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Electric Motorcycles May Finally Be Making the Turn

Electric Motorcycles May Finally Be Making the Turn
Start-up companies and new offerings from established icons might help to push Millennials toward electric motorcycles.

For most of the world a motorcycle or a scooter is a basic means of transportation. Cheap to purchase and operate, and easy to park on crowded city streets, commuting on two wheels is a way of life. This is especially in emerging markets where a motorcycle or scooter is an attractive alternative to a bicycle, a public bus, or walking. In the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S., motorcycles had a utilitarian purpose too, but somehow, during the 1980s and 1990s, motorcycles, and in particular U.S.-built Harley Davidson motorcycles, became “lifestyle accessories.”

On the world market, motorcycle and scooter sales are forecast to increase by 6% to more than 132 million vehicles sold in 2018, representing a value of more than $120 billion dollars, according to a market research survey done by ReportsnReports. The Asian Pacific region is by far the largest for motorcycle sales. As living standards in places like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam continue to rise, more people are able to afford to enhance their mobility with small, entry-level motorcycles.

Scooters in Ubud, Bali are the primary means of transpoprtation (Image source: Sam Moses)

In China, where more than 100 million electric bicycles have been sold in the past 15 years, and where gasoline-powered motorcycles and scooters are highly restricted in urban areas, larger electric two-wheel vehicles, scooters and motorcycles, are growing in popularity, in particular for younger commuters whose other choice is usually a public bus.

By contrast, motorcycle riders in the U.S. are getting older—in 2003 only about a quarter of riders were over 50, but by 2014 that number was closer to half. That’s not good news if you want to sell more new motorcycles and many of your customers are aging out of the market. U.S. sales that were once almost 1.1 million motorcycles in 2006, fell to just over 487,000 motorcycles and scooters in 2016.

Cost also plays a role in drop in U.S. motorcycle sales. A huge Honda Goldwing cruiser or an iconic Harley Davidson Road Glide touring bike can easily cost more than $20,000, often restricting sales to older buyers. Recently, motorcycle manufacturers have responded with a new entry level bikes in the $4,500 to $6,500 range. Aimed at beginner riders, or those without deep pockets, Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, Honda’s Rebel 500, BMW’s G310R, and Ducati’s Scrambler are all relatively lightweight, affordable, and user friendly.

Even Harley Davidson has tried to find a younger crowd with its Street 500, introduced in 2013 and with an MSRP of $6,899. Motorcycle manufacturers hope that at least some of those new smaller bikes will help drive a younger crowd into showrooms—a crowd that is often more interested in economical commuting than in fantasy lifestyles.

In many ways, the motorcycle industry has not been effective at attracting new blood. “We only appeal to maybe 7-10% of people who are engaged in transportation,” motorcycle industry consultant Robert Pandya told Design News. “If we can increase our appeal, to go from 10% to 11%, that’s a hell of a lot more people. There are opportunities to increase positive attention for new riders coming in. Some of that will be the product, but most of that will be work that needs to be done to increase desirability. As an industry, that is something that we are terrible at,” he added.

But what if you desire is to save the planet with your transportation choices? You could buy an electric car, starting with the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, or Tesla Model 3 in the mid-$30,000 range or reaching all the way up to the Tesla Model S or the other, soon to arrive, stratospherically priced, plug-in electrics from companies like Audi,  Porsche, or Jaguar. But, if you don’t have that level of capital to spend, you can still make an electrified transportation choice with an electric motorcycle or scooter.

Although hobbyists and tinkerers had been building their own electric motorcycles in their garages for years, the first production electric motorcycle came from Zero in 2008, costing $7,450. The California-based company builds only electric motorcycles and has expanded its line-up to include street, performance, off-road and dual-sport models. The 2018 Zero SR has a range of over 200 miles (when equipped with its 14.4 kWh battery and optional 3.6 kWh Power Tank), a top speed of 102 mph, and will recharge in just more than 3 hours when its optional accessory chargers are employed.

The Zero SR electric motorcycle has a range of over 200 miles, when equipped with an optional battery pack (Image source: Zero Motorcycles)

The Zero SR starts at a hefty $16,495 and the power tank and quick charging can push the price to almost $19,000. Still, at just pennies a mile and two-thirds the price of the least expensive electric cars (before tax breaks) a Zero SR has the range and performance to match many premium gasoline-powered two-wheel offerings. Zero has several other models, including the FX S Supermoto with a 100 mile range and 85 mph top speed, for a base MSRP of $10,495.

Because electric motorcycles are smaller and lighter than automobiles, they don’t require as much battery capacity to attain a reasonable range. Ten years ago, the cost of a kilowatt-hour of lithium ion battery capacity was about $1,000-$1,500. Today, thanks to mass production and cost competitiveness, that same kilowatt-hour of lithium ion battery capacity costs $100-$200. With battery costs a big part of electric vehicles, the price drop should make electric motorcycles increasingly more affordable.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. Even with the lower costs for batteries, about $10,000 remains the bottom price for “mainstream” electric motorcycles. Some of the other electrics available in the U.S. include the Alta Redshift electric motocross bike at $14,995, the Victory Empulse TT for $19,999, the Brutus V9 Cruiser for $32,400, the Italian-built Energica EGO superbike for $35,000, the Lightening LS-218 at $38,888, and the Lito Soro for $77,000. While electric motorcycles have exceptionally low operating and maintenance costs, the high purchase price remains an obstacle.

There is hope. BMW’s C Evolution electric scooter, available in Europe since 2014, will be coming to the U.S. in 2018. With a range of 62 miles (99 miles for the long range version), a top speed of 80 mph and a price that starts at $13,750, the BMW might be a good alternative for an electric commuter.

Which brings us, strangely enough, back to Harley Davidson. In 2014, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, company displayed to the media and its customers the Project LiveWire electric motorcycle prototype. Harley Davidson toured several copies of the motorcycle at dealers around the U.S. and Canada to gauge customer reaction. Over 12,000 riders had a chance to ride the Project LiveWire prototypes.

The Harley Davidson Project LiveWire prototype electric motorcycle was seen by more than 12,000 prospective customers (Image source: Harley Davidson Motor Company)

Then, in January of this year, Harley Davidson announced that an electric motorcycle will be arriving within 18 months for the U.S. market. This was followed on March 1,  with an announcement that Harley Davidson has made an equity investment in Alta Motors, the California-based electric motocross motorcycle manufacturer. “We believe that EV is where global mobility is headed and holds great appeal for existing riders as well as opportunity to bring new riders into the sport,” said Matt Leavatich, Harley Davidson president and CEO in the announcement. No pricing has been announced, but there is no reason to expect the cost of the electric Harley Davidson will be commuter friendly.

With maximum torque available with the first twist of the throttle, electric motorcycles and scooters are quick and responsive, making them easy to handle in traffic. With only a couple exceptions, electric motorcycles have no transmission so there is no clutch, making riding much easier for beginners. Just plug them in to charge them overnight—you never have to stop at a gas station.

What the electric Harley Davidson will be is genuine and faithful to the brand. “Harley Davidson doesn’t see themselves as having competitors—they come at it with the brand,” said Pandya to Design News. “It is definitely going to be a Harley Davidson. Without a doubt, this is going to be the single biggest most positive thing for the electric motorcycle industry, for all brands. They are going to have a vast dealer network, it is going to be backed up by a strong warranty, it’s going to be well marketed and positioned—that’s what I mean by the power of the brand,” he said.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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