Electric motorcycles range from small, light, off-road dirt bikes like the Swiss-made Quantya, U.S.-made Zero, and the 6-speed transmission-equipped Brammo (also U.S.), up to “superbikes” like the Mission R, the Motoczysz E1pc, and the Roehr eSuperSport.
In the middle of this field are light street/commuter bikes like the Brammo Enertia and the Zero XU. Both companies are struggling to meet the challenges of offering production, consumer-ready Department of Transportation-approved products—looking like a business-school study of what faces a start-up company.
Both Brammo and Zero struggle with finding workable distribution. Brammo has tried to work outside the typical motorsports industry, originally offering their bikes through a national electronics retailer, on the premise that the bike fits into the “consumer electronics” market. Now, Brammo is looking to sign up independent dealers. Zero, currently able to deliver bikes, uses a combination of independent sales reps and a conventional dealer network. If you want to see a Zero, you may be able to go to a dealer or you may get a personal visit from your area rep, depending on where you live.
There are two basic issues with the standard motorsports-dealer model. First, the cost—a range of $7,000 for smaller bikes to more than $20,000 for some of the production superbikes. The ideology behind an electric motorcycle makes it a tough sell sitting on a sales floor next to a significantly cheaper gasoline-powered motorcycle. Second, dealers look to make money on after-sale service, and there’s very little service required on an electric bike. No tune-ups; no oil changes. In some cases, the electronics on electric bikes can be serviced and updated with downloads from a website, and installed by the owner with a standard USB memory stick.
Although a few models in each line are squarely aimed at the commuter and a lot of the language on the sites is all about the green aspect of the bikes, they’re really part of the enthusiast market. Even commuter bikes like the Enertia and the Zero S are designed to be fun to ride, handle well, and give you a little thrill, but when you look at the dirt bikes that Quantya, Zero, and Brammo offer, and then the street/sport bikes that Mission, Roehr, Mavizen, and Brammo have, you’re looking at much more than just practical or environmentally responsible. A few of the dirt bikes have innovations like removable battery packs so you can show up at the pit with a few packs in the truck, run them hard, and switch them out—all without having to carry the extra weight on the bike. Some of the superbikes are barely street-legal replicas of all-out race bikes.
Riding the Zero and the Brammo provide different experiences. The Zero S is a more standard, lightweight sport-bike configuration, with the footpegs directly under the rider’s center of gravity, allowing more control under fast or bumpy riding conditions.
The Brammo/cruiser/scooter position is more like sitting in a chair, while the Zero/sport position is more like riding a horse. Both bikes are nimble and quick, but the Brammo seems aimed at a more consumer-based crowd and new riders, while the Zero is pointed at the enthusiast market.
At the other extreme is Roehr’s eSuperSport, a motorcycle that, for $18,000, measures up to most gas-powered supersport bikes. Its lithium batteries are capable of a 75-mile range and the top speed is more than 100 mph. It has all of the features sport riders expect from a new model: 41 mm inverted, adjustable rebound and compression-dampening front forks; single shock with rising rate linkage rear suspension with adjustable preload; and double 300 mm disc, four-piston caliper front brakes and single-disc, two-piston caliper rear brakes; all in an oval-tube steel-beam frame.
The electric specs are equally impressive: a 50 kW (67 hp) peak AC induction motor that pumps out 80 foot-pounds of torque, with 7.7 kWh of lithium-iron phosphate high-discharge batteries, running at 96 V/80 Ah and 650 amps (peak). It’s a bike you could take to the track. After riding a bike like this, you’ll have no doubt you’re living in the twenty-first century.
For anyone who’s been at a dirt track and heard the “angry horde of bees” din, the simple mechanical sound of the shocks and chain, along with a quiet whir of the motor, is a little disarming. It is, however, one of the attractive things for riders who live and ride in populated areas—the ability to go for a hard ride without raising the neighbors’ ire.
The street bike ride is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. An electric bike with a 350 W motor is one thing, but a motorcycle with a 10 kW or greater motor is something else entirely. Electric motors give 100% of their torque—that head-snapping, teeth-rattling jolt of wheel-turning adrenaline—as soon as you crack the throttle. A gasoline-powered motor gives you almost no power until it gets its revs up. From there, an electric motor continues to dish out power as it spins up; if you want to go faster, you just give it more voltage and spin the motor faster. Gas motors have very narrow bands of power, which is why a transmission is needed to spread that power over all the speeds. Most electric motorcycles don’t use or need a transmission.
Riding one of these, even one of the smaller bikes, is like having instant power at your fingertips. Riding the big bikes can only be described as holding yourself hooked to the end of a big, long bungee cord and then letting go. From 0 to the motorcycle’s top speed, it’s a simple twist of the throttle and you’re gone. There’s nothing to think about, except negotiating the road—no concentrating on engine speed or when to shift. This is a new experience and a new way to understand motorcycling.