Motorcycles sales haven't looked too clever recently, falling by 12% in the first three months of 2020. However, one sector boomed, with sales more than doubling – bikes powered by batteries. Admittedly sales are still tiny overall – 1.5% of the total two-wheeler market – but they finally seem to be taking off.
The reasons aren't hard to find. More and more cities are planning to restrict the use fossil-fuelled transport, and London already does. Increasing awareness of climate change on one hand, and familiarity with electric vehicles on the other, is also having an effect. There's more choice of electric two-wheelers than ever before, from mopeds to Harley-Davidson's LiveWire. Electric motorcycles lap the 37.730mile Isle of Man TT course at an average speed of 121mph and have their own race series running alongside MotoGP. BMW, Royal Enfield, Kawasaki, Ducati, Yamaha, Honda and others are all working on electric bikes. Like it or not, we are slowly but surely moving towards an electric era in transport, and arguably for very good reasons.
Of course, there are plenty of objections to the whole idea, partly because petrol is such a tough act to follow. Our favourite fuel is very energy-dense, with a typical tank full able to give us up to 200 miles of fun, taking just five minutes to refuel. Electric vehicles can't compete with that convenience. The charging network, though it's growing fast, is still less than comprehensive, and behind it all – we are motorcyclists, after all – is the suspicion that electric bikes are soulless whiners compared to a visceral V-twin or four.
Proponents of electrics will counter that the torque of electric motors makes these bikes fantastic fun to ride. That batteries are improving all the time, as is the charging network. Electric bikes need minimal maintenance, so they're also cheap to run and have zero emissions on the road.
Which is all very well, but is it worth buying an electric motorcycle now? What's available, what are the drawbacks and does battery power really make sense?
ABOVE: Zero SR/S offers 110bhp and 124mph
A few years ago, describing the UK's e-bike offerings wouldn't take very long, as it was restricted to a few mopeds and Zero. Now there are too many to list here, so we'll just go through the notable players. If there is a gap in the market, it's that there's nothing between 125cc-equivalent bikes like the Super Soco or Niu, and the Zeros, which are 5-600cc equivalents.
If you're thinking of buying electric for the first time, look for a decent battery warranty of at least two years, since the battery the most expensive thing to replace if it goes wrong – Zero's five-year unlimited mileage warranty is the gold standard. If the bike qualifies for the Government's Plug-In Motorcycle Grant (PIMG), so much the better. This knocks 20% off the retail price up to a maximum of £1500 off – that makes quite a difference, though electric bikes still cost a lot more to buy than the petrol equivalent.
So, what's the pick of the electric motorcycle crop? Assuming BikeSocial readers aren't so interested in mopeds, let's kick off with the Niu GT, a distinctive little scooter which offers 125cc acceleration up to about 45mph. The UK's best-selling electric scooter, it has twin lift-out batteries and Bluetooth connectivity built in. With the PIM grant, it comes in at £3196 – that's the best part of £1000 more than a mid-range 125, but if you're commuting 40 miles a day it will pay for the difference in a couple of years. If you prefer a retro style, have a look at the Vespa Elettrica – very nice, but expensive at £5299 for the 45mph version.
Super Soco is the smallest electric motorcycle you can buy, with the 28mph version starting at £2999, though the 125-equivalent TC Max is a bit more interesting, claiming a top speed of 60mph and a range of 80 miles (though probably not at the same time). Either would make a for a stylish motorcycle-style commuter and the TC Max is fast enough to use in bigger roads. Like just about all electric bikes, the Super Soco is a twist and go automatic, and the rear wheel motor means there's no chain or belt to think about. Again, it's eligible for the PIMG, which brings the TC Max price down to £4249.
A bit further upmarket is the Horwin CR6 at £4992, the first batch of which arrived in Britain only a few weeks before the Coronavirus lockdown took hold. Like the Supersoco, it's a 125-equivalent able to top about 60mph, though it looks more like a proper bike, with exposed frame and retro cafe racer styling. You get a three-year warranty on the battery, for which the importer claims a 90-mile range – all range claims, it has to be said, should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt until proven otherwise. One interesting variant (which we may not get in the UK) is the CR6 Pro, with a six-speed manual gearbox and clutch – logically, it doesn't need one, but for anyone who can't bear the thought of not changing gear, it's a bonus.
Zero is the Tesla of motorcycles, in that it's a pioneer, has been at it longer than almost anyone else and hails from California. And it's the only all-round midsize electric motorcycle you can buy. All Zeros are based around the same motor and a 7.2 or 14.4kwh battery, including FX/FXS off-roaders, DS/DSR dualsport and S/SR naked bikes. There's even a touring variant complete with full luggage and a screen, and one interesting option is a faster Type 2 charger, reducing a full charge time from nearly 10 hours to two – a 30-minute top-up would give you another 30-35 miles. Claimed range is 90 miles at 70mph, 179 miles in town, and prices start at £10,045.
The Zeros are pretty well sorted, having been gradually updated over the years, but they've also been joined by the more powerful SR/F and SR/S, with 110bhp and 190Nm. Battery pack is the same as the smaller bikes, but they're a lot quicker, more like a 750 equivalent with a top speed of 124mph – prices from £17,545.
If you want to spend more, look at Energica of Italy, which supplies all race bikes for the Moto-E series. Road legal Energicas are quite heavy (280kg) but can top 150mph and have all the usual sports bike kit, including traction control and Bosch cornering ABS. A fast charger is part of the package (85% charge in 25 minutes is claimed) and prices start at £21,999. Then there's the Veitis, a British-made cruiser with the batteries housed in a fake V-twin motor – it looks much better than it sounds and should be unique when it enters production, though it'll cost around £40,000.
Compared to that Harley-Davidson's LiveWire looks like a comparative bargain at £28,995, though it's still undeniably expensive compared to a Zero SR/F. Essential figures are 104bhp, 15.5kwh battery and a 'minimum' range of 99 miles. The LiveWire has come under fire from various quarters, but I say full marks to Harley for having the guts to do it. In any case, the bike's exposure will ratchet up later this year, when Ewan and Charley's latest adventure (Patagonia to California on a couple of LiveWires) hits the screens.
ABOVE: Niu is a smart Bluetooth connected scooter
So if that's what you can buy now, what's on the horizon? BMW is clearly busy on electrical R&D, showing its prototype sports bike to the press in early 2020. The E-Power Roadster Concept raids BMW's existing parts bin – the front end is pure S1000R and the shaft drive from the R1200RS – but with a 13kwh battery providing the energy. It accelerates about as quickly as an S1000R, but the company is focusing on range and charge times, which it sees as key to electric bikes breaking into mainstream, and the goal is adding 111 miles of range for a 30-minute charge. But Head of BMW Motorrad, Christoph Lischka, is still cautious, “The bike needs to have 200km (124 miles) of range, so we won’t be releasing a bike like this until it’s capable of 200-300km of real riding. Right now, the market and the infrastructure to support such a machine isn’t ready.”
If BMW's electric sports bike isn't ready, then the Canadian-made Damon Hypersport is closer to production. Some have already been pre-sold, and production is expected to start later in 2021. It has a compelling trio of claimed figures: 200bhp, a 200mph top speed and a range of 200 miles (mix of highway and urban).
At the heart of it all is a big 20kwh liquid-cooled battery and that 200bhp motor, but it's packed with other high tech features. An array of sensors mounted on the bike (a mix of radar and cameras) can track the speed and direction of other road users – the rider is warned of potential danger through LED warning lights or vibrations through the bars. Shape shifting ergonomics allow the rider to change the position of the screen, seat, bars and footrests from sports bike to upright commuter at the touch of a button. Price will be $40,000 for the early limited-edition bikes, $25,000 when full production starts. And yes, you can put a deposit down now. We nearly had an all-British rival to the Damon, in the Arc Vector, a high-tech superbike backed by Jaguar Land Rover. Unfortunately, it ran out of funds and died a death in 2019.
ABOVE: Some bikes offer faster Type 2 charging
Electric bikes are really very simple. No clutch, no gearbox, no suck/squeeze/bang/blow, just an electric motor and a battery. Lithium-ion batteries are universal now, thanks to their higher energy density compared to other types – in other words, you get more storage capacity per kilo. Capacity is measured in kilowatt-hours (kwh) and like litres in the tank, the more you've got, the further you can go. Mopeds can have tiddly 1-2kwh batteries, the 125-equivalents are on 4kwh or so, and the bigger bikes on 13-20kwh.
Lithium-ion chemistry is now well proven, and has been used in all sorts of devices big and small for years. Batteries are still relatively expensive (a Zero unit costs around £5000) but experience with electric cars suggests that we can expect a life of ten years, given a bit of care. When the end does come, they can be recycled, or given a second life in a less stressful role such as home power storage.
Now then, charging. There's a lot of angst about the public charging network – that it's not comprehensive and appears difficult to use. It is growing fast and in mid-April 2020 (according to www.zap-map.com) there were over 30,000 connectors in the UK, with about 500 being added every month. But it's still not as convenient as filling up, and there are many different operators, some pay as you go, some on subscription. What we need is an ATM-style national network which allows anyone to use any charge point with a debit card. Some operators are starting to co-operate, but we're not there yet.
None of this matters if you're commuting from home because you just plug in every night and the bike will be raring to go in the morning. Experience with electric cars suggest that most of those charge at home as well. In any case, most electric bikes (especially the smaller ones) can only charge slowly through a three-pin domestic socket, so the public network of faster chargers isn't an issue.
ABOVE: Damon claims 200mph, 200bhp and a range of 200 miles
Yes, you can. The good news is that the licencing rules are the same for electric motorcycles as they are for those with internal combustion engines, with one important difference and even better news. Mopeds – electric or petrol – have a top speed of 45km/h (28mph) and you can ride one of those aged 16 after CBT, theory and practical tests. A1 class motorcycles/scooters (typically 125cc petrols) are allowed up to 11kw (14.3bhp), which is where the even better news comes in.
Electric motors have two power figures – one for sustained power, the other for peak power useable for short periods. It's the lower sustained power figure which is used for licencing purposes. Take the Zero S, which at 11Kw sustained fits neatly into the A1 category. But it's peak power is 34Kw, plus a generous 106Nm of torque, so it's a lot quicker than the average 125. Of course, it also costs about three times the price, but you can't have everything. It's the same deal with the A2 class – with 34Kw sustained power it slots in under the A2 limit of 35Kw (46bhp), but offers 52Kw peak.
Let's summarise the case for and against. Naysayers first: battery range is still the elephant in the room, and although we will continue to see incremental improvements, I can't see an electric bike with a 500-mile range and a ten-minute recharge any time soon. If you are in the habit of doing 500-mile days, stick to petrol. Many electric bikes can only charge slowly through a three-pin socket, which for a complete charge only makes sense overnight.
Even with the PIMG, electric bikes still work out more expensive than the petrol equivalents. If you cover enough mileage you will make up the difference, because running costs are so low, but not if you ride 2000 miles a year.
So, they're expensive to buy, the range is still limited and charging is slow – not really headline stuff there, but fortunately there are plenty of pros to going electric. If you haven't tried one yet, do, because they really are fun to ride. A high, flat torque curve from just off zero rpm gives rocket-like acceleration with no gearchanges to think about – somehow, the lack of engine noise makes it seem more magical. The Zeros in particular handle well and weigh about the same as an equivalent 5-600cc bike. Electric bikes are expensive to buy, but they cost peanuts to run – electricity is much cheaper than petrol and there's no servicing apart from brakes, tyres and (sometimes) a chain. Take that Niu GT as an example – a 40-mile round trip commute costs about £3 a day on a 125cc petrol scoot, where the Niu would be about 37p. A complete recharge for a Zero is around £2.60, so this cheap riding per mile. Emissions – you may or may not care about climate change and urban pollution, but there's no denying that electric bikes are cleaner than petrol. Yes, the electricity has to be generated somewhere, but the UK now produces more renewable energy (wind and solar) than fossil fuels (coal and gas), so plugging in really is the cleaner option. One more thing. If trail riding floats your boat, you won't need reminding that motorcycle noise is a major objection from anti-off-roaders – not an issue with electric bikes.
Above: Veitis – batteries hide inside the V-twin, KTM has been making the electric Freeride for a while now, Energica superbike forms the basis of a race series
If pure battery-electric bikes have their drawbacks, is there anything on the horizon which could take over as a practical form of alternative fuel? Fuel cells, powered by hydrogen, have been around for years and do offer a potentially far greater range than batteries. But they're expensive and there are currently only a handful of hydrogen filling stations in the UK.
Ultra-capacitors, as used on some F1 KERS systems, look more promising. These act like miniature batteries which can supply or recharge with a small amount of energy very fast, much faster than a standard battery. They couldn't replace a lithium-ion, but could provide the extra energy needed for acceleration, then recoup a large proportion of braking energy to recharge. French tech startup Nawa Technologies has unveiled a prototype bike using a 9kwh battery and a 0.1kwh ultra-capacitor. They claim the capacitor improves range from 110 to 186 miles, and is able to reclaim 80-90% of braking energy. If true, that's a sensational result, so watch this space.