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.