Electric vehicles have long been a staple of science fiction, and have been hyped as being the next big thing for years.
You may be surprised to learn that the first patent for an electric motorcycle was issued in the 1890s, but it’s only recently that technology has begun catching up with the dream. With the British government offering subsidies for purchasers of new electric vehicles, Bikesure takes a look at what’s hot and what’s not.
Electric scooters were the first kind of electric motorcycle to hit the market in significant numbers. This isn’t surprising, as the overall lowered expectations of performance help to hide the inadequacies of the technology.
Two wheels good, four wheels bad
But what if you want an actual “two wheels good, four wheels bad” motorcycle? Well, firstly you’re going to need some deep pockets. While you can get a ‘leccy scooter without breaking the bank like it’s been smashed with the fist of an angry god, more powerful electric motorcycles are a lot more expensive.
And a lot of them – most of the good ones, if we’re honest – aren’t even available in the UK, so be prepared to import if you fall in love with something. But for trailblazers with deep pockets, there are some very nice, and interesting, bikes out there.
There are plenty of advantages to electric motorcycles. Aside from the environmental benefits, electric motors are incredibly efficient. All acceleration is handled directly by the motor, meaning there’s no need for a gearbox or clutch.
And while the lack of engine noise might be a turn-off to purists, increasing numbers of complaints are being generated by motocross tracks, so electric powered vehicles may well be the future for that and other bike sports that have to exist alongside the public.
Fundamentally this means that, like scooters, electric motorcycles are currently best suited for certain situations. They make ideal urban commuters, with the stop-start nature of city travelling working to their advantage as battery power lasts longer.
Power consumption when motionless is much less than an internal combustion engine idling, and if the bikes are fitted with regenerative braking, small amounts of power can be recharged.
But what is actually available? Let’s dig beyond the photoshopped concept vehicles so beloved of manufacturers and have a look at what you could go and buy right now.
Probably the best bet for non-millionaires right now is the range of bikes from Zero. Coming in both road and off-road flavours, they have one of the largest electric ranges of any manufacturer. Highlights include the Zero S, a streetfighter-styled city bike with a maximum range of 200 miles per charge.
Now, as with any electric motorcycle, that figure assumes that you’ll only ever be travelling along a perfectly flat road at a constant speed. In the real world, every incline and change in speed is going to reduce this figure, which can also be affected by temperature and a whole slew of factors.
However, whether you’re riding it in the Platonic world of perfect idea-forms or just the boring old real world, unless your journey is pretty epic it should hold enough charge to get you to where you’re going.
If you’re craving a little Italian style with your electrobike, Energica have you covered. While they only have two models, they’re chunkily futuristic, looking like they might transform into wisecracking robots at any second. The Eva is a streetfighter-styled bike while the Ego is a sportsbike capable of 150mph. Obviously this speed will have an effect on range, and it can only do 90 miles on a charge at 50mph – going down to 60 at 60mph.
Bultaco is a Spanish manufacturer which relauched in 2014. Between 1958 and 1983 it predominantly made 2-stroke motorcycles including the iconic Sherpa T, which dominated Trials championships during the 1970s.
Following decades of dormancy the brand was relaunched with a range of electric vehicles which extend their legacy, from the hybrid bike/moped Brinco, which is an ideal off-road sports bike, to the Rapitán, which is their stab at a more fully featured roadbike. Available in normal and sports versions, it has a maximum range of 80 miles per charge and a top speed of 90mph, making it a great urban gadabout, but with half the range of the Zero you better be sure there’s a plug socket at each of your destinations to be on the safe side.
Diving headfirst into the world of vapourtech, Lightning’s first product is the LS-218. While it’s not actually available yet they are accepting reservations on their website, and testing at Bonneville (on the one model that currently definitely exists) saw it reach speeds of 218mph.
It was the first electric bike to win the Pikes Peak hill climb, making it one of the fastest motorcycles in the world, electric or not.
But will it actually get released? Costing $38,000, it’s not cheap, and with very little indication of exactly how long you have to wait before getting your hands on it, you have to be rich enough to be able to throw that money away without it hurting. Infrequent social media updates mean very little, and while there are signs that things are happening behind the scenes, it would not be a massive surprise to read about the company folding without having built any meaningful number of machines.
…Because things like that seem to happen a lot to electric motorcycles. Case in point: as this article was being written, it was announced that Polaris was shutting down their Victory marque, which included the Empulse. While this was very little to do with their one electric vehicle, it does highlight the problem of buying something that may not be officially supported very soon after you buy it. You might be able to snaffle a bargain as existing dealers attempt to get rid of stock, but that’s less useful when you’re trying to find that one spare part that’s not available any more.
Now this is another interesting one. The Johammer J1 essentially goes back to first principles and redesigns the motorcycle around the demands of an electrical system rather than attempting to force it into a standard motorcycle frame.
The result is something like a futuristic update of the Streamline style popular in the 1930s, or a robot prawn. Nice details like having dash displays built into the rear view mirror help keep it looking sleek and eye-catching, which it will have plenty of opportunity to do with its somewhat pedestrian top speed of 75mph.
With prices starting at £20,000 and – most likely – a trip to Austria to collect it on top, it’s another toy for the wealthy, albeit the slightly less wealthy. At the very least it’s unique.
KTM’s two electric bikes are just as home off-road as on. As they’re tuned for sports, the batteries aren’t the most powerful, giving about one hour of riding, but they can be fully charged in 80 minutes, so they’ll suit anyone who only travels shortish distances to places where they’ll have access to a power point. But if you’re into off-road sports then it could be perfect. As long as you don’t mind regular breaks to top up the batteries.
Taking a different route
So far we’ve looked at electric motorcycles that try to replicate the look and capabilities of their petrol powered cousins. But recent years have seen the rise of a hybrid style midway between electric bicycle and moped.
Now, this may irk the purists but it arguably makes more sense as an urban commuter than its beefier cousins – easier to manoeuvre, easier to park, safer, cheaper…
Expect to see a lot more of these hybrids in the future. Leading the vanguard of this new breed is eTricks, a French company with a range of electro-mountain-peds.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, then check out other companies announcing their takes on this form.
For example, the recently announced Munro 2.0 is the perfect mid-point between bi- and motor- cycle, and as long as they manage to hit the expected price tag of under two grand they could be on to a winner.
Less aesthetically pleasing but potentially more practical is the Monday M1, from a new startup based in California.
The main takeaway here is that in the future there’ll be plenty more electric options open to people who enjoy two-wheeled transport. As long as they actually get released, that is. And speaking of which…
One of the main things that became apparent while researching this article: there’s an awful lot of electric bikes that get announced as the next big thing, pick up plenty of attention then quietly disappear down the collective memory hole.
And you can understand why, it’s a great way to demonstrate your green credentials and commitment to building a better future.
Going on to actually release something for the public is a real gutsy move for any manufacturer, because once real people start using it they’d quickly come up against the million tiny compromises you have to make to get this stuff to work with current technology.
Take, for example, something like the C-1 from Lit Motors. The idea of a self-balancing motorcycle/car hybrid caught a lot of people’s attention back in 2012, with the company raising nearly $2 million from Silicon Valley investors.
Since then, they have gone on to release nothing. Partly this is down to the myriad challenges of designing something with innovative technology, but as time goes on their Facebook page is seeing more comments from disillusioned potential customers.
A worrying sign about the company’s long term prospects
They’ve also stopped taking pre-orders, which is certainly a wise move in terms of not over committing but could also be taken as a worrying sign about the company’s long term prospects.
What’s more, they’ve now reached the stage that Chinese companies are building their own version of the concept, for a fraction of the price.
While the original may be theoretically better, it really doesn’t mean squat if it exists only as a series of prototypes used to impress new investors.
Even Harley Davidson aren’t immune to this. Back in 2014 they announced the Livewire, their first electric bike. We were told it would be in production soon, and prototypes were sent to Harley dealerships around the world to help spread the electric word.
Two years later, they announced with slightly less fanfare that they planned on having the Livewire on general sale at some point within the next five years.
Now, if any company is able to actually create a viable product it’ll be the lads and ladies from Milwaukee, and while five years is a lifetime they’re presumably attempting to iron out all the issues. Or maybe they’re letting everyone forget about it and quietly moving on.
Of course we shouldn’t be too cynical – many companies will announce an amazing new product that never gets released when they realise the limits of the market or change the focus of the company. For example, the Saietta NGS was announced in late 2015 and generated a lot of interest with its futuristic styling and performance.
A commercial product was initially promised in 12 months, which never seemed to change over the following year even while prototypes were impressing journalists.
Then in early February 2017 the Saietta Motorcycle website disappeared.
They confirmed to us that they had no plans to go into full production with the motorcycle, focussing instead on using them as methods of promoting the power and versatility of their motors. Which is absolutely fair enough, and considering what they’ve been used to achieve so far indicates that they will remain key parts of many record breaking electric vehicles for the foreseeable future.
The good news for anyone eager to achieve electric perfection is that the main stumbling block at this stage is battery size and power.
To put it simply, we’ve reached the limit of what batteries can currently do. Until something new comes along, the choice is between serviceable but lower quality Chinese product or expensive toys for millionaires. There’s a steady drip-feed of promising hints that an advance in battery power is close, but nothing concrete yet. Yet.
Rolling your own
If you can’t be bothered to wait either for a lottery win or scientists to pull their fingers out and invent the damn thing already, there is an alternative. There’s a growing number of people who have taken existing motorcycles and adapted them into electric beasts.
OK, so it’s best if you’re fluent both in mechanics and electronics, but if you are absolutely set on owning an electric motorcycle, it is undeniably one of the options open to you.
Without wanting to confuse you with technical details, the two main considerations are choosing the right motor and choosing the right battery. To do the latter, you’ll need to take into account the weight of the finished bike (including the rider).Then it’s entirely down to how much money and time you’re willing to put into it.
You can either connect many small batteries together, or a smaller amount of larger batteries, whatever you can get your hands on. You might need to make your own electronic control system to make it go and stop, but there are plenty of DIY projects out there if you’re confident with a soldering iron, or off-the-shelf solutions if not.
Even with the best will in the world, there’ll be plenty of trial and error before you get it right, so this should really only be considered if you’re fairly sure of your abilities.
Are you tempted to become an electric warrior and join the revolution? Get wired in the comments!