, 16 events, in five countries culminating in a finals round in Albacete, Spain, to crown the first electric motorcycle world champion.  On June 10 a small American firm won the second annual electric class of the famed Isle of Man TT race.   These high profile events and many new electric bike product debuts over the past 12 months have highlighted the coming of a new breed of motorcycle.  Detractors say the technology is unrealistic, while proponents hail them as a harbinger of a new, clean, exciting revolution.  Let's examine the joys and pain of the new electric motorcycle industry.

Electric motorcycles are not new, but full electric products offered by the worlds major manufacturers are.  After decades of lingering in the background, the electric power train is being taken seriously, at the forefront of the industry.  

As with most new vehicle paradigm technologies, the electric motorcycle has to plow through the long, dark shadows of doubt, before being accepted by the mainstream marketplace.  These doubts are many, and not trivial, ranging from questions concerning the concept's commercial viability, overcoming inferior performance, or its ability convince common motorcyclists that it can meet the long established norms regarding the daily practical use of the motorcycle.  This initial trial period, again like most new technologies, consists of the usual industrial drama of wild claims, colossal disappointments, false starts, cruel new realities, ending finally with the euphoria of enlightening potential and decisive conviction.   

This first quarter of 2010 marks the turning of this corner, the ending of the first difficult chapter in the story of the modern electric motorcycle, and the beginning of a new parallel motorcycle industry.  This new breed almost certainly has its roots firmly entwined with that of the gasoline motorized motorcycle, but its future may lie closer akin to the world of consumer electronics.  

What Just Happened?

Since the onset of the economic recession and its disastrous effect on the motorcycle industry, the public has been presented with a surprising number of start-up OEM's claiming to have found the Next Big Thing.  A decade of performance oriented excess, where ultimate horsepower and exclusivity married to drive even commuter-class scooters and entry-level machines into ever higher price and market categories, has left a market saturated with motorcycles that are fundamentally out of touch with the deep seeded needs and realities of common motorcyclist.  This upmarket creep was particularly evident in western markets, the industry's most lucrative profit center.  When the downturn came, sales revenues quickly vanished.  Leading Japanese OEMs resorted to quick fix solutions, such as by filling the lower end of the product register with cheap and cheerful, lower displacement and lower cost models, often imported from far East markets like Thailand, India and Indonesia.  For the Legacy brands (Europeans plus Harley-Davidson), the response was to concentrate on core products, streamline production and emphasize brand values in a hope to renew interest.

As a consumer group, European and North American motorcyclists demand high perceived value, not just dollar value, from most products.  Prestige can fill any numerical gap in a given machine, ranging from added exclusivity, to glamourous fit and finish, to brand equity.  Often, technology is a principle pillar of this perception, such as Ducati's famous steel trellis frame architecture, Yamaha's Deltabox, or BMW's Telelever front suspension.  Such high profile mechanisms stir the consumer to "buy in" to the brand's presentation as an industry leader, and by believing in it, the owner assumes a share of credit in its' success.  

Shrewd entrepreneurs and analysts saw the opening of a new segment in western markets.  Rather than taking on the vast sea of cheap Asian-imported conventional motorcycles whose sole advantage is price, or the Japanese who can leverage brand, quality and volume, the timing was right to enter the marketplace with electric drive.  This new propulsion system, if presented as a high added-value package, could create a new class of users by promising novelty, innovation and efficiency to rival traditional products.

Alignment of the Planets

Electric propulsion in motorcycles is an old thing.  In China, it has been a stated government goal to be a global leader in this industry since 1995, according to the China Chamber of Commerce for Motorcycle (CCCM).  In that country alone, over 21 million electric motorcycles (defined as two-wheelers, driven by electricity only, with and without pedals) were produced in 2009.  That figure is set to almost double within the next five years, according to Pike Research, a consultancy.  These vehicles are by and large mostly moped types, with a top speed in the 25-45 km/h range and with limited autonomy between charges.  But they are a huge success because they are cheap to produce ($350-450 on average), easy to ride, economical to run and emission free.  In highly congested Asian super-cities, where smog and noise are beyond acceptable levels, these vehicles offer an easy solution.  

Beyond the far east, those same qualities are driving interest and sales even further.  India, Indonesia, Thailand and parts of Europe are becoming hot spots for electric motorcycle sales, as municipal and national governments offer incentives to lure new consumers to electric bikes, or are adding infrastructure (charging stations, exclusive parking areas reserved for electric vehicles, etc,) and promoting companies to establish factories or battery cooperatives in their regions.  The US has done similarly, in particular the State of California, subsidizing up to 25% of the total cost to consumers.

On the face of all this, the green movement of environmental responsibility is a strong emotional motivator, one that is exploited heavily by politicians and corporations.  Zero emissions from the vehicle itself, the lack of intrusive noises while in operation, eliminating tune-ups and engine maintenance, and not having to use petroleum products at the user level are hugely attractive qualities to the marketplace.  Green technology is prolific, the new must-have quality in all products and services.  Vehicles in particular, are under scrutiny for the pollution and hazards they cause, making the recent boom in electric vehicles (EVs) the most hyped about subject in transportation.

Below the surface, an electric motorcycle OEM can greatly reduce investment and manufacturing costs, by divesting itself from the hugely expensive power plant business.  Internal combustion engines (ICE) have hundreds of precision, moving machine parts, compared to just one on an electric motor.  Similarly, electric drive eliminates the gearbox transmission or CVT, another complex and expensive mechanical component.  Smaller OEMs often purchase ICE's from a limited number of specialty companies like Piaggio, Minarelli and Rotax, because developing competitive power trains is beyond their resources.  This makes rapid changes in products difficult, as the OEM is forced to either buy generic customer engines, or tie themselves up for indeterminate years to justify an exclusive engine program.  By contrast, electric motor manufacturers numb er in the hundreds, making finding efficient partnerships easier.  Similarly, the various electrical and digital parts needed, such as motor controllers and switches, are part of the colossal commercial electronics industry, once again allowing economies of scale to work in favor, rather than against, the relatively small volumes associated with motorcycle production.

The most critical component, and the single biggest barrier to electrification, is the battery.  Every electric vehicle until recently has been hampered by the gross size, weight, and lack of energy density of its batteries.  From the first electric cars that dominated the 1890-1910 period, to world war 2 submarines, to the failed GM EV-1 electric car of 1995, limited energy storage has been the achilles heel that sent all EV's to an early grave.  Vectrix, a pioneer in modern, mass-production on-highway EV scooters, very nearly proved that the electric motorcycle was viable.  Using the same battery chemistry as the GM EV-1, it had good range and performance, but was hampered by high price.  Conversely, Chinese lead-acid battery (SLA) powered scooters are cheap and offer decent range, but are painfully slow.  In the EV world, the problem has been that between performance, range, and price, you could have any two qualities, but not all three.

This situation is changing.  The advent of Lithium-based battery chemistry (such as  lithium polymer or lithium iron phosphate referred to as LiFePo), developed for rechargeable consumer electronic devices such as laptops, cell phones and power tools, has drastically reduced weight, size and most critically, the price of battery storage.  According to Boston Consulting Group research, the price (measured by cost per unit of storage) for one kilowatt/hour is set to drop from the current average of over $1000 in 2009, to under $800 by next year.  Several automotive concerns such as the American Battery Consortium (ABC), Panasonic-Nissan and others, have set a goal of reducing this cost to under $400 by 2015.  With their enormous volume, and billions in R&D resources, the automotive sector's move for superior battery products is advancing the technology in a way the motorcycle industry never could.

These are the factors that have aligned creating the right conditions to incubate the modern electric motorcycle: the market opportunity of green-eager consumers; their willingness of some to spend more for a less performance-focused machine; and finally the more affordable, superior battery systems trickling down from automotive applications.

Who's On First

The coming of the electric motorcycle
At the 2007 EICMA motorcycle show in Milan, the electric banner was carried almost exclusively by Vectrix, and a handful of far east scooters.  A Swiss company, Quantya, had produced limited numbers of an electric motocross bike based on an Asia imported 125cc chassis, but no major manufacturer was taking the idea of alternative propulsion seriously.  Barely two years later, Honda and Yamaha have revealed plans for large volume production of refined, EV motorcycles, starting as soon as 2011, Suzuki claims to have hydrogen fuel cell drives in the works, and KTM has launched a pair of near-production concepts of an electric enduro.  

But that is all still speculative.  The excitement lies with the crop of new OEMs that are currently selling volume production electric motorcycles to customers.  Zero Motorcycles of California has been building an off-roader since 2008, and this year has four models to choose from, including two road legal versions.  According to Zero, they will ship 2000 bikes this year, a big increase over last year.  Brammo, another American company, has been selling it's Enertia for about a year, reportedly having made "about 700 units" according to one report.  From Europe, Vectrix (the company had its base in the US, but manufactured the bikes in Poland) has faded into bankruptcy but Quantya sales are growing.  Like Zero they have launched a road legal model as well.

False Starts

Today these are the only genuine, modern electric motorcycle OEMs, companies that are solvent and regularly mass-producing alternatives to the generic Chinese and Asian scooters in any significant volume.  Dozens of companies are announced each month, each proclaiming to be a manufacturing company, but most are either rebranding other OEM products, typically in the low end spectrum (such as Zap), or are little more than cottage industry businesses, making small runs of bikes usually based heavily on existing motorcycles (such as Native Motors, a small volume brand based in California selling EV conversion of an Asian 150cc standard).  

Still more are all hype and public relation exercises, aiming to capitalize on the immediacy of the EV movement, and inflate their company value.  Examples such as Mission Motors and Lightning Motors have made bold performance and range claims, often using the phrase "production motorcycle" in communications, but a finished production model has yet to be seen or publicly sold.  Beyond a handful of prototypes or individual race machines, companies such as these have little industrial credibility unless they can produce what they have promised.  The general public is currently open minded and optimistic about the prospects of electric propulsion in the next generation of motorcycles, but each loud public failure or false start begins to hurt the overall positive momentum in the marketplace.  

And the market has many difficult questions and demands for this nascent industry as it is.  Current motorcycle technology is refined to such a level that consumer satisfaction is a given, at least from a function point of view.  The constraints of EVs introduces two different but equally important challenges : convincing the user of the reliability and safety of electric propulsion; and overcoming the faults inherent in battery electric vehicles (BEV), namely range anxiety and cost.

Presently, a Zero X motocrosser costs 30% more than a conventional 250cc gas powered equivalent, its nearest performance competitor.  However, it can only be ridden 45 minutes before requiring recharging, a process that can take up to 3 hours.  The gas bike runs for about the same time, but can be refueled in minutes.  Also, the high cost of the batteries means the EV suffers from cost cutting in other areas, using inferior cycle parts (brakes, suspension, wheels), and unpainted vacuum molded body panels to keep the price down.  A typical motocross consumer has to weigh these faults against the advantages and be willing to change the way they ride and live with the bike in order to be satisfied.

Getting Emotional

Sales trends reveal that Motorcyclists are by and large conservative consumers, knowing what they like, falling into pre-defined categories of motorcycle preferences, and being almost universally resistant to big changes.  Electric motorcycles present a fundamental shift in the motorcycle experience, from purchasing and ownership, to daily use and maintenance.  Brammo sells its bikes through electronics retail giant Best Buy, while Zero sells directly to the public via its website.  Electric bikes have no gears to shift, no oil to change, and need almost no tuning or mechanical work.  On the surface, these are wonderful improvements for the user, but motorcyclists are not always easily understood.

The relationship and bonds between western consumers and their motorcycles are complex and delve into the realms of social science and philosophy, not confined by the strict needs of a person versus the abilities of a product.  Tuning and maintaining a motorcycle is often considered a vital part of the motorcycle experience, as discussed in the famous book Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  In it, the author draws parallels between keeping an imperfect vehicle roadworthy to the efforts people make to attain goals in life.   Bikers are proud of their technical knowledge, skill with tools and ability to understand and improve the performance of their vehicles.  With largely maintenance free motorcycles, electric propulsion takes away part of most intimate interaction users have with their vehicles, and takes motorcycles one step closer to being mere appliances.  

Design too, must be rethought.  Electric motorcycles are visually and architecturally dominated by their batteries.  They comprise the single largest volume, and are normally square in shape once individual cells are linked together.  Unlike conventional motorcycles, whose cylinders, radiators, fins, ducts and bolts have been pressed into our collective conscious as representational of power and sophistication, this clean "box" appears underwhelming.  A recent magazine criticized the Zero for its'  "beer cooler" styling.  KTM's recent Freeride electric concept was disappointingly similar to its gasoline powered cousins, with the "box" concealed behind otherwise conventional mechanical architecture.  Clearly, a new aesthetic must emerge, one that emphasizes electric power in a manner pleasing to motorcyclists, otherwise the EVs will blend into the mainstream motorcycle, where they will be judged directly, each fault highlighted in glaring comparison.   


The road ahead for the EV motorcycle is long and bright, but most of the serious development is still to be done.  The current start-ups leading the way are to be commended for their bravery, innovation, and for proving the potential of the electric concept.  If the automotive world is any template, some of the start-ups will survive and grow, others will be absorbed by larger conventional OEMs.  Most will disappear, the victims of bad planning, poor products and other typical market forces.  However, it will take the majors, the Japanese Big Four, some of the Legacies and the Chinese to guide the EV into the realm of general acceptance by the west.  Only when enough R&D resources are spent, and the technology and themes matured enough, will the average western consumer be tempted away from a gas powered motorcycle or scooter, to a future of power cords, recharging stations, and planning your day around charge times.  

Electrification offers almost unlimited possibilities for change, from the design of the vehicle itself to the business of making them.  It is the most exciting new development in this industry in decades, potentially the most paradigm-shattering thing to happen since the arrival of the first four-stroke, large displacement Japanese machines in the 1970's.  No other technology has promised to alter the way bikes are made, sold or used since the scooter CVT, and even that did not radically change the layout of the machine itself.

Electrification could dramatically democratize motorcycling, increasing the sales exponentially by making owning and riding one as easy as using a cell phone, thus attracting a new public audience.   It could lead to a decentralized manufacturing scenario, where dozens or even hundreds of power train OEMs offer plug and play components directly to consumers, who buy rolling chassis from traditional brands.
But there is the danger that all this rationalization could also sanitize the machine and the experience, diluting it into another disposable mass-market urban product.  The appeal of riding a motorcycle has always been partly irrational, the need to prove with skill the ability to overcome the inherently unsafe and risk filled riding environment.  This desire forms the core of any motorcyclist in the west, and though largely unspoken, forms the basis of the buying decision.  The electric OEM that understands this first, shall more than likely reap the benefits.

-- Michael Uhlarik

Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle design professional.  He has worked for Yamaha, Piaggio, Aprilia, Derbi, and a number of Asian and smaller European OEMs delivering industrial design, product planning and brand development services for over a decade. He counts the Yamaha MT-03 and 2003 Yamaha M1 as his favorite work yet-realized. Michael launched Amarok Consultants this year to respond to the demand for dedicated motorcycle industry consulting in North America, and the emerging EV market space.

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