Racing & Designing the Electric Motorcycles of the Future

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By Joe Wachunas and Sergio Lopez

The transportation nonprofit Forth is partnering with CleanTechnica for a webinar devoted to electric motorcycles on August 19. Nick Schoeps, President of Upspun, interviewed in this article, will be a panelist.

Register here for this free event!  

For our final installment of this series of articles on e-motorcycles, we interviewed Nick Schoeps, President of Upspun, an engineering design group with a focus on EV prototypes. Nick worked on the Hypertek e-motorcycle and is an e-motorsports veteran. He led the race team at Motoczysz to three consecutive Isle of Man TT victories. 

Forth: How did you get involved with electric motorcycles?

Nick Schoeps: My first foray into motorcycles was a 48V conversion of an old Kawasaki KZ440 — great father-son project, lots of duct-tape. At the time I was on the University of Michigan Solar Car Team, so I had a good foundation to work from. My early career was spent developing fuel-cell powered drones, but upon moving west to Portland, I hooked up with the Motoczysz racing team and was hooked for life.

Forth: What is the overall state of the electric motorcycle market? 

NS: Electric motorcycles are quickly transitioning from niche nerd toy to legitimate contender for speed and performance. More customers are beginning to see electric motos as a different way to enjoy riding, they’re not choosing them just for environmental reasons.

This is partly driven by the diversity of offerings, there’s something for just about everyone with Energica and Harley filling in the premium end of the market. 

Forth: How much has the e-motorcycle market changed over the last 10 years? What developments have been made?

NS: In almost every conceivable way, things have improved and become more affordable. Battery cost has dropped dramatically while energy and power density has risen. Motor efficiency and power output has improved. The charging infrastructure, while still a weak spot in the US, offers real options for road-trippers.

I think one of the overlooked but most important aspect is how refined electric propulsion has become. This result of incremental improvements is immediately noticeable in the latest Zero SR/F. The smoothness of power delivery and quality of suspension, brake tuning, and bike layout all work together to deliver a great ride despite carrying heavy batteries.

Forth: Where do you see e-motorcycles headed in the next 5–10 years?

NS: I expect to see a substantial increase in the number of smaller lower-power electric motorcycles. Companies like NIU and SurRon are making 5–30kW vehicles that will be affordably priced and offer great utility for city-dwellers. These machines will probably be limited to 50–100 miles of range and 50–60 mph top speed, but will be perfect for cities and will still have great torque and acceleration. 

On the performance end, there’s also room for growth. The Formula E series is exciting, but it would be very exciting to see an open class develop again like the Isle of Man TT-Zero. Competition drives development.

Forth: What emotional connections do people have with ice bikes that are challenges to adoption of electric ones and how do we overcome this?

NS: We ride motorcycles because they delight our senses. The cacophony of exhaust, intake, burble, and downshift cannot be replaced. Electric is a different experience, it is not a replacement for gas bike riding.

That said, there are areas where we believe electric riding can be improved, and that is part of what project Hypertek is about. 

  • Artificial sound generation is already strong in the automotive market and has been demonstrated on motorcycles as well. When implemented carefully, it really adds to the experience.
  • We shop with our eyes more than ever, and while beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, I would argue that there is room for improvement across the industry in electric.

Forth: Can you tell me in a few words how electric motorcycles are better than fossil fuel-driven motos?

NS: Electric motorcycles are a different experience than gas motos, not always better. The thrill of constant instant torque without gear shifting cannot be undersold. The absence of vibration and noise allows you to focus on all other aspects of riding and reduces fatigue. Last, maintenance, upkeep, and cost of ownership are all reduced — just turn key and rip.

Forth: What are the advantages/disadvantages for a motorcycle to make artificial noise?

NS: There are no disadvantages besides a marginal amount of weight and packaging — you can always turn off an artificial noise machine. The upsides are user experience and feedback, and if the sound is loud enough some margin of safety.

Nick worked on the Hypertek, which makes an artificial noise of a WWII bomber.

Forth: How important is the clutch to motorcycles? And how many e-motorcycles have one?

NS: The only electric motorcycle that has been sold with a clutch is the Brammo/Triumph Empulse TT, which is discontinued (though, I now own one). There are a few announcements from Asian manufacturers about upcoming electric motos with gears and/or clutch. It is not at all important for use, but it can be a lot of fun!

Forth: One way that some people are introduced to electric cars is to acquire one for their second car. How does this apply to motorcycles? Should folks start out buying an electric motorcycle for their second or third bike?

NS: I don’t know the numbers on this, but if I had to guess, I would imagine that on a percentage basis more Zero buyers are new to motorcycling than buyers of gas bikes are. With more expensive models, including the SR/F, Energica, and Harley, I would expect those customers already ride and are looking for a new experience.

Forth: Can you take an e-motorcycle on a road trip yet? What does that look like?

NS: Sure can. The Long Way Up should be released this month following Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman taking a trip of 13,000 miles.

If you have the ability to use DC fast charging (Level 3), then a road trip is feasible in certain areas of the country, primarily the West Coast. The Livewire and Energica motos equipped with CCS charging plugs can reach 85% charge in about 20 minutes. 

Without this, you better bring a kindle and be prepared to wait a long while on a level-2 charger. This rideapart article says it perfectly.

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Joe Wachunas

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works to promote electric and decarbonized buildings. He believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

Joe Wachunas has 66 posts and counting. See all posts by Joe Wachunas