Three short years ago, the notion that everyday consumers could easily buy a mass-produced electric car seemed hopeful, if not slightly delusional. The only battery-powered cars available were the exotic $109,000 Tesla Roadster coupes or neighborhood electric vehicles (golf-cart-like buggies not legally permitted to drive more than 25 mph). Fast-forward to today, and electric cars like the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, and Tesla Motors Roadster—and dozens more like them, expected to hit showrooms in the next few years—have entered the mainstream market.
But what about options for those of us who want to hit the highway on two wheels instead of four? Motorcyclists who want to go electric must feel much like electric car fans in the mid-2000s. The number of choices can be counted with fingers on one hand. Hefty price tags, lack of a distribution network, and market challenges for electric motorcycles make electric cars seem like a slam dunk by comparison.
Harry Mallin, a Kansas City-based attorney, set out to buy a motorcycle in spring 2009. His motivation? SUV guilt. Not feeling so hot about his 19-mpg Honda Pilot (which he bought to pull his camper trailer, but ended up using for his daily 25-mile commute), he dreamed about riding a motorcycle again after hanging up his helmet and leather jacket more than 30 years earlier.
“I was waiting for something to happen to make my amends to the environment,” Mallin says. Although ditching his SUV for a gasoline-powered motorcycle would have meant a jump in fuel efficiency, Mallin found a disquieting June 2008 article in The Los Angeles Times that made him reconsider his decision. The article reported that “the average motorbike is about 10 times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, light truck, or SUV,” according to the California Air Resources Board.
While gasoline-powered motorcycles and scooters can use fuel twice as efficiently as cars, wringing more energy from the fuel produces more nitrous oxide emissions—gases that contribute to air pollution. Although technologies such as catalytic converters exist for reducing emissions on cars, there’s no requirement for stringent pollution strategies for motorcycles.
It was Mallin’s motivation to find a more responsible ride that led him to investigate electric motorcycles and to Brammo, an Oregon-based company that is currently one of the few outfits in the United States offering all-electric, highway-capable motorcycles. At the time, two other U.S. companies, Zero and Quantya, sold street-legal electric dirt bikes—and California-based Vectrix makes and sells “personal electric vehicles”—but Mallin was looking for a daily commuter. (More recently, Zero has started selling electric motorcycles suitable for riding on the road.)
When Brammo lowered the price of its first product, the Enertia, to $7,995, Mallin decided to make his move. The Enertia was only available in California and Oregon at the time, but in a stroke of luck, Mallin managed to win an Enertia in a contest sponsored by Brammo.
Mallin says that his motorcycle, which was delivered to him in a crate in June 2010, has exceeded his expectations. Not only is it a greener transportation option, but most of all, it’s a daily thrill. “It’s fun to ride, that’s for sure,” Mallin says. “How often do you wake up looking forward to your morning commute?”
Two primary attributes make riding an electric motorcycle exciting. The first is the raw acceleration of an electric-drive vehicle—100% torque at 0 rpm. “One of the things that a motorcycle manufacturer has to do when making an electric motorcycle is make sure it doesn’t shoot out from between the rider’s legs when they just barely turn the throttle,” Mallin explains.
The other benefit is the vehicle’s silent operation. “The only thing I hear when I ride my motorcycle is the wind inside my helmet, a little bit of chain noise, and the tires on the road,” Mallin says. “It’s much more of a visceral experience and closer to nature, compared to the rumble, rumble, rumble of a gas bike. On an electric bike, you can hear the crickets in the summer.”
Mallin’s awakening about the joys of electric motorcycle riding is not uncommon. “Every opportunity we’ve had to put motorcyclists on our bikes, they come away with smiles on their faces,” says Brian Wismann, director of product development at Brammo.
Wismann says the only rare complaints come from customers who don’t fully understand the range limitations of electric vehicles. That’s why Brammo has focused on expanding the driving range of the Enertia, which provides 40 miles on a full charge, on its next products. Brammo intends to offer the Enertia Plus for an additional $1,000. This model bumps up battery storage from 3 kWh to 6 kWh, doubling the range to 80 miles, while keeping the top speed to 60 miles per hour.
The distinction of bringing the first electric motorcycle goes to Electric Motorsport, an Oakland, California-based company that sold a limited number of its GPR-S model in 2008. The company sold that model for between $6,500 and $8,500, but has since shifted its business strategy. “Motorcycle usage in the United States is more for amusement or as a toy, but not as a serious form of transportation,” says Raul Aguilar, chief operating officer at Electric Motorsport.
The company is now focusing its efforts on Europe, Asia, and Latin America, primarily selling its core technology rather than finished products. Nonetheless, the company still hopes to return to the U.S. market bringing its Native brand to consumers. For Electric Motorsport, the unformed nature of the electric motorcycle market presents commercial challenges. “If we don’t get a big enough purchase order, we can’t make anything,” says Aguilar. “There’s way too much money at stake.”
Other players, like Mission Motors, similarly shift between selling technology and products. Mission had sold its high-end, 150 mph, 150-mile range Mission One electric “superbike,” which debuted in 2009 for just under $70,000, before turning its focus to selling electric powertrains.
Meanwhile, Brammo marches on with plans to offer its second model, the Empulse, in the future. The Empulse will be available with three choices of battery pack: the 6 kWh pack for $9,995; the 8 kWh pack for $11,995; and the 10 kWh pack for $13,995. That means driving ranges of 60, 80, and 100 miles, respectively—with a similar spread of full recharge times of six, eight, and 10 hours via 120 V household current.
While Brammo has made great strides with its technology, it continues to face challenges with marketing and distribution.
That means dedicated specialty shops like Hollywood Electrics—which sells electric motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters, including Brammo and Zero products—are the key distribution channel.
“I have a store full of electric motorcycles,” said Harlan Flagg, owner of Hollywood Electrics, who rides an electric bike daily. “If I’m just cruising around town, Brammo is great for that,” he says. “But if I’m carving up the canyons, I’d prefer riding the Zero.” Flagg praises both manufacturers for high quality, but according to Harlan, Santa Cruz, California-based Zero makes the higher-performance bike with the greater foot-peg clearance needed for taking corners at a sharper lean angle.
While Zero’s heritage is in off-road electric bikes, Flagg says that all of its products can be ordered direct from the factory as street legal. Zero’s $8,000 XU bike, its newest product specifically designed for urban use, has features targeted to city riders. “XU has a removable battery. That’s advantageous for a lot of people who live in the city, like apartment dwellers; people who don’t necessarily have a place to plug in their bikes,” says Flagg. “They take out the battery, carry it upstairs, and plug it in.”
Flagg’s shop does not carry bikes from Quantya, because the Swiss company has limited availability in the United States.
The dearth of established distribution channels is one reason why electric motorcycles face an uphill battle in the U.S. market, says Dave Hurst, senior analyst at Pike Research, a Colorado-based clean tech market research firm. (Like Aguilar, Hurst and many other observers believe that electric motorcycles have better prospects in Europe, where more compact urban environments, wider acceptance of two-wheel commuting, and generous incentives are more common.)
“Unlike the automotive industry, there isn’t a good distribution channel for electric motorcycles. They don’t really fit with the current power-sports networks, which for the most part are independent dealers,” Hurst says. “You don’t know where to buy them. And even if you do buy one, you don’t know where you’re going to get it serviced.”
Hurst believes that limited range—which restricts use to local riding—is also holding back electric motorcycles. “The economics do pencil out for an electric motorcycle. But it’s much tougher on the emotional side to say, ‘Here’s a bike you can only use as a commuter,’” Hurst says. The Brammo Enertia “can only go 40 miles and do 60 mph, so you can’t take your bike out and go cruising for the weekend.”
Despite these restrictions, Pike Research’s forecast calls for electric motorcycle sales to grow from 3,600 units in 2011 to 47,000 in 2016. In about five years, that could represent between 5% and 7% of the total motorcycle market in the United States.
Hurst doesn’t believe that incentives—like the current 10% federal tax credit—will make much of a difference in driving the market for electric motorcycles. But what about their environmental appeal?
“I wish I could say it’s a major driver, because it’s a primary interest to me and a lot of the people who work at Brammo,” Wismann says. “But sales, and talking to customers, have suggested otherwise. People will take green, and they don’t have a problem with it, but they don’t go out of their way to buy it.”
John Adamo, an IT professional in the Chicago area and a motorcycle rider for nearly 20 years, is keenly interested in electric motorcycles, but not necessarily for their eco-grooviness.
“What caught my attention is they are almost completely silent, and you can ride them in areas where noise is a concern,” Adamo says. Based on his short test-rides of the Zero S, he was fascinated by the sensation of accelerating without shifting gears, and coming to a stop without pulling a clutch lever. Gearheads in it for the raw horsepower might not be impressed, but those who want to hit turns and curves with smoothness and speed are going to have a blast.
A self-defined computer geek, Adamo started thinking about the high-tech capability of electric bikes, and imagines being able to tune them from a personal computer, or customize their power delivery maps and regenerative braking.
Azhar Hussain, a London-based consumer electronics entrepreneur and the founder of the TTXGP electric motorcycle racing series (see “Paving the Way”), perceives an even stronger correlation between electric motorcycles and computers.
As huge as the global automotive industry is, there’s a much bigger industrial base for electronic devices, from computers to smart phones. “Tesla Motors couldn’t exist if laptops hadn’t evolved to a point where it could get 6,000 laptop cells for its Roadster,” Hussain says. “Look at every electronic device out there that needs a battery. That is what’s driving electric mobility.”
Hussain is on a mission to educate the public about the myriad benefits of petroleum-free transportation—and to help the world break the shackles of oil addiction. “There’s an inevitability about electric transportation because it’s, in the long term, a much better way of doing things,” Hussain says. “You can’t keep burning a very precious commodity just to get around. That’s stupid.”
Hussain believes it’s only a matter of time before an entirely new type of motorcycle company emerges, with a new, electric-based platform and new business model. Hurst foresees major manufacturers entering the electric motorcycle market, much the way Nissan, General Motors, and Ford, among others, have made big investments in electric cars when Tesla used to be the only game in town. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see BMW move in that direction,” Hurst says. “Honda is another one.”
Until that day comes, Brammo is trying to get as much traction in the market as possible. “There’s not a lot of competition out there right now,” Brammo’s Wismann says. “For us, the biggest competition will come when the large OEMs decide to get into the market.” He believes the major companies are waiting until the market is proven before jumping in.
With only a handful of U.S. companies offering electric motorcycles designed for daily transportation, you could describe the market as nascent. TTXGP’s Hussain disagrees.“Clearly, it’s relatively early compared to petrol, but I don’t know if that’s the fair measure. A better way to look at it is that it’s a technology that’s prime for those people who are able and wanting to engage with it. I don’t think it’s nascent. I’d rather say it’s undiscovered.”
Brad Berman is the editor of PluginCars.com and HybridCars.com. Brad writes about alternative energy cars for The New York Times, Reuters, and other publications. He is frequently quoted in national media outlets, such as USA Today, National Public Radio, and CNBC. Brad is the transportation editor at Home Power magazine.
Brammo • www.brammo.com
Mission Motors • www.ridemission.com
Vectrix • www.vectrix.com
Zero • www.zeromotorcycles.com