Electric motorcycles are here, and soon they’ll make sense for many riders. In order to understand the latest crop of electric motorcycles, I think you have to look backward to the development of batteries, electric motors, the bicycle, and the motorcycle itself, which takes us back to the 19thcentury (and even earlier).
A battery is a device that generates and stores electrical energy through a chemical reaction. The first wet cell battery was created in 1800. In 1859, Gustave Plante invented the rechargeable lead-acid wet cell battery that was used in just about every motorcycle until the 2000s. Dry cell batteries were invented by Carl Gassner in 1886, and are used in flashlights, portable electric tools, and now in electric motorcycles.
Michael Faraday described the theory of electrons and magnets creating motion in 1821, which led to the development of the first electric motor by Thomas Davenport in 1834.
The pedal bicycle was put into commercial production in 1868, and bicycles took the world by storm. Of course, innovators wanted to up the ante, and immediately began to explore the idea of adding an electric motor to a bicycle. Louis-Guillame Perreaux filed the first patent for a motorcycle in 1868. The first functional motorcycles were steam-powered. In 1869 patents were filed for electric motorcycles, though batteries and motors were not well-suited to two-wheelers. Gustave Trouve demonstrated the first working electric vehicle in 1881, a tricycle with rechargeable batteries and an electric motor.
Most sources say that the first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle was the Butler Petrol Cycle of 1888, a three-wheeler. The first production two-wheeler to be called a motorcycle was 1894’s Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. The first production motorcycle in the United States was the Orient-Aster, built in Waltham, Massachusetts beginning in 1898. Indian Motocycle (sic) followed in 1901, and Harley-Davidson began production in 1903.
Electric motorcycle development receded into a niche as petrol bikes took off. The big challenge has always been the power source, as wet-cell batteries are bulky and difficult to integrate into a two-wheeled motorcycle. Fuel-cell bikes were developed and built as prototypes, beginning in 1967, and various low-powered, short-range production vehicles began to emerge in the last decades of the 20thCentury.
The 21stCentury has seen a rapid expansion in the production of electric motorcycles. Harley-Davidson has announced production plans for the LiveWire, an all-electric motorcycle, and has teased us with further electric plans. Polaris, Indian’s parent company, bought an electric brand, Brammo, and has hinted at the eventual arrival of electric bikes. Zero Motorcycles currently produces and sells a lineup of five models. Many more brands are working on products to follow.
There are several very good reasons to go electric. First of all, electric bikes use no gasoline (obviously), and are cheap to operate. The maintenance on an electric bike is minimal – there’s no oil, no transmission, no radiator. It’s a breeze to keep an electric bike running. Just keep the battery charged.
An electric motorcycle is nearly silent, which makes it somewhat less offensive to non-riders. This silent operation is good for ear health, and good for situational awareness. You can hear more of what’s going on around you on an electric bike.
Electric motors excel at delivering torque, the twisting force that bikes use to accelerate. Peak torque is available as soon as you open the throttle and continues to be delivered throughout the rev range. On a gasoline-powered bike, you have to wait as torque builds with RPM, and then shift to the next gear as torque tails off, and begin the climb again. One of the bigger challenges with an electric bike is modulating torque so that it doesn’t overcome available traction. Manufacturers accomplish this with electronic intervention, and it gets better and better all the time.
Like any good thing, there are downsides.
The big concern with an electric motorcycle is range. Even the best production electric motorcycles right now are rated for range under 130 miles per full charge. That doesn’t seem so bad, until you factor in charge time, which can extend to 10 hours or more using 120-volt household current. Level 2 (240-volt) chargers can cut that down significantly, and some Fast-Charge-capable bikes can be returned to a full charge from “empty” in 45 minutes or less. But even the fastest charges available take much longer than a gas-station fill-up, and charger availability varies greatly, depending on where you’re riding.
While I see silent operation as an advantage, many riders are concerned that without sound, they’re invisible to other traffic and pedestrians. While I don’t agree with the “Loud Pipes Save Lives” crowd, there is some legitimate concern that an extremely quiet bike might not get noticed on the road.
The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of electric motorcycles today is cost. The least-expensive worthy examples at present start at about $9,000. Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire has been announced with a starting price of $29,995, and there are many bikes in between. New gasoline-powered motorcycles of similar capability and range can start as low as $4,000, and used bikes can be even cheaper than that.
As more people explore and buy electric motorcycles, the technology will continue to develop, and prices are bound to fall. The big question isn’t whyconsider an electric motorcycle – it’s whento consider an electric motorcycle.