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Are Electric Motorcycles the Future?

It’s a yes or no question, and I’m not going to string you along for 2000 words just to say “maybe” or “kind of.” The answer is yes. Here’s why:

Our preference for gasoline-powered vehicles is based on tradition rather than performance. And someday – maybe when brain is cooler than brawn, or when polar bears come swimming down Main Street – we’ll realize that electricity was better all along

At this point, most of my audience will be mumbling something like “hold on there hippie, electric bikes don’t have the power.” Of course that’s been the misconception for a long time – that with all of today’s great technology, electricity just can’t measure up to gasoline. It’s too complicated. Too weak.

But that wasn't always what we thought.

The Shocking History of Electric Motorcycles

In 1897, electric vehicle and bicycle giant Albert Pope famously said, “You can’t get people to sit over an explosion.” And he was right. In 1900, the National Automobile Show polled New Yorkers on their preferred vehicular power source. Electricity won by a landslide, followed by steam, with gasoline losing out at a measly 5% of the vote. And that same year, the United States produced 1,575 electric vehicles compared to only 936 of the gasoline variety.

People didn't want to sit on an explosion – and why would they? Internal combustion engines were noisy, vibrational and difficult to maintain. By comparison, electricity was clean, quiet and simple. People could have electricity flowing to their homes whereas gasoline had to be bought at the pumps. And besides, electricity worked. In a 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics, they advertised a new electric motorcycle with 160 kilometers of range and speeds up to 56km/h. That’s impressive. Hell, it’s almost functional enough for the contemporary urban rider. And if that was possible over 100 years ago, imagine how advanced electric motorcycles could be today! But somehow, they got muscled out of automotive tradition. Somehow, we learned to prefer a growl over a whir.

It would be nearly a century before the electric motorcycle saw any great advancements.

First Electric Motorcycle Photo By H. W. Libbet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why Did Electric Motorcycles Fail?

So why didn’t we follow the electrical trajectory? Granola-eating folks will throw a load of conspiratorial theories at this but I think the simplest answer is also the truest: It just didn't. By 1915, internal combustion had attracted most of the market and – once a tradition is established – no one bothers to look back. That’s not to say that gas was better. Rather, gas became better. Advancements bred more advancements for internal combustion while electricity – for all its monumental upside – was left on the patent office floor.

For decades, gasoline motorcycles were steadily refined while electric motorcycles occasionally popped up as novelty one-offs. They were the products of individual genius and some of them were pretty good. But without any tradition to stand on, electric motorcycle engineers almost literally reinvented the wheel over, and over, and over again. While the burning torch was passed from one gasoline motorcycle to the next, electric bikes were like flashes in the dark.

So you see, electric motorcycles aren't just the transportation of our future! They’re also the unrealised transportation of our past. We’re not inventing a new way forward. We’re going back to pursue the choice that we should have made in the first place.

The Need for Speed: Electric Motorcycles Are Faster

I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist. In fact, Greenpeace junkies don’t like me very much. And while I find the natural world absolutely stunning, I still like to view it from atop a rumbling four-stroke. So no, I don’t think the desire to go green will be the turning point for electricity. But the desire to go fast will be.

It’s not hard to convince yourself that electric bikes will outperform their petrol cousins. Until the last decade or so, gas-powered vehicle companies were the major source of motorcycle research and development. But now, in the high-tech age, gargantuan entities like Google and Samsung are carrying out R&D that is directly relatable to electric bikes. So electric motorcycle companies get to leech off of the research giants. Meanwhile, relatively miniscule departments like Kawasaki and Ducati are struggling to compete.

Photo By Lightningmotorcycle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Photo By Lightningmotorcycle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
To illustrate this concept, let’s look at the Isle of Man TT – one of motorcycling’s most iconic races. In 2010, the all-electric TT Zero lap record was 23’ 22.89. Just four years later, that number was down to 19’ 17.300. To compare, the 2010 superbike record – the fastest class – was 17’ 12.83. The superbike lap record in 2014 was 17’ 06.682. So electric bikes improved by four minutes in a span of four years. Simultaneously, gas bikes improved by a measly 6 seconds. It’s obvious which system is carrying the momentum. The only question is, how soon will TT Zero be the fastest class?

An oft-unknown fact is that the world’s fastest production bike is already electric. No, it isn't the fatty Hayabusa, nor the nimble Ninja, nor the purebred MV Augusta F4. It’s the Lightning LS-218 – holder of the 218mph trophy and winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. This all-electric bike set the production land speed record with 18 cents worth of charge, which is wildly efficient. It also gets 160 kilometers of highway range and over 240 kilometers of combined riding. The LS-218 charges in as little as 30 minutes and puts out a meaty 200 horsepower. It also starts at $45,300 CAD and – for the fastest out-of-the-box bike in the world – that’s not too outlandish.

Clean and Quiet: Other Advantages to Electric Bikes

Aside from speed, there are other benefits to electric motorcycles. With an instant torque output, they are often more thrilling to ride. Plus they have very few moving parts and require almost no maintenance. Electric motorcycles are easy to “fuel-up” – a regular 110V outlet can do the trick in about 10 hours.

For an average commuter, the fuel savings from switching to electric could be in excess of $800 per year. Of course the monetary advantage could be better yet. If you plug in at work or at a hotel, you won’t even be footing the electricity bill.

Perhaps most appealingly, electric motorcycles are silent and clean. Imagine cruising down a mountain road, hearing nothing but the wind, the trees and the friction of your tires. Even hard-core noise-aholics can see the allure of this peaceful riding experience!

Of course there will be some diehard BRAAAP enthusiasts who need a loud engine to drown out their insecurities. To be honest, I’m probably one of them. But even diehards will eventually die out. That’s because our preference for rumbly motorcycles is a learned preference. Our tradition has taught us that a V-Twin roar is more motorcycle-ish than a battery’s whine. But this is arbitrary! The truth is that loud, smelly machines are not really suited to a motorcyclist’s needs.

The New Yorkers at the 1900 National Automobile Show knew this  and – deep down – I do too. Just look at all our other machines – our refrigerators, our blenders, the computer that you’re reading this on. Would it be cool if your cell phone made a deafening rumble and spewed oil smoke every time you touched the screen? Of course not! Clean and quiet is better. We know that and – as motorcyclists – we have to re-learn it.

The Style of Electric Motorcycles

If it weren't for global warming and gas shortages, we may never have second-guessed internal combustion. But as we did, our aesthetics began to change. Yesterday was the day of the rebel, the outlaw biker, the devil-may-care desperado. Yesterday it was cool to cruise around, spewing fumes like you don’t give a damn.

Today, must of us still don’t give a damn. But it’s becoming cool to look like we do.

Think about all the celebrities pulling onto the red carpet in Priuses rather than SUV limos. Today, being cool is about being conscientious. This is how we want to be perceived and motorcycles – above all vehicles – are about self-expression. Yesterday, a burly billion-litre engine gave off the right vibe. And by tomorrow’s standards, electricity will give the best impression.

If you need proof, just look at the boss of style: Harley-Davidson. They recently launched an all-electric motorcycle dubbed “Project LiveWire.” Of course, this bike was sacrilegious to the loyal hog riders. It didn't fit with the older aesthetic of what made a motorcycle a motorcycle. But Harley wasn't aiming to please this passé posse! They wanted to attract a younger crowd – those who are not necessarily young in age, but young in taste. Harley knows style, and Project LiveWire is a tacit admission that the style of tomorrow is electric.

Harley-Davidson Project LiveWire Electric Motorcycle 2015 motorcycle on display at the International Motorcycle Show Harley-Davidson "Project LiveWire" Electric Motorcycle 2015 / Photo By betto rodrigues / Shutterstock.com

The Problems with Electric Motorcycles

I see four main stumbling blocks for electrical advancement. First – range anxiety is antithetical to the “freedom” ethos of motorcycling. Yes, 95% of the time we don’t travel beyond a battery’s range anyway. But 100% of the time we like to think that we could. For this reason, gasoline motorcycles will temporarily keep their hold on the burgeoning ADV and touring markets. It will be a while before long treks can be accomplished on electrical power. The Ewan McGregors of the world can have that one.

The second issue is the café racer craze. Nowadays, everybody and their grandmother is growing a woodsy beard, drinking craft beer and buying a vintage motorcycle. Simultaneously, every motorcycle manufacturer is scrambling to make a Scrambler – or some other vintage variation that looks older and more cultured than it really is. Because if there’s one thing that our latté-sipping generation loves more than looking enlightened, it’s looking old-fashioned. Confusing, right?

I stand in the midst of this movement. Just like many of you, those classic low handlebars and humped seats make me weak in the knees. But I don’t think that our love for vintage motorcycles will be a major problem for the electric bike. If we’re buying legitimately old motorcycles, then it hardly effects the bleeding edge of motorcycle production. And if we want a new bike that looks old-fashioned, it might as well be electric. As soon as Zero or Brammo makes a café racer with batteries, Gen-Y will have their cake and eat it too.

Yamaha PES1 Electric Concept / Photo By OurWorld2.0 via flickr.com (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/) Yamaha PES1 Electric Concept / Photo By OurWorld2.0 via flickr.com (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

The third issue is entirely temporary, but still worth mentioning. Because the electric tradition is still in its infancy, electric motorcycles are often unrefined. Major motorcycle companies have both the history and the funds for fine-tuning. Electric bike companies have neither. For this reason, electric motorcycles are often plagued by poor suspension, brakes and - oddly enough - onboard electronics. With time and mass production, however, this will undoubtedly change. Especially as the gas motorcycle giants are starting to bring their experience into the electric game. Harley’s LiveWire seems well-crafted, and the Yamaha PES1 and PED1 are equally promising.

Finally, the customer experience is still lagging. Until recently, Zero motorcycles had to be bought online and they arrived in a UPS crate. Brammos were sold at Best Buy and – worst of all – they were serviced by Geek Squad. Even the techie generation doesn't want to buy a motorcycle and a kitchen blender in the same place. And come on, is anyone comfortable with a 14-year-old Geek Squad employee fixing their ride? Aesthetics might be changing, but that still seems hopelessly lamer than getting your hog serviced by an oily ex-con named Pete. Thankfully, as electric motorcycles are seeing greater commercial success, real dealerships are popping up all around Canada. So the customer service issue won't be an issue for long.

Electric Motorcycles are the Future

Electric motorcycles are definitely the way forward. At least, they are to this motorcycle geek. If you asked everyone else at FortNine you’d get a dozen different answers – probably starting an interoffice feud in the process. But, speaking for myself, it’s a resounding and unreserved “yes.”

Plug me in.

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