Electric Motorcycles Are As Disruptive As Tesla’s Cars

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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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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 652 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard

34 thoughts on “Electric Motorcycles Are As Disruptive As Tesla’s Cars

  • See my suggestion that the Tour de France go electric for its large vehicle caravan. The teams and officials ride cars, for which the only options today are the Tesla S or a hybrid, but the TV crews use motorbikes as well as the odd helicopter. The longest daily stage is 200km. The mountain ones are shorter, but some include multiple climbs. It would pay Zero to do a simulation run up the Alpe d’Huez before making the sales pitch. The racers would certainly appreciate the cut in pollution. The publicity value is huge.

    • I heard them talking about it during this year’s broadcast, implying that it’s been suggested and even considered. I wonder, though, if BMW has their hooks in too deep — sponsorship money buys a lot of exposure, and Zero has no way of equaling BMW dollar-for-dollar. I also wonder if the quietness of EVs could be a problem. These vehicles are often in far closer proximity to the cyclists than normal traffic, and there are already collision problems with much more audible vehicles.

      I can’t believe range would be an issue. The courses are long, but even if a single motorcycle has to cover the entire course, the speeds are low enough that there really shouldn’t be a problem for a DS, S or SR. Hills would eat up some range, but for every climb except one there’s also a descent.

      • Glad to hear they are thinking of it.The motorbikes keep out of the way of the cyclists, not the other way round. If there’s a problem, it’s easy to add a noise generator.
        BMW sell an electric scooter. Maybe a proper e-bike is in the works.

    • For Tour de France they would need a BMW or VW. 😉

  • I’m not sure it makes sense to include both the purchase price of the bike AND depreciation as costs of operation. Including the purchase price up front implies a cash outright purchase (which is what I did with my SR); after eight years all the bikes are worth pretty much the same thing (little if anything) so it seems silly to include depreciation as a yearly cost.

    Am I missing something? Is this a standard practice I’m unaware of for some reason?

    • It’s standard in TCO calculations to show depreciation, however it’s loss intuitive for private assessments than for business assets where depreciation can offset income as an expense and hence reduce taxes.

      In other words, private use will care less, business / fleet use will care more. It’s relatively important when you start thinking about resale value, however, because that implies replacement cost which is a factor. Right now, barring accidents and crap maintenance, gas bikes are maintaining their value longer because they aren’t improving.

      Most of the depreciation expense is taken in the first five years by the way, with reduced depreciation in years six through eight in this model, hence the change in angle of the expense line.

      For this model, I chose an inaccurate value depreciation model but one which is sufficient I think to model the difference. For the gas bikes I depreciated them at 10% annually initially and for the electric I depreciated them at 15% annually. Obviously that means that the resale value of the gas bike is higher after five years than the electric bike, which is the target I was aiming for.

      • Right, but in business, they don’t include the initial purchase – sure the purchase comes out of their cash-on-hand, but the exact amount is moved over to their assets. The only money they consider ‘lost’ is the depreciation (and hence why it is subtracted from their income as a business expense).

        If you really wanted to show the yearly cost of the bikes, it would be best to factor in only the depreciation just as you did (but remove the initial purchase price). Also add in the time-value of money (recommended 7.5% yearly) on the initial purchase value of the vehicle.

        This will show how much each bike will have cost if the owner buys the bike at year 0, and sells at the year specified. Sure, depreciation for gas bikes is very small, but they have higher fuel costs. Overall, I would expect them to be very similar in cost after all is factored in.

        • At current interest rates, that’s way too high a time value of money. This differs a lot according to your individual investment profile and risk sensitivity, but the zero-risk time-value of money is equal to the CPI inflation rate (currently less than 2%) while a time-value of money based on conservative long-term investments is about 4%.

          • Ok, but I would hardly classify this as zero-risk…

            And idk about you, but I make all of my investment decisions based on 7% returns. Even with the interest rate as low as it is, there are lots of good investments that will beat 7% – I hardly think that’s unreasonable to use for time-value of money when my other investments average higher than that (plus, that’s what’s considered average for personal investments unless something has changed since my last accounting class).

        • I guess I’m thinking any of three models makes sense:

          First, a cash buy, where the price is a pure cost up front, with residual resale value added back in at the end. Adding the time value of money seems appropriate in this case, since a large purchase price has an opportunity cost — you could invest the money instead, so you’d be forgoing a small amount of interest by buying the bike. But depreciation wouldn’t apply because we’ve already accounted for the difference between purchase price and residual value.

          Second, a financed deal, with purchase costs and interest added periodically per the terms of the load, again with residual resale value added back at the end. The time value of money seems less important in this case, since there’s no large chunk of cash committed at any time. Depreciation wouldn’t apply in this case either, since it’s the bank that actually owns the depreciating asset.

          Third, more typical for businesses, NO cost up front (as Otis says, it’s cash out, but it’s an asset too), depreciated yearly, with residual value at the end as before. Opportunity costs would be legitimate in this case as well.

          But I can’t for the life of me figure where the purchase price up front AND yearly depreciation would represent real costs.

          • Exactly this. (Though I think your first and third option might actually be the same mathematically, not sure, would have to run the numbers.)

          • I don’t think there’s any need to run the numbers. They’re exactly the same thing, a cash purchase. The only real difference is that a business needs to track their asset base, so they depreciate every year to get a more realistic number in real time. But in terms of actual costs, they’re exactly the same.

  • The author’s not completely accurate in Zero’s timeline. The 2014 update was relatively unchanged, except for the SR and power tank option. The price was unchanged too. 2015 had the tire, suspension and ABS upgrade, with the price increasing $350. There was later a mid season price decrease of $1350, leading to a net degrease of $1000 since last year. This, plus the 2013 price drop of $1000, means the price went down between 2011 and this summer by $2000.

    • Also, the title is misleading. Disruption needs to be measured in sales figures and industry percentage. Tesla has caused a dent in the German luxury car industry, which is why they all have electrics on the drawing board. Electric motorcycles have attracted the attention of some manufacturers, but the industry percentage is tiny.

      • Fair enough, but in this case its a disruptive technology that’s earlier in the curve. It was easy to dismiss a few years ago, but as the TCO shows, is much harder to dismiss today. It will disrupt the motorcycle industry in my opinion.

        And Tesla only sold 30K units last year compared to 100M cars sold annually, so it’s fairly tightly constrained in it’s sales figures and industry percentage. I agree its had more of an impact in the specific high-end luxury sedan niche, but even there a lot more Mercedes, Audis and BMWs were sold last year than Teslas. Some of that is supply of course, and a lot of it is irrational as opposed to rational decision making, but there’s a curve of disruption and Tesla is far from at the end of it.

        • Plus, when the Roadster came out, only a few people were calling Tesla a disruptor. Give the motorcycle world a few years and the future may clarify for those not watching the far edge of disruption.

        • Analyze per cent increase of blown headgaskets and radiators this summer due to being stuck in the ICE age in the middle of global heat increases.

        • Correct in part. To be really disruptive Tesla would have to be revolutionary on the scale of Henry Ford. Mr. Ford put the world on wheels. Lets see if Mr. Musk can put the world on electric wheels. If nothing else Mr. Musk has removed the “dork” factor from electric cars.

    • Much appreciated. I was sure that it was 2014 for the serious upgrades based on what I’d read.

    • Drake, IIRC, when they introduced the SR in 2014, didn’t they drop the price of the S by $1000 and offer the SR for $2000 more than the S? So you could save $1k over the 2013 price, or bump up by $1k over the 2013 price and get the higher performance. I don’t think the price was unchanged as you said.

      • You’re right, it was ’14. I could have swore it was ’13.

  • Now integrate conformal PV into the body to make it self charging. Add an ultracapacitor.

    • Do the areas work? IIRC BYD had an early model of electric bus with pv on the large roof, but dropped it as ineffective. Bikes have much less area to play with.

      • You may be able to get 100 to 200 W on a big bike. You get about 20 miles per kWh on a bike. You could also include a pull out flexible PV panel. Initial markets will probably be military.

  • High powered motorcycles are dangerous for their riders. Darwin award to those killed while riding one. We don’t allow new cars without seatbelts and airbags but we allow new bikes like these to be sold.

  • I am not so sure about this.
    The problem is range at speed. They quote 172 miles, but at what speed – 55 mph ? – Big bikers do 80+ most of the time – the range will be half at this speed.
    And then charging. Bikers like to go wherever they want, rather than visit the “Supercharging stations of the USA”.
    As a commute bike, it would be great, but as an open road machine it would be a bit short legged (once you count charging times).
    Also, depreciation will be savage as the company is innovating so fast.
    i wouldn’t give much for a 2011 model S now that the SR is available (and reducing in price).
    I can see electric commuter bikes being a big hit (all the way from 20Kg electric bikes to longer range ones), but I am not so sure about electric high power cruisers.
    Another problem is the lack of noise – most big bikers seem to revel in the amount of noise and vibrations they make, and this will be eliminated with an electric drive (unless they put a noise generator into the bike).
    Maybe it is just a matter of waiting for batteries and writing the cost of the initial ones off as an early adopter premium.
    I think PV cells on the bike are a silly idea (unless for pure show), but adding as many charger ports as possible would be a good idea.
    From a GHG point of view, electric bikes are a great idea as they use so little electricity. This gets better as the bikes get smaller, but even these electric superbikes are great if they can do 12 miles / KwH.

  • Author: By your qualifications then you would know there is no storage places or ramps for electric mobility scooters in affordable seniors housing complexes.

    • Why shouldn’t I take that comment down as being off topic?

  • No mention of how many kWh the batteries are.

  • Thanks for sharing my video on the electric motorcycle!! I’m working on some electric bicycle videos if you are interested! 😀

    Carlyle’s Picks/YourFastLife

    • Love your videos! Saw this video soon after it came out and inspired me to go to Hollywood Electrics to test ride one ( I used to work near there).

  • Ha, ha, ha, ha!!! This article is a joke!. This is trying to justify the comarison of a luxury (ie expensive bike) a BMW F800ST (a model that has not being in production for 3 years) but somehow he is using some magical brand new purchase prices. Then it made up some numbers and miss a lot of things (which would of help his BS article). The old F800ST is a sport touring bike and Zero has NOTHING that compares to it. Bigger payload, faster, quicker, more comfortable, way longer range.

    Also except for fuel economy performance on both gas powered is no contest bs Zero.
    The Suzuki would leave the Zero (any of them) in the dust both 0-60 and quarter mile (actually the longer the race the worst the beating). The Suzuki has from 3 or 4 times the range (with a refueling time of less than 5 minutes),much higher top speed, much higher sustainable speed..
    Also this bias article has things that NO ONE has issues breaking a lot (like exhaust) while the Zero battery pack last for ever (WHICH IS BULL). Adding those figures would make any electric vehicle a dumb purchase,

    Also kW prices range from $.08 to .40 and in many markets is tear so you would be paying the higher price so having the cheap $3/gallon is just magical. Also gas fluctuates up and down (power only has one way, UP and UP)

    Another garbage article in the internet. What a surprise.

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