Electric Motorcycles: Options, Advantages and What’s Available on Today’s Market

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The Electrocat electric motorcyle

The following is an excerpt from the bookBuild Your Own Electric Motorcycleby alternative fuel expert Carl Vogel (McGraw-Hill, 2009). This hands-on guide provides the latest technical information and easy-to-follow instructions for designing, converting, purchasing or building electric motorcycles.

There are some incredibly cool electric motorcycles on the market today. Electric vehicles (EVs) are fun to own and ride, and lots of people are getting revved up about EVs. There’s nothing wrong with cool, and I have to admit that few vehicles are cooler than motorcycles (at least in theory, although not all of us would ride one). You’re basically sitting on an engine with wheels. It can’t get much simpler than that. Motorcycles are not always practical, but the people who love their bikes really love them.

The vast majority of motorcycles are still running on fossil fuels, and that’s a problem. As battery technology improves, we’re starting to see more electric motorcycles. Some are available commercially; many are do-it-yourself (DIY) custom jobs. Let’s look at some of the coolest options.

The Electrocat Electric Motorcycle

Check out Eva Håkansson astride her Electrocat motorcycle. I’m starting with her because she is a true pioneer in the world of electric motorcycles (she describes herself as a “hardcore EV geek with a green heart and passion for power and speed”).

Eva built the Electrocat with her father, Sven Håkansson, and it is probably the first street-legal electric motorcycle in Sweden. It is based on a Cagiva Freccia C12R, model year 1990, but the insides are pure electric goodness.

The Electrocat has Thunder Sky litihum-iron-phosphate cells and the original Briggs & Stratton Etek motor. It also has an Alltrax AXE7245 controller. Charging takes half an hour on a powerful garage charger (longer with the smaller onboard charger — about 7 hours), and the range is 80 km (50 miles) per charge at 70 km/h (44 mph).

KillaCycle and KillaCycle LSR Electric Motorcycles

I’m not finished with Eva Håkansson yet. She’s part of the team that created the KillaCycle, an insanely powerful electric dragbike that set a new world record on October 23, 2008 — “7.89 seconds at 168 mph is a new official National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) record and makes the KillaCycle the world’s quickest electric vehicle of any kind in the quarter mile!” Congrats to Scotty Pollacheck for having the guts to do that run.

How fast does the KillaCycle accelerate from 0 to 60 mph? Less than a second (0.97 seconds to be exact). The batteries are 1210 lithium-iron-nanophosphate cells from A123 Systems. We are building a brand new motorcycle optimized for high speed — the KillaCycle LSR. (However, the original KillaCycle dragbike will continue pushing the envelope on the dragstrip.) The warm-up target for KillaCycle LSR is to reach 200 mph (322 km/h) in the beginning of the 2009 season. The next target, later in the season, will be to reach 300 mph (482 km/h) and, hopefully, take the overall electric record of 314 mph (505 km/h) toward the end of the year. The ultimate goal is to break the overall motorcycle record of 354 mph (570 km/h).

An EV conversion solves so many problems and transportation concerns immediately. It just needs to happen.

Zero Motorcycles

Zero Motorcycles recently revealed its new high-performance electric street motorcycle, the Zero S. This highly anticipated launch marked Zero Motorcycles’ official entry into the street-legal category. The company’s new flagship motorcycle uses Zero’s proprietary Z-Force power pack and aircraft-grade alloy frame to make the Zero S the quickest production electric motorcycle in its class. Zero Motorcycles has already booked substantial pre-orders for the Zero S without sharing details or images and now anticipates a soaring demand. The Zero S will begin shipping to customers soon.

Here’s a word from Said Neal Saiki, inventor and founder of Zero Motorcycles:

Our goal from the beginning was to engineer a high-performance electric urban street motorcycle that would change the face of the industry. The Zero S is a revolutionary motorcycle that is designed to tackle any city street, hill, or obstacle … The innovation behind the Zero S is what separates it from the competition. The Zero S is a high-performance motorcycle that also happens to be fully electric and green. The fact that it’s electric means not having to get gas and reduced maintenance.

Developed to aggressively take on urban environments and encourage the occasional detour, the Zero S integrates revolutionary technology with innovative motorcycle design. Instant acceleration and a lightweight design combine to form an industry-leading power-to-weight ratio that increases the motorcycle’s range and handling abilities. At only 225 lbs, the Zero S has a range of up to 60 miles and a top speed of 60 mph. With 31 peak horsepower and 62.5 ft per pound of torque, the Zero S is designed for optimal performance off the line, in sharp turns and while navigating obstacles.

In addition to its performance and maneuverability, the Zero S uses a completely nontoxic lithium-ion array, and most of the motorcycle is fully recyclable. The landfill-approved power pack recharges in less than 4 hours while plugged into a standard 110- or 220-V outlet. Eco-friendly with zero emissions, the Zero S is also economy-friendly, with an operating cost of less than 1 cent per mile or kilometer.

At $9,950, the Zero S is priced competitively and also qualifies for the recently approved 10 percent federal plug-in vehicle tax credit, a sales tax deduction and other state-based incentives. This effectively reduces the final cost of purchase by a minimum of almost $1,000. The Zero S was developed to comply with all street and highway motorcycle standards and can be licensed for the road in most countries. It is available for purchase through Zero Motorcycles.

The Zero X electric motorcycle gets 40 miles per charge from its proprietary patent-pending lithium-ion array and charges in 2 hours. The third generation of the Zero X is priced at $7,750.

Zero Motorcycles is the next step in motorcycle evolution and represents the ultimate electric motorcycle technology. Unencumbered by conventional thinking about how to design, manufacture and sell high-performance electric motorcycles, Zero Motorcycles is on a mission to turn heads and revolutionize the industry by combining the best aspects of a traditional motorcycle with today’s most advanced technology. The result is an electric motorcycle line that’s insanely fast and environmentally friendly.

Zero Motorcycles first entered the motorcycle category with the launch of the 2008 Zero X electric dirtbike. Exceeding all expectations, the Zero X sold out in late 2008 and blazed the path for the long-awaited launch of the Zero S Supermoto motorcycle.

Brammo Motorsports

Brammo Motorsports based in Oregon released an electric motorcycle called the Enertia Bike for sale in the United States in early 2008. It has a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 45 miles, and it can fully recharge via a standard plug in 3 hours. It weighs just 275 lbs and uses a direct chain drive for power. The power is stored in six Valence Technology lithium-phosphate batteries that are mounted above and below the frame. The motorcycle is driven by a “pancake type” high-output direct-current (dc) motor.

Brammon initially offered a limited-edition carbon model for $14,995. You also could reserve a standard model at $11,995, which became available at the end of 2008.

With a low moment of inertia and an aggressive rake-angle, this motorcycle handles like a dream and has an affinity for changing direction. Couple this with the smooth, efficient power delivery from the electric drivetrain, and you’ve got a recipe for excitement. With 100 percent of its torque available from 0 rpm, the Enertia is certainly no slouch off the line. At its quickest setting, the Enertia will sprint from 0 to 30 mph in 3.8 seconds.

Beyond the obvious goal of empowering customers to enjoy guilt-free transportation, Brammo wants to empower customers to set their own performance limits on the Enertia. If you’re a beginner or would like to achieve maximum range on every ride, perhaps you should start at a lower power setting than someone with either a very short commute or an ambitious right wrist. The company’s Momentum software will enable you to download information about your driving habits and customize your bike to the performance setting that fits you and your environment best.

At its quickest setting, the 13-kW, 18-hp electric dc motor will propel the Enertia from 0 to 30 mph in 3.8 seconds. The cost is about $11,995. When you look at a rendering of the insides of this bike, it looks surprisingly clean compared to what we’re used to seeing with gas motorcycles.

Voltzilla: DIY Electric Motorcycle

Some people just can’t wait for a commercially made electric motorcycle, so they take matters in their own hands. Russ Gries is a DIY kind of guy, and when he was given a free electric forklift, he decided to turn it into an electric motorcycle.

He used the carcass of a 1976 Honda CB550 that he got for $50 as a frame, and then he removed the gas engine to install an electric motor and batteries. After about 120 hours and a net cost of $15.61 (that’s right, he got money for recycling the rest of the forklift), the result is Voltzilla. It’s a bit different from most electric conversions in good part because of its forklift ancestry:

• It runs on 24 V; most others are 48 V and up.
• The transmission was retained because Gries wanted the flexibility of variable gearing for the hills where he lives (most other converted bikes are direct drive from the motor to the rear sprocket).
• It has a reverse, just like the forklift.
• The four batteries are from golf carts. They are used 6-V, 220-A models. Most other conversions use smaller batteries with less capacity.
• Its current top speed is around 35 mph (56 km/h), but after a drive-pulley swap, Gries should be able to get 60-65 mph (100 km/h).

Electric Motorcycle Conversions: Easier Than You Think

An electric motorcycle conversion is easier than an electric car conversion because you don’t have to worry about the transmission and clutch, power steering, vacuum pumps, heaters, air conditioners, and the weight and size of everything that gets moved around. An El Ninja-type conversion is even easier than most motorcycle conversions because the battery and motor mounting are so straightforward and provide configuration flexibility.

KTM “Race Ready” Enduro Electric Motorcycle

Now, if we turn our gaze to the future, Austrian motorcycle maker KTM has announced that within two years it will make a 100 percent electric Enduro “race ready” motorcycle. According to Hell for Leather magazine,

The Austrian company is releasing very few details of the Zero Emissions Motorcycle, but has revealed that it develops 29.5 ft per lb of torque and carries lithium-ion batteries capable of lasting 40 minutes under “race conditions” and that it can be fully recharged in just 1 hour … KTM’s battery pack and electric motor together weigh 17 kg (for a total machine weight of 90 kg, or 198 lb — that’s 7 kg lighter than a KTM 125 EXC), but some of this weight will be offset by the elimination of the clutch, exhaust pipes and canisters, fuel tank, and other necessities of internal combustion. The company expects that the Zero Emissions Motorcycle will carry a small price premium over a KTM Enduro of similar performance.

Honda and Yamaha to Make Electric Motorcycles in 2010-2011

So far, few big players have made electric motorcycles, which has allowed newcomers like Vectrix to get a toehold. But that’s about to change.

On the horizon, though with fewer details, Yamaha and Honda have both announced that they will be making electric motorcycles in 2010-2011. According to TreeHugger, “Both firms hope to bring to market electric motorcycles that perform on a par with bikes with 50-cc engine displacements. The vehicles will be powered by high-performance lithium-ion batteries.”

EVT America

2009 Z-30 versus the 2007 Z-20b.EVT America’s 2009 Z-30 is almost identical to the 2007 Z-20b in body style, which I find to be far more suitable than the very attractive but less functional 2007 Z-20a.

2009 R-30 versus the 2007 R-20. Not wanting to change in any way or alter the classic retro style of the R models, the company’s 2009 R-30 looks almost identical to the 2007 R-20.

Electric Motorcycle Options

There are many types of electric motorcycles on the market today. However, conversion is the best alternative because it costs less than either buying ready-made or building from scratch, takes only a little more time than buying ready-made, and is technically within everyone’s reach (certainly with the help of a local mechanic and absolutely with the help of an EV conversion shop).

Conversion is also easiest from the labor standpoint. You buy the existing internal combustion vehicle chassis you like (certain chassis types are easier and better to convert than others), install an electric motor, and save a bundle. It’s really quite simple.

To do a smart motorcycle conversion, the first step is to buy a clean, straight, used internal combustion vehicle chassis. A used model is also to your advantage because its already-broken-in parts are smooth, and the friction losses are minimized. A vehicle from a salvage yard or a vehicle with a bad engine may not be the best choice because you do not know if the transmission, brakes, or other components and systems are satisfactory. Once you select the vehicle, then you add well-priced electrical parts or a whole kit from a vendor you trust and do as much of the simple labor as possible, farming out the tough jobs (machining, bracket making, etc.).

Whether you do the work yourself and just subcontract a few jobs or elect to have someone handle the entire conversion for you, you can convert to an EV for a very attractive price compared with buying a new motorcycle.

Reprinted with permission from Build Your Own Electric Motorcycle, published by McGraw-Hill, 2009.