Thursday, October 29, 2009

Will Electric Motorcycles Catch On?

I stumbled upon a news article in my local paper about two guys riding from Detroit to Washington on electric motorcycles. The two men were recreating the trip of auto industry leaders who converged on Washington to beg for billions in bail-out money. The two hope to convince the president to extend the Energy Department’s Grant Program to include two wheeled vehicles and also expand the Federal Tax credit already available to electric vehicle buyers under the Economic Stimulus law to include electric motorcycles.

The pair rode the Enertia, Brammo’s electric motorcycle, 700 miles in 45 mile increments to reach Washington. The motorcycle weighs 280 pounds, has no gears, shifting or clutch, has a top speed of 60 mph and plugs into any wall outlet. It takes four hours to fully charge the 6 Lithium Ion Phosphate batteries (made by Valence) for a cost of about 30 cents. Their target market is the commuter. You can buy one for $12,000 at Best Buy.

My first reaction while reading the article is that no one I know would buy one. Neither would I. First, I am not crazy about taking my travels in 42-45 mile increments. Then, where do I plug this baby into? If I have mechanical trouble (or in this case electrical trouble) where do I go? I felt I was being too harsh at the onset, so I dug further to find more answers.

The pair put up a website to promote their trip and asked for volunteers along the way for places to plug in the bikes. They would reimburse the cost of electricity if asked. Not many of us want to tap all our family and friends for electric hookup on our next trip. Nor do I think they want to entertain us for four hours while we get charged. As for repairs, call the Geek Squad at Best Buy. First, I NEVER shop Best Buy for personal reasons, so that is out. For all you others, I don’t remember seeing too many Best Buys along the rural routes of our great Nation. So you would certainly have to be a commuter within the city limits.

There are two other components to electric vehicles that I always wonder about, and that is the claim of reducing our individual carbon footprint. Isn’t the power supply I’m using provided in large part generated by fossil fuels? By using wall outlets powered by fossil fuels we are merely shifting carbon emissions from vehicle to power plant. Currently, only 11.1% of our power in the United States is generated by renewable energy.

Now let’s think about the batteries. A regular car has one battery. The Enertia is powered by six. The Lithium Ion Phosphate batteries are good for 2,000 charges. I may never need new ones, but help me get rid of them once I do. They are hazardous waste after all.

While the intent at reducing carbon emissions is a worthy fight, those who develop electric and hybrid vehicles will have to step it up. There is technology already at work by which the vehicle itself recharges the batteries. This technology is already at work in some hybrid busses around the country. The motorcycles in this instance need to have a longer range than 45 miles. Many people I know commute that distance one way each day. Will the company they work for let them plug in at work? My guess is “no.”

In Europe, where the electric motorcycle is already being used, the makers had to add “fake” engine noise to draw customers. Brammo understands this and has built in noise. However, I don’t think a little fake noise is going to make up for the lack of shifting, distance riding, and lack of power outlets available to the general public at this time. The riding season is short in northern climates too, limiting their use. The claim on their website that if you can ride a bike, you can ride the Enertia is a frightening claim. Take a look at a few statistics from random cities around the country of those who purchased scooters last summer when gasoline prices were sky high. If you’re on two wheels, you need riding training. Period.

Right now, the Enteria is too expensive, has limited range and limited use in Northern climates to save much energy or have much effect on your carbon footprint. Brammo is focused on too narrow a spectrum of the population in my opinion to be successful. Inner city and urban riding is scary enough in congested traffic on a motorcycle with limited profile even with louder noise levels. Do you want to try that on a smaller, very quiet electric motorcycle, without rider training? Now there’s a frightening thought.


mq01 said...

great post pat. many many things bother me on this.

electric vehicles are silent, and motion w/o sound is creating dangerous situations. i believe the accident rate is on the rise.

also, i dont see commuting and draining the charge, plugging in til lunch, draining the charge again thru lunch, plugging in to commute home, plugging in again for the night...and all this for $12K?!?

btw, some of us out west are actively trying to stop big box stores like best buy and walmart from further builds here :)

RazorsEdge2112 said...

I have thought about this a bit myself. Why an electric motorcycle? I know, some say if it has two wheels, it's good. Can't honestly say I agree.

There is just something primal about a motorcycle that makes a real noise, not a fake one. Don't know if I really want them to catch on much, but that's OK. Just my opinion. :-P