Why Electric Motorcycles Just Can't Beat Combustion — Yet


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May 09, 2023

Why Electric Motorcycles Just Can't Beat Combustion — Yet

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Technology is improving. But electric motos remain where cars were in 2015.

It's nearly 2023. You may already own an electric car or at least be thinking about one. But what about an electric motorcycle? Electric scooters in cities like NYC, Seattle, or LA, seem like excellent get-around-town tools. And with electric bicycles blitzing sales of the "acoustic" pedal variety, you've got to be thinking: "Wait! Why aren't electric motorcycles from Honda and BMW and Kawasaki everywhere?"

It's a very good question. And the answer — in the short term at least — is that combustion motorcycles remain a much better option.

E-motorcycles, just like electric cars, use far fewer parts than traditional combustion models. Yet, just like electric cars, the cost is steep. A Lightning LS-218 costs $39,000. You can grab a very excellent Honda CB500X for $7,500 that gets over 50 MPG — enough efficiency to largely factor out rising fuel prices — and can roll over 200 miles between fill-ups. How does the much more mechanically complex CB500X cost more than five times less?

Dan Quick, the communications head for Zero Motorcycles, says you have to look at what's happening now with lithium-ion batteries as strictly "gen-one" technology. He argues that just as the cost of electricity is rapidly falling thanks to renewables, battery tech prices have also been falling precipitously.

"It's not exactly at the same rate as Moore's law [for computer processing], but it's very similar in its trajectory, and you're talking about like the doubling of capacity and the halving of size and so on and so forth."

But there's a difference between theoretical and actual costs, as we've seen with the recent manufacturing crunch. Only a major player like Kawasaki or a Honda can introduce electric bikes at a volume that would drive down the cost of parts to a point where electric bikes are at complete parity with gas ones. And while it's one thing to say they're less complex—for instance, like electric cars, they don't need multiple gears because they already deliver so much torque, let alone exhaust, etc.—they do use a unique drivetrain, and that has to get manufactured.

Still, Quick says the fact that "virtually every single gas incumbent in this space have products announced or they have plans announced and they're putting their billions and billions of R&D apparatus," means that prices will come down without question.

And while he refused to get specific about how a Zero would play against such rivals making e-motos at sub-$10k stickers, he did point out that it's easier for a luxury brand that's established its cred to sell something more affordable than it is for a brand only known for hitting a cost target to sell a newfangled bike for a cost premium when they have no track record in electrics.

In China and Europe, electric motorcycles are already eclipsing gas, at least in the scooter segment, because a scooter doesn't need highway pace or tremendous range. But in the US, bikes are less likely to be used solely for transportation and more apt to be lifestyle accessories; they're more like that chronograph on your wrist. (Though I'd argue that tuck 100hp between your legs is slightly more thrilling than strapping a hunk of metal to your arm.)

Even if you're using a vehicle for leisure instead of a commute, it needs to have some range. But pleasure cruisers also have an additional constraint that pure commuter vehicles don't: They have to be fun to drive. Adding range to an electric motorcycle means adding more batteries, which means adding more weight which is particularly deadly to a motorcycle's fun factor. And as with cars, range anxiety, well-founded or not, affects buyers' decision-making.

Quick was clear on the matter: "Feelings aren't facts, but they are real." He brought up Zero's new ADV bike, the lust-worthy $24,495 DSR/X. It can cover 85 miles at a constant 70 mph, but since it's meant for off-road duty, Zero says you're more likely to get 13 hours/180 miles of continuous performance at a pace that most of us would be likely to maintain on trails and fire roads. Quick points to Zero's recent launch of the DSR/X outside Park City, where riders averaged "maybe about 15-20 miles per hour." At that pace, the Zero can run all day, and you'll be dog-tired before the bike's battery is dry.

Besides thinking only of Zero, but using the DSR/X as an example, Quick pointed to the bike's regenerative braking, which works like engine braking you'd want and have grown used to during your riding history, to aid with control, but also that any electric bike should have that feature, to enable extending range. None of which eliminates the genuine demands of refueling an electric motorcycle (or car) when the time comes.

You can add DC fast-charging capability to an electric bike like you see on cars, and of course, that would seem pretty easy since we're talking about a tiny battery pack on bikes compared to cars, but the fly in the soup is weight. Energica, an Italian competitor to Zero, has a new ADV bike as well, called the Experia, and its range looks pretty great: They promise 261 mpg city and 131 mpg highway, and a full DC fast charge in 40 minutes, but the bike weighs a claimed 573 pounds, which is even more than already quite substantial 544 pounds of the Zero DSR/X.

If you're looking for a breakthrough, Lightning recently tested a setup that delivered 135 miles of range in a mere ten minutes. So we could be at an inflection point soon.

Two ahems, here: Zero says a level 2 charger (way more common than DC fast chargers) can get you to 95% battery in about two hours, and while that's a lot more time than 40 minutes, and both refuels take way more time than it would to gas up the similarly priced bogey for both of these EVs—the BMW R 1250 GS Adventure—so much of what you should be considering as a buyer is how and where you ride or intend to go.

On an actual adventure trip, if you plotted your course wisely, which you must do to chase gas anyway, finding electrons may not be as challenging as we make it out to be. If you can ride to a restaurant, you can find a plug. But if you want to ride from LA to Anchorage, some of that hunt may get more challenging.

Yet all of the arguments about range anxiety are moot for the bulk of riders who never roll for more than a few hours a day, let alone to the back of beyond.

They're unbelievably quiet, for one, and that's easier on your hearing and offers superior safety. The Gates belt drive of the DSR/X will be quieter still than a chain-driven electric, too, and a bike that makes less noise also allows you to hear the vehicles on the road around you. In traffic, there's no doubt you can mind the dangers nearby when your bike's engine drone does not obscure them.

And off-road, any mountain biker knows that you're constantly being informed by your tires, not just how they feel, but how they sound. You can literally hear if they're squibbing off wet rocks or providing grip. In my own tests of electric motorcycles, that's proven itself out for me. And even dedicated MX nuts know that land use issues often begin with the violent bellow produced by motos in the woods, but if they made no noise, the access arguments might get a little less heated.

Electric two-wheelers don't stall if you don't pull in the clutch because they don't have one. Zero wisely added functions like hill holding and regen to emulate features of gas bikes, and manufacturers can easily include multiple power modes to e-motos more easily than they already do for gas machines. There's a learning curve to adapt from riding gas to electric, but arguably you have more control once you dial in the technique.

And the torque curve shrinks to milliseconds, just like in a Rivian, Tesla, or Taycan. In my experience, you have to tamp down acceleration with an electric motorcycle because the power delivery is so instantaneous.

I recently bought a used Kawasaki. It still burns gas, and it was dirt cheap. Yes, it needs some TLC, but despite its cranky character, it runs, parts are plentiful, and I didn't need a loan to afford it or justify it.

My used Kawasaki runs, parts are plentiful, and I didn't need a loan to afford it.

Unlike, say, a used Nissan Leaf, which, relatively speaking, is a quite justifiable and logical purchase and will certainly reduce my carbon footprint vastly more than any electric motorcycle, there simply aren't enough electric motorcycles, let alone used ones, to justify the spend for most Americans who, as I said, largely view riding as a pastime, not primary transportation.

Much like wanting a gently test-driven Rivian to show up for $30,000 on Facebook Marketplace, there's a Grand Canyon between the wants of electric motos and the reality. Zero's Dan Quick may be right that that chasm will close sooner than we think, but if the analogy is the car world, electric motorcycles are in about 2015 and could trail the car market for a few more years.