Thursday, May 21, 2009

Electroshock

This column is in the June, 2009 issue of CityBike.


I just rode the future. It’s good. 

It wasn’t a particularly impressive-looking future, though. The ride was on a 2009 Zero S electric supermoto. The hard numbers: it’s about $10,000, tops out at 60 mph and has a range of about 60 miles at moderate speeds. I enjoyed testing the bike and writing about it (you can see my online review at http://www.motorcycledaily.com/04may09_zeromotorcycles.htm) because I knew it was the first of many electric motorcycle reviews I’ll do before I retire to my beach house in the Aleutian Islands at the age of 79. I also enjoyed it because I knew that although it has its shortcomings, it’s a functional product that will help change the idea that electric vehicles are overpriced feel-good toys for silly enviro-wackos. This will enrage political conservatives, who will hopefully write many entertaining emails pointing out how wrong and stupid I am. 

“Ho ho!” they’ll say, spittle spraying at their computer screens as their plump, angry fingers hammer Chinese-made keyboards, “I’m an engineer, and I’ll tell you that electric vehicles will never work, because batteries carry only a fraction of the energy density of gasoline!”

It’s actually a good argument. The Zero’s performance is frankly, pretty lame compared to even a small gas-powered bike if you don’t care about the benefits of having an electric vehicle. But let’s look at two things:

First, the amount of R&D that’s going into electric vehicles and batteries is staggering. The communist Chinese are pouring colossal amounts of money into battery technology and it seems that the cycle of battery types happens faster and faster, from NiMh to NiCad to LiPo to GdKnWt (for God-Knows-What), with each new battery offering more capacity, power and life. The lithium-ion batteries in the Zero not only offer a huge advance in energy density over grandpa’s lead-acid (sorry, LeAc) batteries, but are non-toxic and could last much longer than the 400-500 charging cycles Zero rates them at. It’s likely that the replacement battery sold in five years could be much cheaper while offering far more power and range. 

But the tasty news for us motorheads is something I was talking to Michael Czysz about the other day. Besides having the hardest name in the world to spell, (say “sizz”), Michael Whatever is well-known for developing the MotoCzysz C1, a high-end sportbike that was designed to compete in MotoGP before the displacement limit was changed to 800cc from 990. Michael heard one of his guys ask to borrow the frame from his R1 to compete in the upcoming TTXGP, a race around the Isle of Man entirely on electric bikes. 

Michael decided it’d be better to design a racebike from the ground up, a bike that could be developed as a consumer model in the future. If he meets the deadline, the bike, which will be raced by American rider Mark Miller in June, will be an engineering feat. It will weigh about 440 pounds, make 115 hp and be able to make a 37.7-mile lap around the Isle at a race pace: up to 150 mph. Michael talked of using that design as a basis for a line of electric bikes with prices starting under $20,000 with a modular design that would allow the consumer to upgrade performance as the need arose. 

This means that you buy a basic bike, and when technology advances, you plug in your new batteries, software, motors, etc. What’s exciting is thinking about being able to order up the latest battery and doubling or tripling performance for a lot less than what you’d pay to double or triple performance in an internal-combustion engine. After a few decades of motorcycles making leaps and bounds in performance, I think the performance ceilings are closing in, much like the piston-engined fighter plane reached the pinnacle of its development in WWII. And what are you going to do with a 220 hp streetbike, anyway? Pull a horse trailer? 

The basic sportbike chassis – frame, brakes, suspension – is so good now that improvements are going to be incremental. Radial-mount brake calipers look cool, but do they really work that much better than the older style? We’re talking shades of grey. If electric vehicles can reach or surpass the performance of their gas counterparts, with a far smaller carbon footprint, why wouldn’t we want to offer consumers that choice? My car will require thousands of dollars of maintenance before it’s ready to be shredded into pellets and sent to China. Electric cars don’t blow head gaskets, chew up clutches, drop transmissions or piss a mile-long trail of radiator fluid down I-5. They’re also much easier on brakes and tires. And sure, the electricity needs to come from dirty powerplants, but because electric motors are so much more efficient than internal-combustion, they emit far less pollutants per mile traveled.  

We don’t have to get all weepy about losing the sounds and smells of big V-Twins and screaming Inline Fours. My hope is that electrics will offer affordable, clean performance and become so popular that gasoline returns to the status it had 100 years ago: a cheap by-product. This would let the small minority of automotive and motorcycle enthusiasts afford to ride and drive their passions to their heart’s content, freeing the masses from the tyranny of slow, polluting, unreliable gasoline engines. There is no doubt in my mind that within 10 years, a large part – maybe even half – of total motorcycle sales will be electric. 

The world’s changing. It’s getting better. It always has been. Get used to it.

8 comments:

Dennis said...

Cool write up Gabe!!

Budman

Lili said...

Good work. Have always liked your writing...

Gabe said...

Thanks, Lili and Budman!

oygevalte said...

I think if you do the numbers, the losses in converting fossil fuels into electricity in the powerplants themselves plus the losses in power distribution networks plus the losses in heat in charging storage batteries plus the losses between charge and use of the stored power in the batteries plus the losses in the IGBT switches plus the losses electric motors themselves will be greater in toto than the losses involved in an internal combustion engine's conversion of fuel into useful work.

Gabe said...

So go ahead and do the numbers.

Many studies have already done so, (http://www.electroauto.com/info/pollmyth.shtml, http://truecostblog.com/2009/01/04/electric-vs-gasoline/) and EVs still come out ahead. EVs powered by fossil-fuel plants are 34% efficent, and ICE motors are never better than 20%.

But you are also assuming that all power generation is from fossil fuel, over our antiquated distribution network, and nothing will ever change, forever and ever. This is silly; alternative energy gets cheaper every day and is unquestionably the future.

I really want to thank you for reading my blog and responding! You made my day.

Cheers,

Gabe

bt said...

"I just rode the future. It’s good."

You mean, "It can be good."
We The World still have to make it happen.

Having just watched the documentary titled The 11th Hour, the pollution caused by manufacturing, charging, and disposing of EVs is still a fundamental issue for mass production. It is after all just another "product".

I admit, this was a movie I was reluctant to see having become burned-out and jaded with all the marketing hype around global warming.

After the first 30-minutes I was so ashamed to be a human being, I considered turning it off. Which would have been a horrible mistake.

In my opinion, it's one of the most insightful documentaries on what our real problems are.

Weaning ourselves from fossil fuels is a start though, a step in the right direction. Believing an EV in every garage as the solution is a pipe dream. It probably isn't even one of THE top ten.

Would I buy an electric motorcycle? Sure. Definitely if it exceeded the range and performance of what's in the garage. And I truly believe, it's on the horizon. But the rich guys are going to have to pay for it first.
b.

Gabe said...

Not to worry, Barb! People are going to always want cars. The beauty of EVs is that once you have the basic car, it's infinitely upgradeable as new batteries, software and motors are developed. This will reduce the impact, no?

Don't get too guilty after watching propaganda. It's purpose is to manipulate you emotionally so you will act. Go do a little research, double-check the claims, and make your decisions from there.

The world is getting better and always has been.

bt said...

Gabe wrote:
"...it's infinitely upgradeable as new batteries, software and motors are developed. This will reduce the impact, no?
"

Well, to be honest, I don't know.
It would certainly increase the production of batteries and motors. Research what battery production alone does to the environment.

EVs certainly curb our dependence on oil, however only at the User Level.

Nothing else changes, all other aspects of the product still use (what the scientists call) ancient sun.

There's probably not much more byproduct pollution caused between battery and gas production -- it's just different shit dumped in a different place.

So it might reduce impact by say, a toe-print, --vs a full footprint.

I just think saving the planet has been turned into just another emotional diversion, like the war on terror, gay marriage, abortion, and religion. We are letting the very bodies that profit from its existence sell it back to us in marketing hype. So we never fix the real problem.

We are doing this so we don't have to face up to the fact that we are the real problem. And the only way to get out of this one is to bury more than half of our current population, TODAY -- so we will have more fossil fuel for tomorrow.

:-)
b.