August 11, 2022

Electric Motorcycles: A History

Electric Motorcycles: A History

by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Interest in electric motorcycles is growing; clean, silent and maintenance-free vehicles that offer the fun and freedom of gasoline-burning motorcycles, without paying $5 a gallon should be an easy sell. So where are all the heavyweight electric motorcycles? To answer that question, you should know abit about the history and technology that goes into the machines that will someday, somehow become the future of motorcycling.

In the beginning: 

No, Benjamin Franklin didn't invent or discover electricity  In fact, archaeologists think even the ancient Persians and Romans may have had batteries, perhaps to use in electroplating. Other than as a novelty or cool party trick (“hey Hesperus! Watch me make the cat dance!”) it wasn't until the 1740s that experimenters showed they could generate an electromagnetic field with an electro-chemical reaction and cause a mechanism to spin or move. Cool story, bros, but it was still almost another century before something recognizable as an electric motor was powering crude models and carriages capable of (slowly) carrying a human passenger. 

The introduction of the clean, reliable and powerful DC motor in the late 1880s changed transportation forever, freeing people from walking and stepping in mounds of horse poop. Electric streetcars, trains and cars quickly became part of the urban landscape, along with the modern safety bicycle and...hey! Are you thinking what I'm thinking? 

Well, so did several inventors, with patents for electric bicycles going to at least three of them in the 1890s. This led to the mass adoption of electric motorcycles, and after a century of development, a cheap, affordable, high-performance electric motorcycle is in every motorcycle enthusiast's garage.

Yeah, not! Just like with cars, in the early 20th Century there was a three-way wrestling match between cheap, power-packed gasoline, cumbersome (but incredibly powerful) steam, and simple, clean, reliable electricity as the preferred power source. And also like cars, gasoline won out: the easy refueling and more-than-adequate power-to-weight ratio of the gasoline engine (especially after the technological leaps in aircraft powerplants during World War I) left its competition in the dust.

(Lead) Acid Jazz

Even as the modern world, with its filling stations and thousands of miles of pavement, took to gasoline-powered cars and motorcycles like Goldwing riders to all-you-can-eat pancake buffets, there was still some limited applications for electric motorcycles. The Autoped, which triggered a post-WWI mobility craze with its cheap and easy-to-ride stand-up scooter design was sold in an electric version by battery maker Eveready, but was greatly outsold by the zippy two-stroke gasoline model. 

Perhaps the best known production electric motorcycle was the Socovel, built in Belgium during the German occupation of World War II. With heavy lead-acid batteries, a range of about 30 miles and a less-than-impressive top speed of  (maybe) 20 mph it beat walking in a time when gas was unobtainable, but as soon as the war ended demand for the vehicle (unsurprisingly) disappeared.

The Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s sparked spurred interest in electric motorcycles, and there was a spate of electric minibikes with deep-cycle marine batteries. Chopper builder Mike Corbin built a commuter he called the City Bike around 1970. Wrapped in svelte Corbin bodywork it looked fast but in fact could only muster about 30 mph, with a 40-mile range, but it was probably the first street-legal production (ish) motorcycle in the US. 

To protect his bad-boy chopper-builder rep, Corbin built a streamliner to race at Bonneville—equipped with high-tech (for 1973) silver-zinc batteries and dual Navy jet starter motors, the bike set a record top speed of 165 mph (Corbin claims it did an unofficial run at over 200 mph), a record which stood until 2012. Corbin told The Vintagent blog he had to charge the bike directly from the high-voltage power line near his motel with jumper cables, as EVGo was still decades in the future.

The pinnacle of lead-acid electric motorcycles was the EMB Electra. The Santa Rosa, California manufacturer built about 100 of these from 1996 to 1999, which were (kind of) price competitive with gasoline bikes and could go up to 51 mph with a range of 30-ish miles. Regenerative braking and a four-hour charge time were features years ahead of the times, but it was just too slow and expensive to be a thing.


Technology Paves the Way

Corbin's speed record made it clear that electric motorcycles could be competitive with gasoline burners with the right technology. Luckily, we have NASA, which funded a huge body of research into non-combustion power systems for aerospace applications. Nickel-metal hydride and later, lithium-ion batteries, with energy density many times that of even the best deep-cycle marine batteries made the dreams of a long-range, high-speed electric motorcycle plausible, if not immediately possible—that kind of battery tech was only affordable to the military, astronauts and researchers. 

That changed when laptops hit the market. There was enormous demand for lithium-ion batteries, which led to economies of scale, which meant a clever bird could affordably wire together a bunch of these to make a lot of storage capacity and on-tap torque. French scooter manufacturer Peugot may have been the first to market with nickel-cadmium batteries in the Scoot'Elec of 1995 (followed up with lithium-ion models in the early 2000s), and the Tesla Roadster of 2006, though a mere car, showed a future with high-performance, long-range EVs was possible.


Modern e-Motos: A New Hope

 The start of the modern e-moto era is likely 2009. Two models, the Zero S and Brammo Enertia, hit the market this year, both of them mass-produced, street legal and available to the public. The Zero was based on an electric motocrosser and looked like it, but offered a 70 mph top speed and 50 miles of range (at under 20 mph). The Brammo was a much more polished product and was $1,000 less at $7,995. It only had a 60 mph top speed and maximum range of 30 miles, but it was available at Best Buy, getting in front of millions of buyers. Sadly, it didn't catch on.

Electric motorcycles evolved greatly during the second decade of the new millennium, but success was still elusive. By 2020, Brammo was out of the game, as were several other e-moto startups like Alta and Mission Motors, but Harley Davidson, the best-know motorcycle brand for heavyweight motorcycles, entered the fray with its LiveWire, with an engineered-in distinctive turbine-like whine taking the place of Harley's signature rumble. 

Italian manufacturer Energica makes a high-performance sportbike with a 150-mile top speed and range exceeding 100 miles. And Zero had come a very long way from its crude 2010 S: the 2020 SR had a maximum city range of almost 200 miles and a price that hadn't changed much adjusting for inflation. Still, very few electric motorcycles were sold compared to their gas-powered siblings.

In the United States, street-legal motorcycles are only about half the market, and electric off-road motorcycles have become very popular. Clean, silent and easy to ride, small electric motos are popular for getting small kids on two wheels. And in the trials segment, which prizes controllable power and a low center of gravity over top speed and long range has seen several electric motorcycles from European manufacturers like GasGas, Beta and Oset.

Speaking of Asia, if anything with an electric motor and wheels is an electric motorcycle, e-motos are already a serious player in the global motorcycle market. 


The Future?

Electric motorcycles have made amazing progress since riders wobbled slowly around Belgium on their Scovilles, but are (sadly) a long way from completely replacing dino-burners. It's counter-intuitive, given the success of Tesla and other EV makers, but aerodynamics, cost and weight are the main factors preventing electric motorcycle from dominating the long-range, heavyweight market. Most riders in the United States and Europe want a motorcycle that has 200 or more miles of range, recharge times akin to a quick gas-station fill up, and a price that's about the same as an ICE bike with similar performance.

That's a big ask. Because the rider acts like a huge sail, motorcycles have worse drag coefficients than semi-trailers; unlike cars, the streamlined bodywork needed to maximize range would be weird and unpalatable to most motorcyclists. Additionally, while the 800 pounds of batteries a Tesla Model 3 needs to go 270 miles don't make it that much heavier than the average sedan, a motorcycle with 300 or 400 pounds of batteries would be unwieldy; such a bike would probably only appeal to long-distance touring riders, a shrinking demographic. Barring a huge technological leap—solid-state batteries, for instance—a truly competitive, long-range and affordable electric motorcycle is still some years away.

But there's fuel for optimism. Keep the weight and speed of a motorcycle below 50 or 60 mph and the aerodynamics issue goes away, meaning a small and lightweight bike can go a reasonable commuting distance with a far smaller battery pack. That means a much lighter and cheaper motorcycle, something more like a powerful electric bicycle or moped than a traditional motorcycle. 

Anyone that's walked around a large city on Earth lately has noticed the swarms of “e-mobility solutions” flitting about, from e-bikes to scooters and stand-up contraptions like the Autoped of yore. Some e-bikes priced under $3,000 (less than a decent gas-powered scooter) can hit 50 mph and have ranges exceeding 45 miles, and thanks to confusing and lightly enforced laws relating to bicycles, are accessible to anyone. More and more people are realizing electric bicycles are a cheap, convenient and fun way to get around even a hilly city like San Francisco. 

The massive popularity of these small electric vehicles is likely the way electric motorcycles will eventually dominate the market—from the bottom up, introducing new riders to the awesome thrill of motorized two-wheel life, and selling them bigger and more capable vehicles as their experience grows and technology advances.

A final note: Yes, you'll still need top-quality hearing protection like you'll find here at Earpeace. It's the wind noise that damages hearing more than the roar of internal combustion, So gas or electrons, whatever you're burning we'll be (literally) along for the ride.

Gabe Contributor

Gabe Ets-Hokin has been writing about motorcycles, cars, electric mobility and the gig economy in print and online since 2004. He lives in Oakland, California with his family and a burdensome cat.

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