It seems that there are more and more entrants into the electric motorcycle market every day. An interesting example we covered here recently is the brainchild of Wisconsin’s own Erik Buell in the form of the Fuell Fllow. As is the case with many in the e-cycle field, the bike is targeted to the urban riding and commuting environment.
In 2015, Polaris (the snowmobile/UTV and Indian motorcycle builder) bought up Brammo electric motorcycles. It re-branded the Brammo product as Victory with its flagship model labeled the Empulse TT, as told in Victory Motorcycles—the Complete Story of an American Original by Michael Dapper and Lee Klancher.
With a claimed maximum range of only about 100 miles on a full charge in Eco mode and an MSRP of $19,999, the Empulse TT never moved the needle on sales. Even with marketing focused on metro markets, the entire electric motorcycle line died with the end of Victory in 2017. That could be an ominous sign for other, less resource-rich, would-be e-cycle manufacturers. However, the book predicts Polaris will eventually re-energize the e-cycle product under the Indian brand.
I find electric motorcycles fascinating and potentially the go-to type of bike for many riders with specific needs, such as daily commuting and short-to-mid-range riding. However, I’m not sure I’ll ever own one, at least as my main ride. More on the reasons for that later.
What I’ve found puzzling is the angry reaction by some to the very idea of electric vehicles, motorcycles included. For example, quite a backlash occurred in posts online reacting to the recent comments by Harley-Davidson President, CEO, and Board Chairman Jochen Zeitz. He revealed that “in the coming decades,” H-D would transition to building electric motorcycles exclusively. Some comments I saw ranged from individuals raging about how they’ll never buy another Harley to how Zeitz will tank the company. Maybe they missed the part about “in the coming decades.”
Some folks post angry responses to articles about electric motorcycles coming on the market in the vein of “I’ll never own one of those things.” That is strange, given that nobody is suggesting that riders will be required to buy any of them.
The rapid expansion of e-cycle options is thought-provoking. Obviously, many smart people are reading the tea leaves and see an ever-growing slice of the motorcycle market belonging to electric motorcycles. There are probably many reasons for those smart people to invest time and money in the e-cycle industry.
We’ve already seen how all sorts of factors can drive up oil prices, limit fuel supplies, and make gasoline- and diesel-burning vehicles less economical to operate. Taxes, regulations, supply disruptions due to embargoes, war, natural disasters, and refinery problems. Even the whims of the bosses of top oil producers can affect the price at the pump.
I’m old enough to remember when nobody believed gas would ever go over a dollar a gallon in the United States, and many people said they’d stop driving if it did. I wonder how that worked out for them. And I remember the OPEC oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979 that led to limits on fuel purchases, no gas sales on Sundays, long lines at gas stations, and many gas stations across the country completely out of gas. People who think that can’t happen again are kidding themselves, strategic petroleum reserve notwithstanding. The world oil market is still heavily dependent on the Middle East, which always has the potential for problems.
So, all that suggests one major advantage for electric vehicles—nearly all the energy required to recharge them is available within the United States, with a bit added from Canada and Mexico. Overseas oil supplies being cut do not immediately shut down EV mobility.
Fossil fuel supply and cost conundrums aside, there are several advantageous e-cycle characteristics. For example, the torque-delivery characteristics of electric motors. Under load, an electric motor can deliver 100 percent of its torque performance at any rpm, unlike the internal combustion engine (ICE), which delivers its peak torque only at a specific part of its rev range. As Carl Vogel, author of Build Your Own Electric Motorcycle, writes, “Another advantage of electric motors is their ability to provide power at almost any engine speed.”
Few observers dispute the performance cred of well-designed e-cycles. In 2011, Lightning Motors set a new electric-powered motorcycle world record of 215.960 mph, with a best one-way speed of 218.637 mph. Some electric motorcycles have claimed acceleration from 0-to-60 mph in under three seconds. But white-knuckle top speed and top-fuel class acceleration will not necessarily elevate e-cycles to widespread consumer acceptance.
The principal limitations that all EVs share are range, charge time, and the limited distribution of charging stations. Most EV charging stations deployed for public use are Level 2 stations, which can take some time to re-charge. So-called Level 3, or DC fast chargers, are few and far between. Plus, not all EVs have the necessary J1772 CCS Combo connector to use them.
There are apps for your smartphone to help locate charging stations as you travel. Claims regarding the range and charge time factors designed into the bike vary considerably. As with ICE-powered vehicles, operational influences such as speed, vehicle load, riding style, and environmental conditions (wind, hills, cold) increase power demand, which reduces range.
Vogel goes on to compare the efficiency of an EV to an ICE-powered vehicle, saying, “Whereas only about 20 percent of the chemical energy in gasoline gets converted to useful work at the wheels of an internal combustion motorcycle, 75 percent or more of the energy from a battery reaches the wheels of an EV.” That’s all good to know, but is of little consolation if your battery is nearly out of juice and you’re still miles away from the nearest charging station. A little advance trip planning can alleviate this concern.
The U.S. Department of Energy does offer a free, interactive nationwide Alternative Fueling Stations map showing the location of Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations, and the map can be set to include all types, including Tesla and Level 1 chargers. Station Locator relies on information from nearly three dozen charging networks. Indeed, this map gives me pause about owning an electric motorcycle anytime soon.
Though the map for Level 2 and 3 chargers shows 59,920 locations in the U.S. and Canada, in my home area in southwest Wisconsin, charging stations in farm country remain few and far between. In my other home riding area in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the pickings are even slimmer. Gas stations, of course, remain plentiful.
When I switch the search criteria to include only Level 3 fast chargers, the total number drops to only 8,482 in the U.S. and Canada. In southern Wisconsin, the nearest one is over 40 miles from me. In northern Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan, the nearest one is more than 60 miles from my home base.
I also have to question the accuracy and completeness of the map. For example, no charging stations show up for Mount Horeb, Wisc. Last summer, I saw cars lined up to use chargers at a gas station. That’s only one example, but it is worth keeping in mind.
The relative simplicity of an electric motor compared to an ICE is another oft-cited EV advantage. “While an internal combustion engine has hundreds of moving parts, an electric motor has only one,” Vogel explains. “This is one of the main reasons why electric motorcycles are so efficient. All you need is an electric motor, batteries and a controller. A simple diagram of an electric motorcycle looks like a simple diagram of a portable electric shaver: a battery, a motor, and a controller or switch that adjusts the flow of electricity to the motor to control its speed. That’s it.”
Of course, taken by itself, that statement is an oversimplification. While the basic concept of battery, controller, and motor seems uncomplicated, the technology involved in the systems used on an electric motorcycle is much more complex and evolved than an electric shaver.
If the motor is located in the wheel(s), the need for a transmission and driveline is eliminated. However, a tire change becomes a more difficult job. When you add regenerative or energy-recovery braking, range is extended and complexity increases. That said, some electric motorcycles have a conventional driveline with multi-speed manual transmission and a final-drive system.
The potential complexity of relatively common procedures required for service on e-cycles brings in the problem that emergent brands will have to deal with—the lack of dealer/warranty service providers. Claims of reliability for electric motorcycles may not be convincing enough to get consumers to plunk down large sums of cash on a virtually unknown product with no local dealer service available. On the service issue, established ICE-powered motorcycle brands with extensive dealer service networks have a substantial advantage, as they would apply to their brand of e-cycle if they go into the market.
Electric motorcycles also have the edge in smooth, vibration-free operation. It is no coincidence that riders describing an exceptionally smooth, low-vibration ICE will often compare it to an electric motor. Also, some e-cycles are modular, allowing upgrades as technology improves.
Some authorities advance the idea that e-cycle maintenance costs are much lower than for ICE-powered bikes, simply because ICE vehicles have many more moving parts. That assertion rarely accounts for the replacement cost of an e-cycle battery, controller, or other wear-and-tear components, which may be considerably more costly than on an ICE-powered motorcycle, if there is an equivalent component. It also doesn’t consider that those many engine components in an ICE have been proven to last many years with regular low-cost maintenance.
As to the “green” or carbon footprint reduction value of e-cycles and EVs in general, the energy that goes into charging the vehicle’s battery is the result of power generation of some type somewhere else—unless you charge your EV with your own solar panels. In the U.S., about 40 percent is created by non-fossil fuel systems using wind, solar, hydro, thermal, or nuclear power. However, generators are still turned by fossil fuels such as natural gas (about 38 percent) or coal (about 22 percent) per Statista. In those instances, rather than eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, they are being moved elsewhere.
It seems that for the foreseeable future, electric cycles will remain best suited for shorter rides and where charging stations are readily available. For the long-haul and touring rider, many factors strongly favor ICE-powered machinery.
There are clearly ups and downs to the e-motorcycle question. As to what the future holds on it, there seems to be one thing that’s for sure: we’ll be seeing more and more e-cycles on the road, but whether they will be a practical answer for any given rider on any given road or for all-purpose riding remains to be seen.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ultimate Motorcycling.