(This article was published in the August 2012 issue of Rider Magazine.)
“Motorcyclists…will welcome a new type of electric motorcycle which is being introduced, and which, it is claimed, will run from 75 to 100 miles on a single battery charge, start instantly on the turn of a switch, and run absolutely without noise.”
Thus began a news item in Popular Mechanics…from 1911! Internal combustion motorcycles went on the rule to roadways, of course, while electric bikes faded into obscurity. In recent years, however, fueled by concerns about pollution and a finite supply of oil, as well as advancements in battery and electric motor technology, electric motorcycles have undergone a renaissance. Although their range and power are limited and recharging them can take hours, e-bikes offer lower emissions (even when considering the power plant that produces the electricity), higher efficiency, less noise and instant torque.
The proliferation of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, like those found in laptops and other portable electronic devices, has been an important step in the evolution of electric motorcycles. Bill Dubé’s 500-plus-horsepower KillaCycle, the world’s fastest electric bike, zapped an impressive 7.8-second/168-mph quarter-mile in 2007, powered by 1,210 of the same battery cells found in DeWalt cordless power tools. The brains behind race bikes like KillaCycle or the Moto-Electra Norton (Rider, July 2012) push the development of electric motorcycle technology, but they’re often hindered by small budgets. Major manufacturers, with the exception of KTM’s Freeride E, an electric version of its Freeride 350 dirt bike, have mostly limited themselves to electric concept bikes. Two U.S.-based start-ups—Zero and Brammo—are leading the way in terms of producing street-legal motorcycles for the general public.
Zero Motorcycles, based in Santa Cruz, California, has been manufacturing street-legal electric bikes since 2009, with its S (street), DS (dual-sport) and XU (urban crosser) models. Last year we tested a Zero S (Rider, September 2011), a fun, lightweight bike that fell well short of its claimed 56-mile range and topped out at an indicated 74 mph. Zero’s street lineup has been heavily revamped for 2012, featuring air-cooled brushless permanent-magnet motors, 300,000-plus-mile Z-Force power packs, belt final drive, Sport/Eco riding modes and regenerative braking that helps recharge the battery when slowing down. Claimed range is now as high as 114 miles, and the S is said to be capable of an 88-mph top speed. All Zero models are available now through dealers, with prices ranging from $7,695 for the 3 kWh XU to $11,495 (6 kWh) or $13,995 (9 kWh) for the S and DS.
In 2009, Brammo, based in Ashland, Oregon, began selling its Enertia through Best Buy consumer electronics stores. Now it offers the Enertia and Enertia Plus through a few dealers and its website. In May, Brammo held a world release party for the Empulse and Empulse R, which feature 10.2 kWh battery packs, liquid-cooled, permanent-magnet AC motors, Normal/Sport riding modes, regenerative braking and 6-speed gearboxes. Brammo incorporated a gearbox because it felt that shifting was an important part of the motorcycle experience, and because it helps the bike achieve its top speed, said to exceed 100 mph. Claimed range is up to 121 miles. The Empulse R ($18,995), with higher-spec, fully adjustable suspension, should be available this fall, with the Empulse ($16,995) to follow in early 2013.
Zero and Brammo e-bikes are not cheap, but state and federal incentives can reduce the sticker price and both companies offer financing and 2-year warranties. Once paid for, e-bikes cost just pennies to recharge, and their batteries and motors are largely maintenance-free. From “empty” to fully charged, depending on battery capacity, recharge times can range from 3-9 hours at 110 volts to 2-5 hours at 220 volts. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 75 percent of Americans drive/ride less than 40 miles/day, which makes these bikes perfect for commuting or short weekend rides.