Are electric motorcycles really viable?

 

Having ridden several different electric motorcycles, I can honestly say that the lack of an exhaust bark is forgotten as soon as you experience the sharp acceleration; they’re still a two-wheeled machine with all the handling and excitement of a traditionally-powered bike.

Batteries and motors are not going to replace the glorious howl of 500 explosions trumpeted through a length of metal pipe every second any time soon, but they are potentially part of the future of motorcycling. When though?

Honda CBR650F owner Daniel Horwood’s final year of his BSc in Mechanical Engineering at University of South Wales saw him conduct a feasibility study into the market and developing technologies of electric motorbikes. Having read his fascinating work, which you can download here, I’ve pulled out just a handful of the highlights as he asks the question: is the UK really ready for electric motorcycles?

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

Daniel Horwood’s study provides an incredible insight into the feasibility of electric motorcycles on UK roads

 

As Daniel put his study together, he found there were 26 individual manufacturers – of varying sizes – producing electric-powered two wheelers including Zero, Energica and BMW. While motorcyclists in the UK are understandably sceptical of the potential range, support and price of electric bikes, infrastructure continues to be the biggest worry. But Daniel’s study indicates that, while electric motorcycles aren’t yet popular enough to become a feasible means of travel due to high prices and riders’ mindsets, electric scooters look likely to dominate global future sales…

 

When were the first electric motorcycles sold?

Harmful levels of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere have been linked to an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year; combined with incentives, restrictions and taxation, all industries with a heavy reliance on petrol and diesel are looking to alternative energy sources, and electric motorcycles are included in those visions.

Not to be confused with ‘e-bikes’ or ‘pedelecs’, which have a maximum power output of 250W, pedals, and a maximum speed of 15.5mph, electric motorcycles have been experimented with since the late 1860s. Only in 1996 did they first enter mass production though, with Peugeot’s ‘Scoot’Elec’, which reached speeds of 28mph and had a 25 mile range. Not many were sold though.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

The Peugeot Scoot’Elec was the first mass-produced electric two-wheeler

 

The potential speed of motorcycles was first truly realised with Bill Dube’s Killacycle in 2007. Powered by the same lithium-ion cells as DeWalt power tools, it was the first electric vehicle to exceed 150mph.

 

Killacycle hits 169mph

If you’ve ever doubted the potential performance of electric motorcycles, check out Killacycle from this video back in 2009, which was powered by the same batteries as a DeWalt power tool.

 

Even bad news was good press for Killacycle when Bill Dube gave a televised interview, also in 2007. While talking about the £30-£40,000 dollars the government scientist had put into the bike – his personal project – Bill proceeded to describe drag racing as the most dangerous motorsport, shortly before crashing the machine into a parked minivan; “It got away from me,” he said as he lay on the ground waiting for the paramedics.

 

Killacycle crash

A televised burnout by Bill Dube confirmed his electric motorcycle was extremely powerful when he crashed it into a van…

 

From the late 1990s to the late 2000s there was little development in electric motorcycles until 2009 when American manufacturer Brammo introduced the Enertia and the Empulse R. Since then, it’s the last eight years that have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of electric motorcycles on sale to the public; manufacturers no doubt want a taste of the success seen by Tesla, which announced the Model S in late 2008 – going public at $17/share in 2010, as of January 2020, shares sat around $490 after 367,200 cars were delivered in 2019.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

Brammo’s Empulse R was fantastic to ride, but is sadly history now

 

While Yamaha’s Yoshihiro Hidaka announced plans at the end of 2017 to introduce more powerful electric bikes, Ducati’s Claudio Domenicali stated that he believes battery technology isn’t yet suitable. Having said that, a ‘Ducati Zero Concept’ was produced in 2016 through a partnership with a Milan polytechnic, and VW’s Group Chairman Matthias Mueller declared that every VW group brand will have an electric model by 2030, so Ducati has a deadline…

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

The Ducati Zero Project came about through partnership with a Milan polytechnic

 

While range is clearly still an issue, interest is growing – in 2014 LA police looked into using 100 Zero MMXs, believing the silent running would give officers a tactical advantage. 100 of the MMXs have already been deployed by police in Bogota. Also in 2014, Kawasaki developed a prototype electric bike with a 5.2kWh Li-Ion battery, four-speed gearbox and a 5kph reverse gear. It was rigorously tested, including being dropped onto a triangular fixture from a height of 3.5m onto its power pack, submerged in water and cycled at high voltage for a period of a year. The cells lost 20% capacity over 2,500 charges, and along with tests on public roads, it was concluded that there were no major hurdles in the technological climate even back then, but that the lack of charging facilities was the barrier to widespread adoption.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

Kawasaki’s EV concept was only shown to the public in 2019

 

What’s stopping every owning an electric motorcycle?

It’s a common misconception that the recent enthusiasm for electric vehicle drivetrain technology means it’s a relatively new one, whereas it actually predates petrol power, with motor-based drivetrains having existed since the mid 1800s. Of course, along with battery technology, motors have evolved significantly, especially with brushless, or PMAC (Permanent Magnet Alternating Current) motors, which eliminate the need for the brushes that lose energy through heat and friction. Rare earth magnets can increase power, though demand for these materials – the most popular being dysprosium, neodymium and samarium cobalt – is high and they’re very expensive, with prices only set to rise. Fortunately, new designs using far more abundant ferrite materials are seeing improved torque over rare earth magnets, and even introducing some additional benefits.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

 

Regenerative braking has been seen on four-wheel vehicles for a long time but was slow to appear on motorcycles. Simply put, under power the battery supplies energy to the motor, which is transferred to the wheel; when the vehicle is slowing down the process is reversed; the rotating wheel turns the motor, which delivers energy back to the motor.

Some of that energy will always be lost in this process, but the biggest problem is that the bike won’t slow down quickly enough, so the brakes are used to reduce speed, thus vastly reducing the energy that’s transferred to the battery. A study by Worcester Polytechnic Institute found that if you ignore the losses in the drivetrain and electrical system, the recoverable energy potential is just 17% of what it would be if the brakes weren’t used. And that was urban driving with maximum energy recovery the goal.

Studies have shown that using magnets on the brake discs with a coil positioned near them can see around 10% more energy recovered.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

 

So scientists and engineers around the world are constantly looking for ways to improve the performance of electric vehicles, both in terms of range and speed. But any vehicle is only going to be as good as the infrastructure that supports it and the density of charging points varies significantly around the UK.

Regional authorities need to ensure charging points are available; for example, despite being a popular home to electric vehicle (EV) owners, Devon has a low density of charging points – in 2017 it hosted just six charging points per EV owned. Conversely, Newcastle had 198 points per EV thanks to the council responding to high ownership of the Nissan Leaf (it’s built there and factory workers have access to discounted leasing deals).

Charging points are constantly being added though – in 2018 there was an average of one charging point per 21.79 square miles, and there’s been a steady increase of around 2,000 locations every year since 2013. It’s also getting easier to find them, especially now Google shows charging points on its mapping, and – in some cases – whether they’re being used.

But charge times are – for now at least – restrictively long for the range offered by motorcycles, so Gogoro’s scheme, which was launched back in 2011 in Taiwan, offers one possible solution; scooters costing between £960 and £2,300 have a range of up to 60mph and a top speed of 59mph. For a monthly subscription, riders have access to GoStations, which constantly charge battery packs that riders can swap out in seconds. It’s a clever system that eliminates any concern over charging times and battery degradation, and costs about £10 per month for riders covering up to 150km per month, and around £30 for those doing up to 1,000km. A Honda PCX125 would cost around £35 to cover 1,000km, so the pricing isn’t particularly attractive, but as technology advances it perhaps offers a glimpse of one potential solution, and knowing that Yamaha teamed up with Gogoro in 2018 to look into collaboration opportunities means there might be more to this…

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

Replaceable batteries, like those seen in the Gogoro scheme, could be one solution to charging times

 

Where will electric bikes first go mainstream?

Where electric two wheelers look to have the most immediate potential is not in the UK, rather it’s the less developed countries in South East Asia such as Vietnam and Thailand, which rely on affordable transport. In 2014, the nonpartisan Pew Research Centre carried out a study on the distribution of vehicle ownership of 44 countries; the comparison is striking…

 

PTWs (%)

Cars (%)

Bicycles (%)

Thailand

87

51

74

Vietnam

86

2

67

Indonesia

85

4

65

Malaysia

83

82

53

China

60

17

65

Italy

26

89

63

Germany

16

85

80

U.S.

14

88

53

U.K.

7

74

50

 

Clearly, the UK is a tiny market for motorcycles and scooters compared to South East Asia, though even the US and Europe is way ahead of this country when it comes to owning powered two wheelers; just over a quarter of Italians ride bikes and scooters, but cars are more than ten times more popular than bikes in Britain.

In developed countries, motorcycle ownership is often considered a luxury, while in developing countries they’re purchased out of necessity, playing a vital role to the economy. Research carried out in Vietnam indicated that electric motorcycles will equate to 44% of total bike registrations by 2030 (18.5 million), compared to just 6% penetration (1.1 million) of car sales. E-scooter sales have also rapidly increased in China, not least due to the banning of all petrol motorcycles from 90 major cities in an attempt to reduce pollution.

While the market for electric motorcycles is extremely limited here in the UK, that’s also the case for petrol-power.

84% of the global motorcycle market is contained within the Asia-Pacific region, home to the world’s six largest motorcycle markets; China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. It’s worth around $101 billion USD

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

The number of licensed electric motorcycles and scooters in the UK, based on data sourced by Daniel from gov.uk

 

Sales of electric motorcycles and scooters in the UK have been increasing steadily since the recession between 2007 and 2013, while numbers were higher before this thanks to the E-Rider scooter. While many current riders will dismiss electric motorcycles due to their lack of engine noise, it’s range anxiety that is proving the real blocker to adoption. If manufacturers can eliminate this, the low maintenance and running costs, as well as high acceleration will be more appealing. Though high curb weight, limited third party support and high prices without government incentives all still need addressing.

For now at least, electric scooters represent the biggest growth opportunities, BMW’s C-Evolution proving extremely popular.

In December 2019, 1,082 electric mopeds and scooters were registered in the UK, up 131.7% compared to 2018. Only 537 electric motorcycles were sold, but that’s still an increase of 174% on 2018.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

BMW’s C-Evolution is one of the biggest success stories for electric bikes in the UK

 

Battery costs are expected to reduce with the completion of the Tesla Giga-Factory thanks to economies of scale, and as the big manufacturers like Yamaha, Harley-Davidson and BMW release more products, it’s expected that other ‘traditional’ brands will follow suit. It’s unlikely we’ll see many new electric motorcycle manufacturers successfully enter the market after the likes of Vectrix and Brammo disappeared – and Arc entered administration – but it’s companies like Zero and Energica that will probably have the biggest influence – Livia Cevolini (CEO of Energica) said that the major manufacturers need sales in the tens of thousands to justify mass production, whereas smaller, more specialist companies like theirs can work in smaller numbers. With the backing of Italian CRP Group, the company also has the potential to support any unexpectedly higher demand.

Ultimately, with charging points effectively becoming car parks while the vehicle owners go about their business, unlikely to return until long after full charge is achieved, access to the infrastructure is even more limited; fast chargers will help improve delivery, but not the availability.

Charging infrastructure will continue to be a disruptive influence on the usability of electric motorcycles. Trying to electrify the transport industry is a nearly incomprehensible task, but substantial investment and political influence has dictated this new direction. The feasibility of electric motorcycles is challenging at best, but inevitable. Uptake will be slow, though more affordable scooters and mopeds will continue to dominate the global market for the immediate future.

Many thanks to Daniel Horwood for supplying Bennetts BikeSocial with his study, which you can download here.

 

Is the infrastructure ready for electric motorcycles? Are they really viable? A feasibility study asks whether bikes will ever have the range or charge time

It might be a while before we see Kawasaki’s electric bike hitting UK roads

 

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