|Mission RS – Is this the mainstream future?|
I tend to get pretty excited by the prospect of electric motorcycles. First of all, there is the fact they sound like a TIE fighter. How could you not want that? Sure, there is something cool about the low-rev grumble of a cruiser, but, dude: a TIE fighter.
Then there is the whole environmental aspect. I’ve been on the planet nigh 38 years and have seen it change in that time. I have seen cities expand, trees and fields disappear. I have seen former swimming holes turn toxic. I have seen the black dust of car exhaust gathering on my doorstep and eating the mortar of my home. The pessimistic side of me says there’s not much I can do, that the best hope is in the fact nature has always proved more resilient than any one species. So, human beings will probably kill themselves off but the toughest of microbes, plants and cockroaches will survive and slowly thereafter reclaim everything and make it beautiful for insentient eyes.
I love motorcycling, I love the freedom and sense of independence it brings, but I will admit it induces in me a certain guilt. Sure, I feel less guilty than if I owned a car — the fuel-efficiency of my trusty Honda (57 mpg) means less fossil fuel burned. But it would be nice to not burn any (a).
Meanwhile, rapid advances in technology mean that in terms of performance, some electric motorcycles are already capable of beating internal combustion engine bikes. They can be incredible rip-your-arms-from-your-sockets monsters in both torque and horsepower. The Brammo Empulse RR, for example, produces 173hp and 166 lb.-ft of torque. It’s that last number that cruiser riders usually point to, the thing they care about. And the Triumph Rocket III, which has the largest production ICE engine on the market, has less torque than the Empulse RR! (b)
So, any time I read a story about Brammo or Zero or Mission or Lito Sora or Lightning or Energica or Voxan or Brutus or who knows how many others, I get all excited and think: “This is it! This is the future! And it’s almost here!”
I’m not the only one. Many people feel we are only 10-20 years from seeing electric motorcycles as part of the mainstream. That would be an awesome thing because it would mean motorcyclists were leading the way (I think the days of mainstream electric cars are much further away). And certainly it’s not an unrealistic prediction. Think back 20 years ago to 1994. Did you or anyone you knew own a mobile phone? I didn’t. Did you or anyone you knew use the internet? I didn’t; I was still a year from sending my first-ever email. I remember my father coming back from a conference in which they discussed the possibility of one day being able to transmit video to computers and both of us thinking: “But why?”
Twenty years ago, DVDs did not yet exist. CDs were still an emerging technology. And since then, both have peaked in popularity and gone into dramatic decline. So, if you ask me to look forward 20 years, to imagine what my 58-year-old self will be riding around on, I don’t find it at all difficult to picture an electric future.
But people have been declaring the imminent death of the internal combustion engine since before my parents were born; and there are some serious challenges to overcome. In terms of performance and look electric motorcycles have arrived but four major obstacles stand in the way of mainstream motorcycling acceptance:
Obviously, how hard you push your bike affects how long it will go on one charge. Under ideal conditions, a Zero SR will reportedly deliver 171 miles on a single charge. At highway speed, however, that’s reduced to just 88 miles. Fair enough, the Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two of which I am so famously fond won’t get you much further than that on a single tank of gas. But it only takes a minute or so to “recharge” the Harley. Getting the Zero back up to 100 percent will take 9.9 hours (on a standard 110V charge). In other words, with the Zero you need to be content doing about 80 miles of riding in a day.
The claimed mileage is similar with most other electric bikes. If you account for the usual jubilant optimism of vehicle manufacturers, it probably means you’d be feeling some deep battery anxiety in trying to ride from one end of the Chicago metro area to the other. And perhaps some people are happy with that. When I was a teenager, rarely doing more than travelling between lakes and girls’ houses, that sort of range probably would have suited me just fine.
Most motorcyclists, however, are going to expect a bit more. Though, not terribly much more. From my own experiences and from talking to other people, I’d say that most riders prefer to ride no more 200 miles in a given day. Yes, there are those Iron Butt moto-gods who cover five times that amount. But I think it’s fair to say that if a bike could actually and reliably deliver 200+ miles on a charge, many riders would seriously consider it. I certainly would.
And here is where I feel motorcyclists can lead the way to a mainstream electric future. At the moment, electric cars like the Nissan Leaf struggle to deliver the range of lighter electric motorcycles, but even if they could it wouldn’t be enough — we expect more out of our cars. I think they will need to achieve upward of 500 miles on a charge before they are accepted as mainstream transportation options.
The good news for motorcyclists is that there is already one electric motorcycle company claiming that all-important high mileage capability. The Brutus V9 claims an impressive range of 280 city miles and 210 on the highway. I’m assuming it has a bigger range simply because it is bigger. It is the only electric motorcycle I know of that is built as a cruiser, which allows for more space to hold batteries. If it really can deliver 210 highway miles I would want it as my next bike.
Or, well, what I just said about the Brutus isn’t entirely true. I think it’s a relatively cool-looking bike and I suspect I could live with its range, but there’s no way in hell I’ll buy one. Or, indeed, any electric bike. Not at the moment, at least, because they are ungodly expensive. Take the aforementioned Zero SR, for example.
In spirit and styling, I feel its closest internal combustion engine competitor would be something like the Yamaha MT-07. The SR has more torque, and the MT-07 has a little more power, but, you know, close enough. If you wanted the version of the SR that can manage 88 highway miles you will need to fork over $19,500. The MT-07, meanwhile, is not yet sold in the United States, but, if you did a straight conversion of its UK price, would cost only $8,500.
That Brutus V9, meanwhile, with its larger range, will cost a whole hell of a lot more. The small-engined version will set you back $32,500. Considering that the Zero SR increases in price by 14.7 percent when you go with the long-range option, that means a 210-mile-capable Brutus would cost at least $37,200. In its look the Brutus V9 reminds me just a teeny bit of the Harley-Davidson Street Glide. That machine will set you back $20,400 and almost certainly has dozens of features superior to those offered by Brutus. Meanwhile the super-fast Mission RS electric sport bike will knock you back $59,000.
Oh, sure, in the United States you get a $2,500 credit for purchasing an electric vehicle but that hardly makes a dent. The price difference between electric and ICE is so extreme that to purchase the former you have to either be an idiot or so rich you no longer comprehend the value of money.
The good news is that the cost of electric bikes is very slowly dropping (very slowly) and the strong competition between brands may help a little more. But as a consumer, if I take into account the issues over range I can’t help but feel that electric should actually be cheaper. At the very least, an electric bike needs to cost roughly the same as its ICE equivalent. I’m willing to inconvenience myself for the sake of the planet, but this level of inconvenience would make me bankrupt.
One of the greatest inconveniences in owning an electric bike at the moment would be figuring out where to charge it. I mentioned above that it takes 9.9 hours to charge a Zero SR on a standard 110V charge. That’s the sort of charge you would get from plugging the bike into a wall socket at home, as if it were an appliance. This time can be reduced to 5.8 hours if you install a 220V hookup in your home similar to that used by a washer or dryer.
Charge time can be reduced even further by hunting down a CHAdeMO station. This is the type of system used by the Nissan Leaf and is probably the fast-charging system that will, eventually, be used by all electric vehicles. Though, it is not at present. Different manufacturers use different systems. So, the very first hurdle to overcome in terms of infrastructure is getting manufacturers to accept a universal method of charging.
Once that’s accomplished it will be easier to ensure enough charging points exist. It seems reasonable to me to say that charging points need to be at least as prevalent as gas stations, if not more so. At the moment, charging points are few and far between. I just checked a map and the number of charging points here in South Wales can be counted on one hand. In my beloved Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul things are markedly better but there exists yet another problem: where the charging points are located.
If you can find a CHAdeMO charging point, Zero says it will take just 90 minutes to get your SR back on the road. Allegedly, CHAdeMO is word play on a Japanese phrase that means, “How about some tea?”, which offers an idea about where charging points should be located.
Bringing electric vehicles into the mainstream will require a shift in thinking about “refuelling” a vehicle. At present, charging points are often located at gas stations and car dealerships. But who in their right mind wants to just hang out at a car dealership for an hour and a half? On a regular basis?! Instead, charging points should be set up outside restaurants, coffee shops and shopping centres — places where people can leave their bike charging whilst doing something else. It is really only then that one can honestly start to imagine electric motorcycles as a part of the mainstream. Credit to Ikea for already having figured this out.
But even once you have your affordable electric motorcycle that is capable of 200+ miles, which you can leave charging outside your favourite restaurant while you take in a leisurely lunch, there’s still a big problem: what do you do with the bike when you get it home?
If you own your own home and have a garage, the answer is: put it in the garage and plug it in. Simples.
But the majority of people — especially those in urban areas, where an electric motorcycle makes the most sense — do not live in houses. They live in flats or apartments or condominiums or town houses, etc. And as such they are unlikely to have a spot where they can conveniently run an extension cord out to a motorcycle. That would be especially true here in the United Kingdom, where even people with homes often do not have places to park a car or motorbike, since many homes were built long before anyone invented a reason to have a driveway.
And when I look at the issue of viability, along with the other obstacles facing electric motorcycles, I can’t help but lose a certain amount of my enthusiasm. Suddenly, the electric future seems quite a bit further away. Things can change, infrastructure can be built and attitudes changed, but when you take everything in it certainly seems like a lot of work.
Maybe my 57-year-old self won’t be whizzing around on a TIE fighter after all…
(a) A common response to the green claims of electric vehicle proponents is to point out, correctly, that most electricity is generated in plants that produce all kinds of carbon. But if you live in a deregulated market like the UK, you can choose your provider and thereby the type of energy you use. Jenn and I get our power from a green energy provider.
(b) Admittedly, not much less. The Rocket III produces 163 lb.-ft of torque.