Electric motorcycles have long been seen as a niche, but it can be the answer to revitalize a declining market.
It is impossible to ignore the deep and rich culture that has existed within the world of motorcycles and its riders. The thrill of the open road, the camaraderie, and the roar of rallies that have become synonymous with being on two wheels—the history of this industry has been defined by more than just the make of a motorcycle; there is an intangible essence that contributes to the spirit of this culture. While so much of the culture is looking to the past, both collectively and individually, it is important to remember to look to the future as well. When a disruptive technology emerges from the horizon, some may believe it is an opportunity to evolve the cultural landscape in a positive manner. Today, that could be electric motorcycles, or “EV motorcycles”.
The difference between traditional ICEs and EVs isn’t just a matter of different sources of energy and method of propulsion; it brings with it a completely different way to manufacture, design, and especially when it comes to motorcycles, how to operate it. The motorcycle industry might be on the cusp of a breakthrough in technology that brings with it fundamental questions about what defines motorcycles as an idea, what new ways of riding will occur, and what culture will form around this change. As the technology for electric motorcycles has gradually become more and more viable; with costs going down and more infrastructure being built, the increase in demand for electric motorcycles perpetuates a cycle of lower costs, reliable infrastructure, and growing demand. Contrary to previous thought, electric motorcycles are poised to be the most accessible motorcycles for beginners. So, given that current trends show fewer and fewer riders within the motorcycle world, what is it exactly about electric motorcycles that might appeal to new riders?
Manual gear shifting, one of the many barriers presented to anyone looking to start riding.
To almost everyone who has extensively ridden an ICE motorcycle, manual shifting is one of the joys of the hobby. What is something that would be considered a hassle in theory – constantly working the clutch and shifting with your left hand and foot is seen as a quint-essential part of riding a motorcycle. Yet, for new riders, it is an entire other skill they have to learn on top of being on two wheels. Considering how big of a financial and time investment a motorcycle hobby can be, the obstacles at the start of the journey, even if small in hindsight, can appear daunting. While some may argue that anyone not willing to overcome these beginning challenges is most likely not naturally suited to the harder challenges that will arise down the line of riding a motorcycle, lowering the entry skills needed to get started will only attract more people, which the industry desperately needs.
While automatic transmissions in cars are common, the same cannot be said for their two-wheeled counterparts. Automatic motorcycles exist but the choices are few and far between. Looking at the list of motorcycles that use Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), the only viable form of automatic transmission, reveals its flaw right away: Honda Africa Twin, Honda NT1100, Honda Rebel 1100, Honda NC750X, Honda Gold Wing, etc. Honda’s patent on the DCT gives it a de facto monopoly on the automatic motorcycle market. For some people, this might be no problem at all, but for others, having to only rely on Honda makes choices quite limiting—overly so. So what is one to do?
Electric motorcycles, No shifting, No problem.
The answer is to look towards bikes that don’t require a transmission to begin with. Some big names in the industry are now starting to offer electric motorcycles, such as the Harley-Davidson’s Livewire One, BMW CE02, and the Vespa Elettrica to name a few. EV powertrains inherently do not require a transmission to operate efficiently, thus naturally making it easy to ride. Furthermore, the absence of legal rights over an EV powertrain allows companies to innovate and improve upon the technology since the avenue for automatic transmissions is either a CVT or theoretically offer Honda millions of dollars to supply their DCT for other manufacturers. Ultimately, these electric bikes greatly help beginners overcome the barrier to entry into riding motorcycles, while still providing a great riding experience.
Some cities have banned or will ban ICE motorcycles
Almost 20 years ago, some cities in China started to ban motorcycles entirely. In 2002, Shanghai announced the total ban of all motorcycles by the end of 2005. Head of the traffic unit of Shanghai’s Public Security Bureau at the time stated that motorcycles were inefficient, accounting for only 2.1% of total passenger volume and pollution, with emissions being 30 times higher than that of passenger cars.
In the following years after the ban, locals started to ride electric two wheelers that weren’t powerful enough to be classified as motorcycles.
There are now many other cities around the world that are starting to introduce legislation that restricts or even prohibits motorcycles to some extent within their cities in an effort to combat pollution, such as Paris’s ban on older motorcycles or London’s congestion charge. EVs hold immense appeal for many people, especially those living in cities. Emitting zero tailpipe emissions, electric motorcycles offer an exceptionally clean mode of transportation, especially when powered by renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Another green point for electric motorcycles comes in the form of energy efficiency: conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, despite their high energy density, exhibit a low energy conversion efficiency of only 20% to 30%. This stark contrast further establishes electric motorcycles as an exemplary role model of energy technology, boasting efficiency levels of 80% to 90%. Moreover, electric motorcycles, in their pursuit of sustainability, also address another pressing issue—noise pollution.
The mechanical nature of ICE motorcycles can also be a negative, to many people.
The noise generated by larger ICE motorcycles can be intimidating. The constant and often deafening sound of the engine and exhaust can hinder one’s ability to focus – sensory overload, as one may consider it. However, electric motorcycles, by their very design, offer a quieter alternative. As global noise pollution levels continue to rise, electric motorcycles provide an alternative mode of transportation that is almost silent. Furthermore, as the demand for sustainable solutions continues to surge, electric motorcycles are poised to become the gateway for a new generation embracing environmentally conscious practices. By combining their emission-free operation with their low noise output, electric motorcycles represent a pivotal advancement in both green technology and the overall riding experience, capturing the aspirations of individuals seeking a greener and quieter future.
Electric motorcycles also offer a more streamlined process for maintenance. Traditional ICE motorcycles have an enthusiastic, passionate group that loves to maintain, tinker around with them, sometimes baby their bikes as though they were a beautiful art piece. This commitment to caring for engineering and artistic marvels is admirable, but looking from a beginner’s perspective, the amount of moving parts to maintain and keep track of can be daunting to many people.
Thus, electric motorcycles can shine in this aspect, as maintenance is particularly straightforward. The simplicity of the drivetrain means that for many electric motorccyles, only coolant flushes and brake pad changes are necessary on a routine service. The lack of moving parts and simpler systems mean that servicing an electric motorcycle takes less time and will cost less over a period of time. One thing that should be important to consider is that a certain level of expertise is needed when servicing an electric motorcycle, as the parts are electrically complex, unlike the mechanical logic of ICEs. However, the ease, and the lack of maintenance, that electric motorcycles provide should pose no obstacle for a beginner rider that doesn’t want to wrench on their machine.
Finally, one of the more pragmatic reasons that electric motorcycles can expect to bring in new riders is the growing economic incentive. While electric motorcycles have historically been associated with higher prices for arguably low-performance vehicles, the technology has recently caught up to the point where electric motorcycles show viability equal to their ICE counterparts. This allows the low operational costs of electric motorcycles to shine through, as the electricity needed to power an EV is significantly lower than gasoline or diesel. There are many factors to consider when calculating costs for both electric and ICE motorcycles, but a general rule of thumb is that charging an electric motorcycle is around 200% cheaper than refueling a traditional motorcycle, though it is not uncommon for that figure to be up into the 1000% area. This means that a $33 refuel on an ICE is usually as cheap as $11 and can reach as low as $3 for electric motorcycles. These are just considering the current climate for electric vehicles. Naturally, this is obviously appealing to anyone wanting to save money, but more importantly, it gives those who are unable to make a large financial commitment a chance to get into the motorcycle world.
As electric motorcycles push against the limits of current technology, it’s important that they play a large role in bringing future riders into this riding culture with a long history. No longer are electric motorcycles just a toy for early adopters. These modern, efficient, quiet, accessible, and economical vehicles are a glimpse of what the future has to hold for not just the motorcycle industry but the world of transportation as well.