Electric bikes are becoming more prominent, if not in showrooms or people’s garages, then at least in headlines and at motorcycle shows. I’m all for electric-powered two-wheelers, though in their current state, I don’t think they have much of a future. The biggest problem with electron-driven bikes isn’t their limited range; it’s the way they’re being marketed. They are targeted at motorcycle enthusiasts – you and I – despite the fact that we’re the least likely to buy into this new form of transportation that is both more expensive and less practical than its gas-powered equivalent.
We ride bikes – in North America at least – primarily for recreation. We ride with friends on weekends just for the sake of riding. We trail ride, sport ride, sport tour, adventure tour, or just plain tour because we derive a genuine pleasure from the act of riding. Although they’re out there, there are very few people who own a motorcycle just to commute or run errands. Yet, because of an electric bike’s quiet, gas- and emissions-free operation and limited range, it’s these riders that are probably the most likely to benefit from them.
These types of riders are not looking for the latest, multi-adjustable inverted forks or multi-piston radial-caliper brakes. They’re looking for value and practicality; an inexpensive means of transportation that threads easily through traffic, has enough storage capacity to carry the minimal daily articles, provides a measure of weather protection – with the added benefit of not needing constant fill ups of expensive gasoline. Throw in zero emissions and the package looks very enticing – for the average commute, say, under 50 km each way.
But, electric bike makers insist on producing naked bikes with road-race-ready aluminum frames (Zero), and loading their products with high-end chassis components (the Brammo Empulse has fully adjustable suspension and supersport-spec 17-inch tires). These high-end items appeal to the rider/enthusiast, but would you take one for a ride through twisties with your sport-bike-riding buddies on a Sunday morning? You might make it to the winding roads – maybe even kick a few asses along those first few bends – but you’ll eventually need a charge that will last several hours. Game over.
And the six-speed Empulse, which has promising lightweight sport bike performance and those race-spec tires – would you take it out on a track day? You’ll put in one fast session and then sit out three or four sessions waiting for it to charge up. So what’s the point of those expensive racy bits?
If saving the environment is the primary reason for building an electric bike, then make it more practical and cheaper so it appeals to a much broader audience. Or better yet, develop other, more efficient powertrains that will provide the range that will make them both appealing and useful to enthusiasts.
The ideal future powertrain is the plug-in hybrid, like the one currently being used in the Piaggio MP3 Hybrid. It offers a 50-km electric-only range (just enough to get most of us to work without gasoline), as well as the extended range of a gasoline engine (for those weekend joy rides). Theoretically, you could ride such a bike back and forth to work all week without ever starting up the engine (considering you could plug it in for a charge at work), and then use it for the fun stuff on the weekends. And you’ll always have the peace of mind of the gasoline backup if the batteries run dry – range anxiety no more. The gasoline engine can also charge the batteries while riding, thus reducing the charging costs once you get home after a day in the saddle.
Imagine a motorcycle with a small, clean and efficient engine like the one in the Honda CBR250R, and an electric motor with enough battery power for, say, about 80 km of electric-only operation. You’d enjoy the best of both worlds, and the added practicality of such a bike would offset its added cost over a gas-only bike. And you could even justify adding the racy bits – at least you could put them to proper use if you wanted to. Of course, hardware packaging would be an issue, but it’s been done in the MP3, which has two front wheels and all of the associated linkages to make them turn and lean.
There is a future for electric bikes, but unless manufacturers of such machines refocus their efforts to make them more affordable and appealing to non-motorcyclists, that future might mean their disappearance.