BMW is one of the fabled motorcycle brands of the world. They have been in production since 1923 in Berlin, regularly top podiums at races such as the Isle of Mann, the Dakar Rally, and the Superbike World Championship. The company’s iconic Boxer twin engine is instantly recognizable and incredibly durable. One of its motorcycles is even the low-maintenance co-star of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s ode to the joys of constantly fiddling with the innards of your bike by the side of the road while musing on the history of western philosophy.
But on electric two-wheelers, BMW is as lost as the rest of the major motorcycle manufacturers, perhaps more so. The company is as lost on electric motorcycles as it is in its car electrification plans.
That’s BMW’s sole electric two-wheeler, the 275 kg / 606 lb C evolution, first introduced in 2014 and upgraded since with more range. Clearly, the same designers who thought that what people really wanted in a car was an ugly plastic box with tiny wheels were let loose in the studio to design this. To be fair, it shares a reasonable number of design cues with its internal combustion stable mates, but they manage to pull it off better. But that weight…it’s more than most of its biggest gas bikes, even when they have touring gear bolted on.
BMW’s two-wheelers are usually thrilling to ride. The no-longer-produced F800ST was a 3.5 seconds to 100 kph belt-driven delight to thrash around mountain roads. The company’s K1200s reached 100 kph in 3.2 seconds, a stunning achievement for a huge bike with a single contact patch.
The C evolution? Not so much. Expect to reach 100 kph in a leisurely 6.8 seconds. This is not what people have come to expect from electric drive trains, yet it’s what BMW Motorrad is providing. Zero Motorcycles, the electric motorcycle leader, has bikes that run well under 4 seconds, and that cost less than the $13,995 USD the BMW maxi scooter will set someone back. It weighs close to twice what a Zero S weighs as well, making its integrated reverse gear important. At a top speed of 129 kph / 80 mph, it will do highway speeds even though it will take a long time to get there.
BMW Motorrad is doing much better than Harley-Davidson in terms of global sales, with solid year-over-year growth since the global recession. But that masks a significant concern about its market. In 2017, US sales were off by 1.3%, which BMW attempted to make into a positive by pointing out that everyone else was doing worse, with the rest of the motorcycle industry seeing a 3.2% decline, and BMW’s specific competitors seeing a 6.3% decline.
In terms of disruption of the motorcycle market, BMW shares Harley-Davidson’s position as a market leader, with incredibly high expectations for its products, including very big and powerful bikes. But it understood the changing demographic before Harley-Davidson did, introducing naked bikes in the 650-800 cc range in the mid-2000s. And as with Zero’s focus on the dual-sport category, BMW’s growth has been significantly fueled by its R 1200 GS and GS Adventure travel enduros, which saw over 50,000 units sold, close to a third of their total volume. Traditional motorcycles are seeing a strong trend to being machines that allow people to leave cities where they live and get down dirt tracks to camp grounds and hiking trails. Brand awareness and loyalty in the EU is a core part of their growth as well, with Germans buying 7.1% of all bikes sold in 2017, followed by the French, Italians, and Brits.
In that context, making its future electric bets on an urban scooter begins to make more sense, even if a sluggish, odd-looking, very expensive 275 kg scooter doesn’t actually fit the bill. But what are its future plans for two-wheelers? According to concept vehicle tea leaves, this:
That’s the self-balancing, zero-emission motorcycle concept that BMW unveiled in 2016, about the time it upped the C evolution’s maximum range to 160 km. That zero-emission is a critical point, actually, as BMW Motorrad doesn’t commit to a battery electric drive train, just a non-gas one. Nor does it commit to a price, timeline or actual production, but that’s to be expected of a concept. One interesting aspect of it is the nod to nostalgia, something prevalent in the two-wheeler market. When in motion, twin aluminum-finned cooling devices extend from the sides of the machine, reminiscent of their Boxer twin.
The thesis that the motorcycle market is being disrupted by electric bicycles holds per this analysis. Christensen and Raynor’s Innovator’s Dilemma posits that the market leaders will deliver more and more capabilities to an increasingly demanding top-end customer base, while the bottom end is scooped out by alternatives that better understand the emerging market and its demands. BMW’s massive sales increase in dual-sport machines and its urban options, which are absurdly overpriced, overweight, and inconvenient compared to electric bicycles, show that BMW Motorrad has to shift substantially if it doesn’t want to cede the entire growing urban, young market to new competitors.
As with its cars, BMW’s two-wheelers are not well-aligned with the disruptions sweeping through the market. Its growth results mask its inherent weakness. The company’s goal of achieving 200,000 units sold annually by 2020 may be achieved, and it will undoubtedly hold onto a niche market, but when the world of transportation is being upended, BMW won’t be dominant for much longer.
[Note: We reached out to BMW Motorrad asking for comment, but haven’t heard back yet at the time of publication. This article will be updated if/when we receive a reply.]