For me, motorcycles have always been about internal combustion. The aroma of gas and oil. The percussive report of an engine at full throttle. It’s the sound and vibration as much as the propulsion that makes a ride what it is – a visceral experience.
Will that gut-moving experience be the same on a machine powered by an engine which runs – and sounds – as smooth as modern sewing machine?
Probably not, but there’s no use pining for the old days; the inevitable future now looms large on the horizon and it’s coming like a nearly silent freight train down the tracks to a motorcycle dealer near you.
Electric motorcycle makers failed to wave the flag at the recent Progressive International Motorcycle Show in New York, but the count on the plug-in bikes to gain popularity by leaps and bounds in the next few years. One analyst who covers the market says it is so, so let it be written. At this point, few Americans ride electric motorcycles as only about 1,300 units were sold in this county last year. Dave Hurst, a clean technology expert with Pike Research, thinks sales of electric motorcycles will grow to something over 30,000 by 2017.
It’s pretty likely that anyone who currently owns an electric motorcycle also have a stable piston-powered bikes, but the lure of the new technology (and perhaps to a lesser degree, the eco-friendliness of electric bikes) will prove appealing to motorcyclists in the coming years as battery technology and performance improve, at least, according to Hurst.
So who’s leading the pack in the electric motorcycle manufacturing race right now?
Zero Motorcycles seems to be poised to push the field. One of the top electric motorcycle manufacturers selling in the United States, the company’s bikes made in Santa Cruz, Calif., are priced at between $7,695 and 11,495. The demographic for Zero’s customers skews a little on the elderly side at between 35 and 50 years old, and it’s the price of what is still essentially a toy that means only the affluent are the target market.
Zero doesn’t disclose exact sales figures but they do say their premium and longer-range models – those with a range of 114 miles per charge – are the most popular.
“Right now, the folks that are buying these are wealthy enough that the cost isn’t a major concern,” says Hurst. “I do think that the cost is definitely going to become a issue as you try to reach a broader audience.”
One company set on stepping into the marketplace in that lower-priced segment, a New York-based firm, Evolve Motorcycles, plans to fill the gap with a line of plug-in motorcycles and scooters to serve a less cash-heavy buying public. Benjamin Plum, Evolve’s founder, says Evolve are nearly ready to ship their version of electric scooters to nearly a dozen dealerships across the country and they plan to offer an electric motorcycle within the next couple of years.
“The motorcycle market is actually shrinking in some areas and expanding slower than the scooter market due to the worldwide economic climate,” says Plum.
Evolve scooters can be had for between $2,900 and $6,900, and while that isn’t exactly cheap, Plum says he’s hoping lower prices might draw first-time motorcycle buyers.
According to Hurst, dealerships that sell electric motorcycles will get a boost from simply having them on the showroom floor. Zero currently numbers 43 dealerships on their list in North America and expects more to sign on by this spring.
“Traditional power sports dealers that would handle a Honda Goldwing or something like that have been sort of shying away from them, but we’re starting to see that turn,” Hurst said.
In the performance electric motorcycle market, another American company, Brammo, is making some waves.
“Brammo and Zero have really been focused on some specialized markets,” Hurst said.