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Will Outrageous Gas Prices Change the World for Electric Motorcycle Makers

With gasoline reaching a nearly economy-gagging $4 a gallon in most areas of the United States, one segment of the country is feeling the potential for consumer love – electric motorcycle manufacturers.

Rarely seen on the nation’s asphalt, at least to this point in time, electric bikes have been available for years, but it’s the new generation of electric motorcycles that are making a sudden splash among commuters. Capable of reaching freeway-friendly speeds and traveling more than 100 miles on a single charge, these new electric motorcycles are sure to escape their current scarce status as the cost of gasoline skyrockets.

Brammo Empulse

“It’s a perfect storm,” says electric motorcycle dealer Harlan Flagg. “You’ve got gas prices going up, electric motorcycle technology developing and people are starting to pay attention and take them seriously.”

Flagg moves his line of $14,000 Zero Electric bikes at the quickest pace.

The motorcycle industry in general, and the electric bike market in particular, could use a little good news. Zero Motorcycles of Scotts Valley, Calif., has managed to sell a paltry 1,000 bikes after five years of trying, and sales of competitor Brammo’s Enertia line have languished in the hundreds.

Scot Harden, VP of Global Marketing for Zero, remains upbeat when talking about projects for his company’s sales. Harden says he expects Zero will move more than 2,000 bikes off showroom floors this year, but that’s till a tiny drop in the bucket when you consider that the motorcycle industry as a whole sold 312,000 street bikes to U.S. buyers for the 2011 model year.

One feature which might help electric motorcycles move into the main stream? They use less than 2 cents of electricity per mile traveled, and that’s one hell of a lot less than gasoline-powered bikes.

A factor which might slow the adoption of electrics? The high initial purchase price of available electric models means you’d have to ride 30,000 miles to recover your initial investment when measured against the purchase and operating cost of a comparable gas-powered machine.

If the major manufacturers enter the fray and create their own electric bikes, expect the price to plummet, but so far none of the major motorcycle manufacturers are selling electric models for the U.S. market. There is talk of that sort of shift, but so far in the big plants, that’s all it is – talk.

Honda Motor Corp. unveiled a prototype electric race bike called the RC-E, and BMW says it plans to bring its first electric scooter to market within three years. KTM, the Austrian manufacturer of high-performance sport-touring bikes, will soon go into production of an all-electric model, the Freeride E, but it will only be offered in Europe this spring.

Should the Freeride E flop during its European introduction, you just plain won’t see them in the U.S.

“Depends how it’s received in Europe,” said Tom Moen of KTM.

And it’s not for lack of performance that American riders have yet to embrace the electric motorcycle revolution. The Brammo Empulse, at $10,000 to $14,000, can move out to 100-plus mph and gets 100 miles per charge if you spring for the top of the line batteries in the most expensive version. It’s the lack of identification with traditional riders that currently holds the electric bikes back.

Brammo is still hoping for a change of heart among riders, and he sees his company at the forefront of the sea change in attitudes.

“Electrics are the first real change in motorcycling in 100 years,” said Craig Bramscher, founder of Brammo. “At the end of the day, especially for existing motorcyclists, green is cool, but it isn’t the driving force.”

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