The main manufacturers of electric motorcycles currently include Brammo, Zero, Lightning Motorcycle, Energica Motor Company, Quantya, Electric Motorsport, Hollywood Electrics, Yo and Lito. These companies are relatively obscure when compared to the motoring giants, but the sector is becoming interesting to larger companies as well. Yamaha, for example, is planning to introduce at least two models while Bultaco has also entered the market this year. Harley Davidson, meanwhile, beat both of them to it with a prototype electric motorcycle in June 2014.
Electric motorcycles first appeared in the late 19th century although a definitive history is somewhat difficult to clarify. A patent application for an ‘electric bicycle’ first appeared in September 1895, filed by Ogden Bolton Jr of Canton, Ohio, with another appearing in November of that same year filed by Hosea W. Libbey of Boston. The Humber bicycle manufacturer Humber exhibited an electric tandem at the Stanley Cycle Show in 1896 which was powered by a bank of batteries but it was primarily intended for racing more than any other use.
Through the 20th century, the development of the electric motorcycle remained distinctly patchy, but by 1996, Electric Motorbike Inc was producing the EMB Lectra which had a top speed of around 45 mph (72 kmh) and a range of 35 miles (56 kilometres).
Zero DS on the road (Pic: Zero Motorcycles)
Ten years later, Zero Motorcycles appeared from initial experiments in a California garage. In April 2009 the company hosted the ‘24 Hours of Electricross’ event in San Jose, the first all-electric off-road endurance race.
Lithium ion batteries have enabled electric motorcycles to catch up with electric cars, although Z Electric Vehicle has pioneered a lead/sodium battery that can compete with lithium ion in size, weight and energy capacity and is less expensive. In general, they take around the same time as an electric car to charge, around 8 hours via ordinary wall outlets with some manufacturers recommending CHAdeMO level 2 chargers capable of achieving a 95 percent charge in an hour. Government incentives aimed at decarbonisation of the transport sector and reducing urban pollution have also helped to make electric models more popular in recent years. These benefits include tax breaks and tax credits, clean air grants for organisations maintaining electric vehicle fleets, special access to parking and riding areas and free charging stations.
Zero is now the world’s biggest producer of electric motorcycles. It’s 2015 range feature Showa suspension and Bosch anti-lock brakes as well as an increased power pack on the Zero S, Zero SR and Zero DS. Many of the bikes have cast alloy wheels and are supported by a battery warranty of 5 years or 160,000 kilometres. The company has also extended the range on its bikes by an extra 10 percent giving the Zero S ZF12.5 a range of 298 kilometres when fitted with an optional Power Tank accessory. Power and regeneration settings on the bikes can be customised via a new app.
As well as motorcycles for everyday use, Zero has developed a range of police and security models which are currently used by government agencies across the US, Europe, South America and Asia. The benefits for police and military use are fairly obvious – they are much lighter and manoeuvrable than conventional bikes, the powertrain is quieter than a standard motorcycle, it’s exhaust free and less expensive in terms of fuel which amounts to about 1 pence (US$0.02) per mile. Zero claims to have reduced maintenance costs on its electric motorcycles by up to 85 percent.
Zero DS (Pic: Zero Motorcycles)
The company does have some serious competitors in the electric motorcycle market, especially since the announcement in 2014 of the forthcoming Harley-Davidson LiveWire. The company’s Model S received a good review in The Telegraph in 2011 but hasn’t done well at all in the UK market since then, forcing its withdrawal from the UK in 2013, but the Zero SR has received good reviews from the British Motorcycle Federation, so maybe the company will bounce back.
According to Digital Trends, Zero’s 2016 strategy seems to be aimed at enticing new riders on to electric bikes and away from gas-fuelled models. In attempting to do so, they have ramped up the power train with the company’s new Z-Force electric motor which features powerful internal magnets and which Zero claims is more efficient and cooler than the previous power pack.
Zero recently displayed its entire range at the AIMExpo in Orlando, Florida, but it still faces the big challenge of price, common to all current EV manufacturers, although costs are falling. The other challenge of course is range, but Zero doesn’t seem to have done too badly with this either.
Whether or not more bike riders will defect to electric remains to be seen, but it’s happening with electric cars, albeit slowly, so there’s no reason to doubt that electric motorcycles should follow steadily on behind.
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