The Cheap Electric Motorcycles America Needs Are Being Sold Under The Radar

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A few years ago, my dad had a weird motorcycle in his yard. My brother had traded a busted dirtbike or something for it. It was half fat-tire mountain bike, and half retro step-thru bicycle, but with a motorcycle engine to power the thing instead of pedals. It looked like something you’d see in Asia or Africa, and nothing like that had been sold in the States for decades.

After getting used to it in the driveway, I rode the thing around a bit and thought it was pretty cool. On the side, it said Trail 110 and Honda. My brother and dad figured out it was worth a lot more than its prior owner knew, and the thing just wasn’t their speed, so they traded it off for something else.

Motorcycles & Scooters Dominate Globally

What I didn’t know at the time was that the weird little motorcycle was the most popular motor vehicle ever sold, and is usually called the Honda Super Cub (the Honda Trail was an off-road version of the bike). Sure, the Toyota Corolla is the top car ever sold, with all of its generations and global variants adding up to almost 40 million units, but globally there are a lot of people who can’t afford or don’t want to shell out the cash for a 4-wheeled 3000-pound vehicle. Plus, you can’t park a Corolla in the stairwell of a 4-story apartment building in Taoyuan, or stash one in a narrow motorcycle space in Bogotá. The rest of the world isn’t always built with cars in mind.

Underbone motorcycles like the Super Cub dominate global motor vehicle sales because they’re cheap (especially used), they’re relatively easy to maintain, you don’t have to put a lot of gas in them, they fit just about anywhere, and they’re reasonably good performers despite having a tiny engine. Not far behind bikes like the Super Cub are motor scooters, mopeds, and many other small, light, and cheap motorcycles. At intersections in Asia, it’s not uncommon for scooters to outnumber cars 2 or 3 to 1, and for the same reasons.

In the United States, motorcycles are more popular than ever, but this record high puts US motorcycle ownership at just 8%. Yeah, that’s not impressive at all. Here, motorcycles are seen as dangerous for road use, and if you do ride one in college, expect the whole family to tell you that it’s time to hang up those keys when you have your first kid because they “don’t want to see your kid grow up with a missing parent.” Riding in places where you’re not sharing the road with cars isn’t seen as so dangerous, so many people still do things like ride dirt bikes or take rural rides in a Harley. But, for daily transport? No way! You’ll shoot your eye out get run over!

It’s Even Worse With Electric Motorcycles

As FortNine on YouTube explains, electric motorcycle sales are stalling, and not just in the United States.

Like the early compliance car EV from most manufacturers, electric motorcycles do great in the city, but they aren’t great at for any kind of trip outside of town. Electric scooters face a similar issue, and are becoming increasingly popular in China, because the scooters are typically only used for short trips. It’s a natural fit. American buyers only want an electric motorcycle for use out in the sand dunes or in the woods (dirt biking), or for an accountant’s epic trip down Highway 191 with the rest of his motorcycle gang of lawyers and doctors, and an electric motorcycle doesn’t do so hot at any of those tasks.

With an EV, there’s plenty of space for extra batteries to get 300+ miles of range if you’re willing to pay the premium for that, but on a motorcycle there’s just not room for enough batteries at highway speeds.

And then there’s the cost. Even brand new, Harley-Davidson’s gas models start at under $10,000, while its cheapest electric bike starts at $2,000 more than the top gas model. For dirt bikes, a Zero DS starts at over $10,000, while Yamaha Dual Sports start around $5000 new (and that’s MSRP). The Yamaha gets 76 MPG and I couldn’t find the XT250’s fuel capacity on their website because even 3 gallons would do more riding than most people would ever want to do on the bike. Not enough for a crazy Alaskan adventure? Just strap a jerrycan on. The Zero? It won’t go 100 miles, so be prepared to charge it up before you hit the trail if you took a highway trip to the trailhead.

Almost nobody wants to pay twice as much for a vehicle that can’t do half of what the cheap one can do.

The Good Electric Motorcycles Are Sneaking In As E-Bikes

While Harley or Zero would love to part you with your money as soon as possible, most fools just don’t have the money. But, the other day, I saw someone on an American “stroad” the other day going faster than I was. That’s not terribly unusual (I do speed, but not by that much), but the guy was on a kick scooter going over 40 MPH. I had to speed up a bit and match his speed briefly to see how fast he was going.

It wasn’t a big, wide kick scooter, either. It looked similar to something you’d see for rent by Lime or Bird, but went a whole lot faster.

Battery technology has gotten to the point where even something small like a kick scooter can have some serious power, even if the range isn’t that great. With a vehicle that has more room, like, say, a bicycle, there’s room for a lot more battery. All US states haven’t adopted the three-category system that California has when it comes to e-bikes, where the top bike can go 28 MPH, so maximum speeds and power vary from state to state. For off-road use, the rules aren’t as clear in most states, or the rules simply don’t apply, so there’s nothing illegal about selling an e-bike that can go 50 MPH.

I won’t name any names, but if you shop around for bikes with over 1000 watts of power, you’ll see that they sometimes come with an “unlimited” or “off-road” mode with no limit on the bike’s speed, and they won’t tell you in the marketing what the top speed actually is with all restrictions turned off. Some of them are known to be as powerful as or more powerful than FortNine’s custom electric motorcycle, and some have power that rivals regular motorcycles. Go on YouTube, and you’ll see reviews with people going well over 50 MPH.

Sure, they have pedals, and you can use the pedals, but for some models those pedals are clearly only there for regulatory reasons or to make it less obvious to cops that you’re riding a motorcycle without a license (provided you don’t speed by them).

What we really need to do is find a way to bridge the gap and make it easier for people to legally ride electric motorcycles without having to go through as much hassle. We also need to make it easier for companies to sell a legitimate motorcycle without having to pretend it’s a bicycle. If we don’t do that, we can expect their sales to continue under the radar like this.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1870 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba