Above: Zero’s SR/S (above) and SR/F are probably the most convincing electric bikes on sale – but they’re still too expensive for most riders
Over the last decade doubts over the potential of electric motorcycles to provide the performance and convenience that we’re used to have receded considerably and sales of battery-powered two-wheelers have risen exponentially. But for the vast majority of riders there’s still simply no option on the market that allows them to replace their combustion engines with electric motors.
Cheap-and-cheerful electric mopeds have proliferated, and no bike show is complete without the launch of another ultra-expensive piece of battery-powered vapourware from a start-up that inevitably disappears as quickly as it emerged, but for anyone shopping in the middle part of the market, which accounts for the vast majority of bike sales, there few viable electric options yet. Why not? Where are the mid-priced electric bikes?
Above: Energica Ego RS offers impressive performance, but £28,245 price means it’s up against the very best petrol bikes
Dig into the electric bike scene in the UK at the moment and it’s clear that the idea that electric=expensive doesn’t hold true anymore. Down at the entry level you can get on a brand new 50cc-equivalent electric scooter like the SuperSoco CUX or NIU MQi+Sport for around £2k, and if you’re prepared to make more compromises when it comes to range there are even cheaper options out there like the NIU UQiPro for as little as £1500.
For something more motorcycle-like, there’s the SuperSoco TC or TSX, each at £2699, while the same firm’s TC-Max offers 125cc-equivalent performance for £4249. Other 125-rivalling electric motorcycles on the market right now include the Horwin CR6 and Kollter ES1-S Pro, again with prices in the £4000-£5000 range, while more scooter-style options include models from Horwin, SuperSoco and NIU at less than £4k, or if you want a more established Western brand there’s the Vespa Elettrica at £5095.
Right at the other end of the market, there’s a growing group of high-end electric offerings out there. Perhaps the most notable is Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire, offering more performance than most of the firm’s combustion engine models at 105hp and 116Nm of torque, but with a £28,995 price tag to match. In the same league you’ll find Energica’s range – starting at £22,995 for the Eva EsseEsse9+ – and Zero’s most convincing machines, the £18,990 SR/F and £19,590 SR/S. BMW’s C Evolution, another example of a mainstream company getting into the electric scene, makes for a convincing big scooter but at £14,330 you really need to want one to justify the cost.
Sales figures show that the cheap-n-cheerful electric offerings are the only machines really making a mark on the market at the moment. In the UK, 2459 new electric bikes were registered in 2020, but of those 1598 were under 4kW (5hp) and a further 613 fell into the ‘unknown’ category in terms of power, suggesting they’re also small, cheap machines. Just 94 electric bikes with between 4-11kw (5-15hp) were registered, along with 58 in 11-35kW (15-47hp) class and 96 with more than 35kW (47hp). However, the overall electric market was up 51.2% despite the pandemic.
European figures show the UK lags behind France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Total Euro electric motorcycle sales added up 18,620 in 2020, while there were an astounding 58,569 electric mopeds registered in the same period – accounting for nearly 21% of the entire moped market.
But what’s in the middle of the market? The pickings are slim.
Above: SuperSoco TC Max shows electric bikes can be equivalent to 125s on performance and price, albeit with a relatively short range
Everyone’s definition of ‘affordable’ differs depending on their circumstances, but given that Harley Livewire’s price is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of pre-tax wages in the UK it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be too expensive for the majority of riders.
If we take the top 10 best-selling bikes from 2019 – the most recent year where such figures are available – their average RRP was £7756, and even if we strip out scooters from the results to focus purely on bikes bought by full licence holders, the average only rises to £9829. The cheapest non-scooter in the top 10 was £5499, the most expensive in the top 10 was £14,415 – and in that price range, where the majority of motorcyclists in the market for a brand-new machine are shopping – electric options are thin on the ground.
To qualify as a real mid-range electric bike, the resulting machine needs to have more performance than the 125cc-analogues that are out there. A top speed of at least the 70mph motorway limit is a must, for instance, and realistically all the petrol-powered offerings in this area can breeze past 100mph.
Is there anything battery-powered that meets those criteria? On searching what’s available in the UK, the closest would be something like Zero’s FXS at £11,850, but you still need to be a dedicated early-adopter or eco campaigner to square that price tag with a 44hp bike that tops out at 85mph.
The reality is that the epitome of a ‘mid-range’ motorcycle is something like Honda’s £7299 CB650R, and its performance, with 94hp on tap, is pretty much on a par with something like the £28,995 Harley LiveWire.
Above: Zero’s FXS – the closest thing to a mid-priced electric bike at the moment?
Few companies are as deeply involved in new model development as Ricardo, the British engineering firm founded by Harry Ricardo in 1915 and now one of the world’s most influential engineering, environmental and strategic consultancies, employed by many leading manufacturers to help develop new models, both with combustion engines and electric powertrains.
Paul Etheridge is Head of Strategy and Business Development at Ricardo’s motorcycle division. We spoke to him about the state of the electric bike market and why mid-range models have been so slow to emerge.
“If you look back at history, motorcycle technology has lagged behind automotive technology by at least a decade,” he said. “You can pinpoint things like catalysts and fuel injection, ABS, ride by wire, variable valve timing, DCTs, any number of things that motorcycles have adopted rather than being the founder of the technology. Often the adoption has been closely linked to a step change in legislation.
“The reasons are that most of the investment in new technology is done in the automotive sector, where there are much larger funds available to do this sort of research and development, and then motorcycles have been able to piggyback on that, or cherry pick the most suitable technology and adopt it at a certain point. Take fuel injection: it was initially an enabler to meet emissions rules, it cascaded down from the large bikes to the small bikes as components became more readily available in the right sizes, but it has other advantages so motorcycles have improved because of fuel injection, but improvement wasn’t the driving force to begin with.
“Now there’s a green push generally in the transport sector. Motorcyclists are aware of this and some of them want to portray a green image and buy electric motorcycles because it’s green, but the bikes really don’t match an internal combustion-engined motorcycle for a number of reasons.”
While battery and motor technology has improved rapidly over the last few years, as evidenced by cars like Teslas and the growing number of middle-market electric four-wheeled offerings like the Kia e-Niro, Mini Electric, Honda E and VW e-Golf, it’s not a simple job to transfer that technology to bikes.
Etheridge explains: “What is clear from the work we’ve done is that developing a good electric motorcycle is really hard. The packaging is hard, and the dynamic performance of the motorcycle is really difficult to get right when you’re packaging such heavy components. It’s a challenge to make a good electric motorcycle that’s nice to ride and I think inevitably those vehicles will have very different riding characteristics than combustion-engined motorcycles. People will have to adapt to that change in style.”
Working around those problems is perhaps the real reason that we’re seeing bikes like the Harley LiveWire – a machine that is perhaps not intended to be a profit-maker for the firm so much as a valuable source of engineering and manufacturing information.
Above: Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire is good, but petrol power offers the same performance for a fraction of its price
“If you build it, they will come.” It might make for a nice line in a movie, but it’s simply not true when it comes to the introduction of a new bike, and particularly one that breaks unproven ground. The history of motorcycling is littered with ambitious machines that failed to attract enough buyers to make any money.
To succeed, electric motorcycles need to make a convincing case for themselves, and in the ultra-competitive middle section of the market it’s particularly difficult to do so.
“In our view it [electric power] makes a lot of sense for the small commuter stuff, and yes you can make a very good superbike if you’ve got customers with a lot of money to spend,” explains Etheridge, “These bikes are incredibly quick, with full torque from zero revs and all the rest of it, so there’s a lot of performance potential. But the in the mid-range there just isn’t the demand at the moment, and from our discussions with the mainstream OEMs – and we cover most of the globe and know most of the major OEMs – they’re not prepared to really invest in electrifying their fleet until they are sure of the demand. ”
To stimulate that demand, those bike firms would have to achieve some near-impossible goals, creating an electric bike with the performance and range of the most expensive models currently on sale, but offering them with prices on a par with mass-made combustion-engined bikes.
Paul Etheridge said: “Mid-range motorcycles tend to be more leisure products, and the current limitations of an electric version probably explains why they’re not popping up all over the place. The combustion engine bikes are extremely good, and bikers like the look, sound and feel of the engine, it’s a bit part of the appeal, and this is missing in electric bikes. The electrification advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages in terms of cost of buying them, the potential dynamic limitations caused by the heavy battery you need to have if you want decent range, the charging infrastructure, the range etc. All this stuff is stopping that market from developing. It will happen, but it will take a while.”
Above: Upcoming CE 04 is part of a planned range of battery-powered BMW scooters and bikes
It might be a challenge but there are several companies working on electric bikes that might be able to bring battery power to a more mainstream audience.
Most notable are the likes of Kymco’s upcoming RevoNEX, which promises a 127mph top speed and unusually aims to attract traditional riders by offering the added interaction of six-speed manual transmission and a conventional clutch, even though neither is really needed on an electric bike. Price will, of course, be crucial in the RevoNEX’s success, and there are clear indications that it will be higher than we’re used to seeing from the Taiwanese firm, with manufacturing of the RevoNEX set to take place in Italy rather than the Far East. Affluent European buyers are its target, hence the decision to make the bikes on this side of the world instead of shipping them from Taiwan.
Elsewhere, we’ve recently seen CFMoto unveil its 300GT-E – an electric bike intended to have performance akin to a 300cc single – in China, and BMW has revealed the near-production CE-04 concept scooter, which is expected to appear in showroom form later this year. BMW has also trademarked a range of names for electric motorcycles that seem set to be sold as a separate ‘DC’ model line, mirroring the Vision DC Roadster concept from 2019.
Yamaha also appears to be taking the scooter route, with the EC-05 already on sale in Taiwan and the 2019 E01 concept scooter seemingly wending its way towards production, and Honda is following a similar pattern with the PCX Electric, although it has recently filed several patents for a 125cc-class electric motorcycle similar to the CB125R.
Several unanswered questions remain over the electric bike market, though, including what combination of performance, range and price will be needed to gain mainstream acceptance. That’s something that’s likely to vary considerably in different parts of the world; where a 100-mile range might be plenty for many riders in Europe, it would probably be insufficient to gain widespread acceptance in the USA. The emergence of a capable high-speed charging infrastructure could transform the market, too – making range a smaller concern and opening the field to the use of smaller, lighter batteries in the knowledge that they can easily and quickly be topped up.
Another conundrum for manufacturers is the speed with which new technologies develop. The average motorcycle in the UK is 15 years old, and for every new bike to find a buyer there are some seven transactions on the second-hand market. One thing holding buyers back from dropping their hard-earned cash on a new electric bike is the knowledge that the technology is improving fast, so their cutting-edge, super-expensive electric bike could be as outdated as a decade-old mobile phone by the time they want to sell it on.
That could well introduce a complete rethink in the ownership model that we’re used to, with riders becoming increasingly likely to lease – allowing them to upgrade regularly as technology improves, just as many of us do with our phone contracts. At the most extreme end of this trend you get the sort of app-based rental schemes being used with e-scooters in trials in several parts of the UK now. Paul Etheridge says manufacturers are quite aware of this: “There's a real shift in ownership models now, particularly in places like India. Rather than buying, people will rent. This is true not only with motorcycles but with everything - music streaming, on-demand movies - and there's a real trend for companies popping up and offering mobility as a service. Vehicles that you pick up, drive somewhere and leave. That means the total demand is much less, but the vehicles will be used much harder. Companies are interested in understanding that new demand before investing in a lot of new products that they might find they can't sell in volume.”
Above: Wunderlich’s hybrid 2WD BMW R1250GS shows how electric power could be used as an advantage
It seems increasingly likely that scooter rental schemes could well end up displacing many sales in the moped market, but much of the enjoyment from motorcycle ownership comes from just that – ownership. The ability to modify a bike, tune its suspension to your liking, even just sit and look at it in the garage, all disappears in the pay-as-you-go model.
However, with the range, cost and performance limitations of electric bikes, the question arises of whether a hybrid that combines a petrol engine with an electric motor could be a stepping-stone towards greener high-performance bikes.
In cars, hybrids certainly paved the way for electrics, even at the very top of the market.
“What really sold electrification on the supercar market was hybridisation,” said Etheridge, “Take a 700hp McLaren, bolt some electric motors on it and you've got a 900hp McLaren. That's a real bonus for someone who wants and can afford a car like that. They're getting something tangible, not just an electric replacement for what they've already got.”
Could the same thinking work on bikes? It’s not quite that easy. Paul Etheridge explained: “We've done a couple of projects on hybridization of motorcycles, but it is quite difficult because suddenly you've got to package not just one engine but two.” Again, there are advantages and there may be certain parts of the motorcycle arc where that might be of benefit.
“Maybe for a scooter there's a bit more space to package a hybrid system, or a bigger motorcycle like an adventure sport. There could be a real benefit there, as adventure sports are popular and they're the bikes where technology is being introduced; they're technology loaded bikes, they've got everything on them, so that could be a good platform. If you take say a BMW GS or something like that - big engine, lots of performance, lots of technology - the only real way to package hybrid into that would be to make the engine smaller.
“Downsizing and boosting has been an automotive technology for years, but in the case of a hybrid the boosting comes from an electric motor. So, you downsize the combustion engine package, making space for an electric motor, you supplement the combustion engine with electrical assist so you get the same performance as your 1200, but you also get the ability to ride it as a pure electric, maybe in the city where there could be restrictions on combustion engines in the future. Maybe you could introduce two-wheel-drive as well, which would be an interesting thing to have. Of course, hybrid solves the range problem of pure electric as well.”
Above: The Kymco RevoNEX could be a turning point for electric bikes, but its price will be need to be right
So, what’s the overall outlook for affordable, high-performance electric bikes that offer everything that our petrol-powered machines can achieve but with the warm glow of eco-friendliness?
They’re coming, there’s no doubt of that, but it’s going to be a slow process that might only be accelerated if governments around the world step in to force the hands of manufacturers.
That’s exactly what’s happening on four wheels at the moment. With countries all over the world announcing plans to ban the sale of pure combustion-engined cars – it’s meant to be happening as soon as 2030 here in the UK – the move to hybrid and full electrification has been accelerated. Suddenly we’re seeing manufacturers scrambling to get electric cars into production, including several that are close to parity with mid-ranged petrol or diesel models in terms of price and performance.
From the perspective of motorcycles, it’s probably a good idea to let that happen. Once the comparatively vast market for cars has adopted electric power, the barriers to convincing electric bikes will tumble down. Charging or battery-swapping infrastructure will be put in place. Battery and motor technology will improve, charging speeds will increase and prices will come down.
So enjoy petrol bikes, they’ll be with us for a while. And when the time comes that electric models are even better than them, there won’t be any pain in swapping over.