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Clean Transport

Published on August 7th, 2015 | by Michael Barnard


Electric Motorcycles Are As Disruptive As Tesla’s Cars

August 7th, 2015 by  

What is the fastest production motorcycle in the world? What bike beat every other motorcycle and most cars up Pike’s Peak in 2013? What motorcycle had massive brake and shock upgrades while getting almost $2,000 cheaper in the past two years? What motorcycle is cheapest to own and run over several years?

The answers are electric motorcycles from Lightning and Zero. The rate of change in electric motorcycles is truly phenomenal, and mostly outshadowed by Tesla’s great job of getting amazing press by delivering amazing electric cars.

Let’s start with Zero.main-qimg-a06587ede37dff3ba80f1d360f49461b

The graphic on the right shows the 2011 to 2014 evolution of the Zero motorcycle: quadrupling of range, 50% increase in top speed, 150% more horsepower, and 150% increase in torque.

What it doesn’t show is the price or a couple of other key specs. In 2014, Zero also massively improved the brakes and shocks on the bike while dropping the price by $400. In 2015, the company left the specs of the bikes alone, but dropped the price tag by $1,350. How were they able to do that? Rapidly declining battery costs, mostly.

What is the Zero SR most comparable to? Well, in terms of torque, it’s up there with 1000 cc gas bikes, while in terms of horsepower, it’s equivalent to 600 cc bikes. That means it’s very quick off the line, with the SR rated at 3.3 seconds to 60 mph. The top speed isn’t as insane as bigger bikes, topping out around 100 mph — also known as the speed at which fines start being enough to fund municipal budgets and having your bike taken away from you is a serious possibility.

My last bike was a BMW F800ST, a beautifully mannered and very quick sport tourer from Bavaria. It took 3.5 seconds to get to 60 mph. I only took it above 100 mph a couple of times, and not by very much. Mostly, I enjoyed the quickness of it and cornering on it, rather than exotic speed.

I test drove an older Zero S a couple of weeks ago and started seriously thinking that maybe another bike was in my future. It was very quick, had no problem keeping up with the 650 cc sport bike that the staff member was riding and handled adequately. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t try out the SR with the better shocks and acceleration, but I was more surprised that the oil town I’m currently living in had electric motorcycles at all.

ebike tcoThe exploration led to wondering what the total cost of ownership would be comparable to, similar to the assessment that one enterprising husband did a year or so ago between a Honda Odyssey minivan and a base model Tesla. He found it was almost the same price over 8 years of ownership, and was able to justify having a dead sexy car instead of a sex-killing minivan. I decided a comparison between a decent entry-level bike, the Suzuku SFV650, the Zero S and Zero SR, and my old BMW F800ST would be interesting.

It’s well known that it’s a lot cheaper to run and maintain electric vehicles. The assessment above took purchase prices, safety gear, fuel cost, insurance, depreciation, and annual maintenance costs into account. One key difference is that, right now, electric bikes are depreciating a lot faster than gas
Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 4.30.58 PMbikes. This isn’t because they are wearing out faster but because new bikes are so much cheaper and better. It’s like the curse of the Tesla owner who bought a Model S 60 a week before the Model S 70D became the base model.

As can be seen, a Zero S is only about $4,400 more expensive over 8 years than an entry-level Suzuki, or 16%. And the Zero SR is only about $1,400 more expensive than my BMW F800ST over 8 years. When we start talking about BMW prices, that’s an irrelevant amount.

F800 vs SR depreciationWhat if depreciation is taken out of the mix, however? The numbers change a lot.

The BMW is suddenly $4,700 more expensive than an SR. If you aren’t worried about depreciation, all of a sudden, the SR starts looking financially appealing. The Zero S, not shown, becomes about $800 cheaper than the entry-level Suzuki, making it a very inexpensive choice if you are in the market for a bike.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 4.21.26 PMThe maintenance assessment was based on percentage likelihood of specific major repairs and maintenance such as annual tire changes, annual brake adjustments, annual tuneups and lower likelihood expenses such as oil pump changes, fuel pump failures, and the like.

But those numbers are based on the USA, where gas is fairly ludicrously cheap at about $3 per gallon compared to places where it’s more sensibly priced to drive market behavior that’s aligned with little things like climate change and pollution. The numbers also exclude any rebates such as California’s $900.

The Canadian average is $4.16 per gallon right now, and the European average is around $6 per gallon. In Canada, an SR is about $5,700 cheaper than the BMW over 8 years, while the S is about $1,700 cheaper than the Suzuki. And in Europe the numbers are even more startling, $8,400 and $4,300, respectively. Those are decisive numbers. They pay for a lot of upgrades to the Zeros, undoubtedly including new factory batteries with much greater range.

Are the Zeros perfect? Not a chance. With range extenders, they are limited to about 185 miles of range and slow electric vehicle charging because they aren’t on the Supercharger network yet. You can buy and daisy chain additional chargers and hook them up to CHADeMO chargers — another extra price option — and get charge time down to about 90 minutes, but really, Tesla’s got this figured out and is building the infrastructure needed, so I personally hope that everyone just gets on board.

However, those are short-term limitations. With the very rapid expansion of Tesla Superchargers and other, less effective options, it’s going to be fairly quick that rapid charging will be baked in. 270+ miles range and 10 minutes to charge? That starts looking very appealing and likely something that will be available in the next couple of years.

The Zero line is very interesting, and includes dual sport and dirt bike versions as well, but they aren’t the fastest production motorcycles in the world. And while they do just fine getting up Pike’s Peak, running near the middle of the pack this year, they aren’t the fastest bike up the fabled mountain in its 99-year race history.

slider-4-1024x614That’s the Lightning LS-218.

The 218 is for miles per hour, which is 350 kmh in most of the world. They hit that on the Bonneville Salt Flats during Speed Week. Actually, they were closer to 219 miles per hour, but they aren’t pushy, it seems.

As for Pike’s Peak, they took their bike there in 2013 and beat every other motorcycle up the mountain by 20 seconds, and most of the cars as well. Other people took notice, obviously, as this year the winning car at Pike’s Peak was electric, and that was with its rear motor pack failing less than half way up. A new course record, the winning time, and the driver and team were disappointed as they expected 30 seconds better.

What’s really amusing about the Lightning wins is that they powered both the speed record and the Pike’s Peak runs with solar panels they had mounted on top of their transport van. Each speed run cost them about 8 cents. Compare that to the other vehicles, which depend on a massive infrastructure for digging up multi-million-year-old fossilized plants, transporting them often thousands of miles, refining them, then refining them more, then distributing the resulting gasoline potentially thousands more miles before it gets into a gas tank. And then the gas has a shelf life of maybe a year before it will foul the internal combustion engines that use it.

It’s worth pointing out that two mainstream motorcycle companies now have electric bikes in production or prototype too, although they aren’t nearly as interesting as the Zero and Lightning. Polaris, which manufactures and sells Indian and Victory motorcycles, acquired Brammo in its Victory brand earlier this year and just released an updated Empulse, making it the first mainstream bike company with an electric motorcycle in its lineup. The Brammo went its own way by actually bothering to have a gear box, which pretty much every other electric vehicle company in the world realized was a bad decision; most people who ride the Brammo just leave it in third, apparently. And Harley Davidson of all companies actually has been showing of an electric motorcycle prototype, something unlikely to make it to production in my opinion. (Harley’s CEO claims it’s coming before 2020.)

Is it time to buy an electric bike? If you are in the market for a new bike, you’d be foolish not to look at the option seriously. And in not too many years, you’ll probably be foolish to buy a gas bike of any sort.

I’ll leave you with a regular rider reacting to the acceleration of the Zero S — not even the SR — at 3:17 in this road test video.

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About the Author

Mike works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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