Going Electric

I love my motorcycles – the roar, the lean, the sense of freedom, and the way lanesplitting across the San Francisco Bay Bridge every morning forces me to focus on NOW instead of thinking about everything I have to get done during the  day.  Commuting on two wheels turns my morning into an adventure and I love it. The only thing I don’t love about it, in fact, is that even though my bike is sipping a lot less fuel then a car, it’s still ultimately dependent on a fossil fuel infrastructure that’s completely and irredeemably unsustainable in the long term.  The real question isn’t if we’re going going to stop using petroleum it’s when.

2012-Brammo-Empulse-R-08

The Brammo Empulse R

The two big hurdles for electric vehicles are price and range.  And while Electric motorcycles aren’t as far along the development curve as electric cars, they’ve made massive gains in the last few years.  At the production level the two big players are Brammo, from Oregon, and Zero which is based right here in the Bay Area.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love my Triumph Street Triple and I’m not looking to replace it any time soon. At 675 hp it’s lightweight, agile, and absolutely perfect for maneuvering in heavy bay area traffic for my commute to the city. 42-48 mpg is nothing to sneeze at either! I’m planning to ride it for years to come. But, like any gearhead, I find myself looking around and wondering what I’ll get next. And with the fantastic progress we’ve seen from Zero and Brammo both electric bikes are looking like strong contenders.

Currently, the Brammo Empulse  (their flagship bike which has been getting a lot of press) starts at around $17k and the Empulse R (which like the Street Triple R adds improved suspension) is almost $19k.

Zero Motorcycles has a whole range of bikes available and the base prices are cheaper on all of them.  This is partly because the Zero’s don’t have a transmission – it’s a simple twist and go setup – and that saves some costs.

Zero Streetfighter S

Zero Streetfighter S

The Streetfighter S is the closest to the Brammo Empulse or the Striple and starts at $14k  but goes up to 17k by the time you add in the quick charge kit and larger batter pack that you need to give it a range comparable to the Empulse.

Compare that to a list price of $9.4k for the Street Triple and it’s clear that electric bikes have a long way to go before they can compete on price.  Especially since I get 42-48 mpg on my Triumph.  It’d take a really long time to make back the price difference in fuel savings.   And that makes it very hard to justify spending the extra money.  For now.  As gas prices continue to climb and electric vehicle manufacturer’s are increasingly able to scale and bring down costs I expect that to change.  So while I can’t justify dropping $20k for a new bike, I can see myself making the switch in the foreseeable future.

That just leaves range as the big consideration.  A century of petroleum-based transportation means the US has a pretty well developed fuel delivery system in place for fossil fuels and that’s a huge advantage for the manufacturers of vehicles that run on them.

Fortunately, the landscape for Electric vehicles isn’t nearly as bleak as you might think.  In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s either at or rapidly approaching the tipping point where “where do I charge this thing” will no longer be a consideration.  Plugshare, a new-ish web/mobile app for EV drivers has a great tool that should help drive this point home:

Like most of the best new stuff on the net, Plugshare is partly curated content, partly crowdsourced.  Individuals who find charging stations can list them along with descriptions and ratings.  They even allow users to take the social aspects of the app into the real world – member/users who are willing to share their home outlets with a friendly driver can list their address and what hours they’ll be around and available.  In the Bay Area there are enough public charging stations you’ll probably never need to plug in in a friendly strangers driveway, but in rural areas I can see this being a huge win for EV drivers.

I suppose the moral of the story is that, as usual, the world is changing and, as usual, social and crowd-sourced tools are making that transition friendlier and more human-scale.  I think it’s pretty cool.