Politics, Religion and Electric Motorcycles

By Scot Harden

The following is from Issue #25 June 2019 of Cycle News Magazine

Judging from some of the feedback I received on last month’s issue on electric motorcycles it’s pretty clear no other topic in all of motorcycling draws more angst or ire. It's the third rail of any conversation regarding the future of motorcycles and especially motorcycle racing. And just like religion and politics a topic best not discussed amongst friends. However, at the risk of poking the bear one more time, I want to share a few more thoughts on electric motorcycles with the hope of shifting the focus of the conversation and possibly shedding some of the baggage that surrounds them.  

The majority of my career in motorcycling has been spent helping bring new motorcycles to market for OEM’s like KTM and Husqvarna. I also spent 6 years doing the same for an electric motorcycle manufacturer, where I developed a clear understanding of the technology; it’s benefits and limitations. In the process, I heard every objection imaginable by the press, dealers, and consumers. Even my close friends and industry colleagues looked at me like I had grown a third eye when they learned I was working for an electric motorcycle manufacturer. As a group, we are nothing if not deeply passionate about our sport and, as it turns out, fairly rigid in our views about what constitutes a “real” motorcycle. 

As some of your responses demonstrate the biggest challenge facing electric is its connection to hot button topics like global warming, governmental regulation, and personal freedom. Unfortunately, electric technology adoption has been filtered through the lens of these much larger issues from the start.  I think the technical term is “shit-misted”. Of course, it doesn't help that it comes along at a time when, as a society, we are more polarized than ever before especially on topics like climate change.

Instead, I encourage motorcyclists to look at electric power as they would any other new technology and form opinions based solely on their value proposition as motorcycles. We’ve done this before when we went through a similar, although admittedly not as radical, technology shift a few years back when it came to two strokes vs. four strokes for the off-road market. Battle lines were drawn; proponents lined up on both sides of the fence. In the end, four strokes prevailed and look what we got for it. On the plus side, much lighter, more technically sophisticated, high power four strokes. On the downside, higher retail prices, increased maintenance and operational costs, resulting as some might argue in declining ridership. Driving the shift to this technology was the need to meet more stringent emissions requirements or, as some might conclude, global warming and governmental regulation.  The difference between now and then, I don't recall arguments against four-stroke technology adoption connected to global warming as they are today on the subject of electric. 

Setting aside the sound issue for a moment let’s look at the primary ownership experience differences between electric and ICE. Here’s a shortlist on the plus side. Electric motorcycles are 80% more thermally efficient than internal combustion (much less power loss through heat), no vibration, practically zero powertrain maintenance, ease of operation (no shifting or clutch), extremely low operational costs, fantastic torque and acceleration and fuel costs averaging a little over a penny a mile. Anyone looking for basic transportation, commuting, and short, fun weekend rides; electric motorcycles offer everything a traditional motorcycle does in terms of sheer fun and excitement. 

Moreover, electric technology is already having a big impact on the youth motorcycle market. Kids are riding in backyards, in vacant lots and in all sorts of places they couldn’t ride before simply due to the ease of operation (no shifting or clutch) and lack of noise. We need to look no further than the success of companies like Oset and STACYC to see how important they are to the future of motorcycling. And soon KTM and Husqvarna will add a full electric mini-cycle line to its e-Freeride. 

On the downside, electric motorcycles have limited range (currently less than 100 miles On-Highway) and therefore limited utility. In addition, they require excessive downtime when it comes time to refuel/recharge (measured in hours not minutes). The technology comes at a premium price (30 -100% over ICE), and in the initial stages, there are legitimate concerns about obsolescence and diminished resale value as Moore’s Law impacts the technology curve.  These are serious obstacles to ownership and the main reason why the current sales amount to less than ½ of 1% the total market.

Now, let’s discuss sound which can be argued as both a pro and con. Pro: Quiet bikes provide for a heightened sense of awareness and zen-like peace of mind while riding and as mentioned above may be beneficial in opening up new off-road riding areas. Con: Admittedly, quiet bikes are not everyone’s cup of tea, and some will argue sound is one of their primary attractions for riding, and a safety issue as well.  In the end, let’s call it a draw and leave sound as a matter of personal preference.

The bottom line: Electric motorcycles should be judged solely on their value proposition and whether they satisfy your needs and requirements as a rider. Quit connecting them to global warming, governmental regulations and whether or not they are a part of some hidden agenda to control your life, ruin our sport and kill all our fun. Frankly, we have much bigger fish to fry on real issues affecting motorcycling's future (e.g.; trade wars, land use, declining ridership, etc.). 

One thing is certain: Electric power will play a major role in the future of motorcycling. It’s already positively impacting some model segments.  The technology is improving at a rapid rate and just one generation in battery chemistry and energy density away from solving the main objections against them. The more electric vehicles on the road, the less pressure on fossil fuels, oil reserves, and gas prices. This alone should keep internal combustion viable for years to come. I for one am excited about having more options when it comes to motorcycling. At the end of the day, motorcycling is, at least for me, about kinesis and freedom, the sensory experience I get from riding the machine, from unfettered movement through space. It’s about escape from daily life, work, and other pressures. It’s about discipline and competition; a lifestyle that celebrates quality time with friends and family. Most of all it's about the joy I get every time I twist the throttle.

BTW, the last electric bike I rode weighed 500 lbs with 140 ft pounds of torque? Trust me, it was a very joyful thing and never when I opened the throttle did I think I was saving the planet.



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