Life on bikesThe Future

Are electric motorcycles really our future?

38 million electric motorcycles were sold globally in 2015, mostly in China. In the UK in the same year, electric bike sales were 70% higher than the year before.

Even that last bastion of monster engine engineering, Harley-Davidson has plans to launch an electrically-powered motorbike by 2020. So it looks like electric bikes are going to be big. But they really going to appeal to bikers?

If we look ahead even just a decade it’s clear that biking is going to be very different from today, with, at least in towns, a large percentage of bikes being electrically-powered.

How do we know?

There are a couple of clues in recent policy announcements and consultations.

Sadiq Khan, London’s Major, recently announced that bikes registered before 2007, and therefore not Euro 4 compliant, would be subject to heinous new congestion charge levies.

This is wrong, as it penalises ordinary bikers who can’t afford a newer bike.

However, social fairness isn’t the Mayor’s focus. That would be his bigger problem – London’s currently illegal levels of pollution. To which bikes – yes bikes that are more resource efficient in both fuel, raw materials used in manufacturing, road surface area and parking space – do make a contribution, we admit.

And logically, even with Euro 4 bikes around, the only technology that is really going to help big cities combat serious pollution, currently, is the electrically-powered motor.

It’s not just London that has a problem with pollution – it affects many of our major towns and cities and when London leads by policy, others often follow.

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Polluting bikes are not flavour of the month

The Government has now granted electrically powered bikes the same status as cars. It announced in October 2016 that up to £1500 would be available as a Gov’t grant towards an electric bike.

Which will be great news to commuting, financially-conscious bikers who will also appreciate making a positive contribution to the environment (let’s leave to one side the issue of how electricity is currently produced from fossil fuels for the moment – my personal belief is that hydrogen is the way forward but let’s stay with the current consensus towards electrically-powered vehicles).

So electric bikes are flavour of the month

Looked at purely from an emission-at-the-tail-pipe angle, electric bikes appeal to the head.

The trouble is, the rest of the biking community is going to be deeply unsatisfied by the replacement of the internal combustion engine with the electrically-powered motor. It’s where our heart is.

We love the sound of a loud can. We love blipping the revs on the way down. We love overrun on a twin and pops on a Big Bang. Some of us even love the smell of exhaust fumes.

So the very last thing we are going to want to ride is a silent, single geared soulless ‘automaton’ of a machine.

Or is it?

Believe me, I am no fan of the idea of electric vehicles. I have a 1000cc, twin-exhausted absolute monster of a bike that can do 186mph and I’ve tried to burn plenty of fuel trying to reach that limit (on the track). I am an un-reconstituted biker and I don’t care if some carrot munching, plastic-shoed freedom Nazi doesn’t like it.

But I do care about the environment. I’m not totally convinced about the argument for electrically-powered vehicles, as much of the source of the electricity comes from heavily-polluting carbon-fuelled power stations that take their energy from coal imports – itself an environmental disaster area that causes way more pollution than the nation’s motorbikes.

And I do believe in technology.

I believe that technology will be used to not just deliver a motorcycle that will be beneficial to the environment, but that will also be a joy to ride – for all the reasons bikers usually love.

So despite a fear that the R1 of electric motorbikes is going to be some way off, I think, with enough investment, that a future measured in kWh may not be as bad as some might think. And I’m not alone.

In the US, electric ‘highway legal’ bikes, as opposed to commuter scooters, are starting to be big business. Victory has bought one of the early pioneers, Brammo and we’ve already mentioned that Harley are getting involved.

Over in Japan, Yamaha has produced the PES2 and PED2, a street bike and dirt bike respectively. And from what we see in the videos, these bikes are going to be serious in the fun stakes.

In Italy, Energica is producing some handsome bikes – once you’ve wrapped an engine in fairings these bikes look as good as any other. And they pretty well too, with the Energica Ego 45 topping out at 149mph.

And then there’s the UK’s very own, ultra-pioneering Saietta. A pure-bred, ground-up reimagining of what the motorcycle will be, the Saietta looks like nothing else (except a bison, in profile) and, developed alongside a racing team that has won the the Moto-E Racing Championship, goes pretty well too.

Steve Parrish is converted by the Saietta

So electric bikes are coming. There have been advances in battery and heat management that mean sports and naked bikes are going to be hitting our showrooms in ever increasing numbers.

But will we truly embrace electric bikes? What will it take to get bikers who love the speed, sound and even smell of petrol engines to embrace the slower, silent and relatively odourless newcomer?

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Less goes wrong

Electric bikes have far fewer components to go wrong. Which is great news for me, as I’m a complete spanner with a wrench.

Beyond tyres and brake pads, there’s no servicing. No oil changes or radiator fluids to change every five years. No timing chains or piston rings to worry about.

Electric bikes are just about as easy to live with as it gets. Weep silently, dear mechanic friends.

Acceleration

Hands up, I haven’t ridden an electric-motored bike yet. I can only go on what I’ve read. And everything points towards bonkers torque.

There’s no slipping the clutch in or prepping for the power band. There is a just a linear delivery of power.

Saietta claims a 0-60mph time of under three seconds. That’s better than A Triumph Daytona 675R.

An electric sports bike will have the weight and balance of a 250cc bike but the power delivery of a 600. And it will keep going right up to 100mph plus, without the need to change gear, leaving you to focus completely on the acceleration.

Better still, on many electric motorbikes you can programme in the power curve you want. So if you’d like a gentler start with a nice fat curve up to 70mph buffer tailing off to keep your licence, there’s no need for a trip to the dyno. Just select the power delivery profile you want and it’s delivered electronically.

No changing gears

Electric bikes don’t have gears as they have CVT – the Continuously Variable Transmission that delivers that single band of oomph.

And that’s a problem for me. Most of the time I love changing gear. It’s an inherent part of the spirit of riding – drop a gear and disappear.

I blip on change-down, not to match revs so as to listen to the engine. The only tattoo I’ve ever seriously contemplated is getting 1 N 2 3 4 5 6 on my left ankle.

Bike gears are a big thing for me and for many other bikers.

Is that a problem? If you ever ridden Brands Hatch’s Clearways corner ineptly – fast double apex (on the Indy circuit) where you are powering out of the corner but still on lean and need to ping up early for the straight – then you’ll know that sometimes changing gear is a pain in the arse.

Not everyone has a slipper clutch, but if you’ve ever ridden aggressively and mistimed your change-downs and locked up the rear, you’ll know that gears aren’t always all they are cracked up to be.

In fact no matter how much pleasure an acutely-timed gear change can give, much of the time it’s a pain in the backside.

I think many people will happily do without them. It’s a fact that getting your head around one down, five up gearing is a factor in some people not taking up motorcycles.

And wouldn’t dirt biking be a whole lot more fun without worrying about changing gear? Step up the Alta Redshift MX. As they say on their website, “Designed for MX2 class riding, without the seconds lost from hunting through gears searching for torque.”

Perhaps we could live without gears. But what about the final part of the biking pleasure jigsaw, sound?

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Sound

A big part of biking is the sound it makes. We’ve all used the ‘louder cans are safer’ excuse. Completely baloney. We like big tuned, often louder exhaust notes because they sound great to us.

But that ‘to us’ part is all we actually need. The bike doesn’t need to sound amazing to anyone else – it just needs to sound great to the rider. Bear with me.

For years, car manufacturers have augmented the latest, quieter engines with a manufactured soundtrack. http://www.caranddriver.com/features/faking-it-engine-sound-enhancement-explained-tech-dept

The BMW M5, plays an enhanced soundtrack through the car’s speakers to give the driver a feel for the engine – notes that have externally disappeared from the sound the car actually makes.

It’s entirely possible to do the same for bikes – delivering an enhanced engine note through helmet speakers. Linked to throttle response, the electric engine could deliver sound files, with a variety of styles from a knucklehead Harley to a Termingoni’d 959 Panigale or whatever the rider chooses.

If you think this is a nuts idea, how many people play GTA or Need for Speed in automatic mode, quite happily sucking up the entirely faked gear changes…

Quite how that works when simulating gear changes on a single ratio bike is, erm, interesting. So I’ll leave that for the sound designers to answer.

But it may be that the bikes themselves will produce a decent sound. The Saietta NGS is rumoured to be coming with a very detractive soundtrack of its own.

So if sound, speed and riding style could all be solved through technology, it means the bike of the future is going to be silent, fast and battery powered.

Or is it…?

Range…

It’s the Achilles heel of electric bikes. In the same way hydrogen technology is hampered by the lack of a hydrogen pump infrastructure, electric power is held back by the short distances between charges.

149mph on an Energica Ego 45? Not for long. If you want to do just 100 miles on one, you’ll need to stick to 50mph. How much fun is that?

Even with recent advances in vehicle fuel-cell technology, mileage range is going to be the biggest issue in adoption for most leisure bikers.

We’ll take the fake soundtrack, we’ll happily lap up the torque but, after caning it on a few country roads, will we be prepared to pull over after just an hour’s riding?

Electric bikes are part of the future. But not all of it.

Get yourself sorted:

Want to know more about the bikes we’ve mentioned here?

http://www.zeromotorcycles.com/
http://www.energicamotor.com/en/
http://saiettamotorcycles.com/
http://www.altamotors.co/

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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He's 'down' to three bikes at the moment:

'97 Triumph Daytona T595
'11 Triumph Tiger 800
'13 Triumph Speed Triple R

He's not even a huge Triumph fan, it just turns out that's how the stable is filled at the moment.

Having been on every continent except Antartica (as long as Cuba kind-of qualifies as South America) he is a big fan of travelling. However, to his deep but hopefully not eternal shame, he's only ever explored Europe on two-wheels and only started doing this a few years ago.

His main mission now is to explore as much of the world on two wheels as possible, at the same time as trying out as many new motorcycling experiences as he can and go on to inspire other bikers to do the same.