THE SMALL BEGINNINGS OF A REVOLUTION
With big changes predicted for land transport, and the future of motorcycles somewhat uncertain, what are some likely changes in the design of motorcycles to cater for two-wheel travel demand? To help us investigate this we’ll take a brief survey of the electric motorcycle start-up industry to see what the future of motorcycles might look like.
One trend that’s not a maxim but rather an interesting observation is innovative designs, especially with respect to electric motorcycles, seems to be coming from smaller companies. Of course any size company can be innovative. It’s just that work undertaken on the margins of an industry is risky and maybe smaller companies are less risk adverse, or know where they can compete with a competitive advantage over the big players, or are more flexible and dynamic, responding to trends and pushing into uncertain territory. Who really knows. Currently some the most exciting electric motorcycle work is being undertaken by small companies.
AN ELECTRIC REVOLUTION
Let’s assume the future of motorcycles involves electric power. The electric motorcycle is currently a small market with big potential. Looking at small electric bike manufacturers may provide some clues on where motorcycle design is heading. Some start-ups have a similar business model to the existing industry, with a differentiation based on technology. Others are pioneering a service/rental type model or trying new direct sales, marketing, and engagement techniques. Looking to position the new electric motorcycle within a wider integrated travel experience, while de-emphasising the motorcycle as a simple means of transport, placing less focus on technical specifications of the machine and hype around performance aspects typical of historical motorcycling marketing.
Zero Motorcycles probably makes some of the most traditional looking electric motorcycles. They have a strong reputation for producing quality electric motorcycles in a form factor similar to current petrol powered bikes. Zero positions their bikes around the advantages from battery-powered propulsion, where “[m]assive torque delivers a gratifying rush of acceleration, while the absence of noise, heat and vibration heightens the sensation of speed and smoothness. The ride experience is seamless and thrilling, connecting you to your surroundings in a way you didn’t know was possible.” Lower running and maintenance costs, Zero’s cutting edge technology like their Z-Force powertrain, lower environmental impact (little noise or air pollutants, renewable energy where available, etc), long range, simple charging solutions, and potential for government financial incentives and access to road infrastructure such as special lanes or exceptions from tolls/road charges, are many of the key benefits to owing a Zero motorcycle.
Where Zero is directly taking on the current design of petrol motorcycles with a technically sophisticated, innovative electric motorcycle other start-ups have found a different space to develop
their two wheel electric transport product. A good example of this is the Chinese electric motorcycle maker Sur-Ron. Positioned somewhere between a mountain bike and a lightweight off-road dirt bike, their Sur Ron Lightbee is a very
unique machine, carving out its own market with an innovative cross-over bike that packs a 3500W electric motor and a removable 60V/32AH battery into a lightweight dirt bike style aluminium alloy
frame, with a full mono shock suspension setup and a multistage coaxial transmission system running a chain drive to the rear wheel. Curb weight is a very lightweight 50kg and the bike has a
range up to 100km.
Although primarily designed for off-road dirt tracks, the Lightbee can be configured and licensed in some jurisdictions for legal street use, making it an option in the small, electric moped category that’s often restricted to slow speed urban streets. And it looks like Sur Ron have a full-sized dirt bike in the works, the Storm Bee, to compete directly in the current off-road, dirt bike/MX category.
Another lightweight dirt bike is the CAKE KALK. It stands out with a modern
angular and elegant, somewhat techie looking, MX style electric dirt bike. Like the Sur Ron, this bike has dirt bike DNA, featuring long suspension travel, with a thin, tall, and lightweight
design, and is also available in a street legal version. Larger than the MTB sized Lightbee but still at a rather lightweight 69kg (52kg dry weight + battery), the CAKE KALK OR features a 15kW
motor driving the rear wheel in a standard motorcycle configuration, powered by a 51.8 Volt, 50Ah battery with a range up to three hours.
CAKE is a Swedish company and describe their main objectives as “[i]nspiring people, contributing to speeding up the journey towards a zero emission society, combining excitement with responsibility” and “[d]eveloping a new category of Light Electric Off-Road Motorbikes (L.E.Os.), optimizing the specifics of an Electric Drive train within an off road chassis.” Their current machine is a small production line, beautifully crafted high-spec ‘designer-bike’; an object of desire and practical functionality.
Moving even further away from the traditional motorcycle design, you’ll find an innovate electric motorcycle, the UBCO Utility Electric Vehicle (UEV). Developed in New Zealand, the UBCO 2X2 Electric Bike’s initial market was as a farm bike and it features an innovative two hub motor, dual electric drive system that makes this little electric moped a true 2 X 2 vehicle, perfect for all kinds of off-road duties around the farm. Additional functionality for farmers includes two USB charging ports to power gadgets and one 12V outlet that can be used for running power tools like saws and drills. The bike weighs a lightweight 65 kg and has a range up to 120km. It has a functional yet clean design with a double-cradle style frame that holds a 48Ah rated, 50V battery with a 6-8 hour charge time, traditional twin rear shocks, and a useful carry capacity of 150kg (including the rider). The company also markets the bike as a leisure machine and has it certified for street use as an electric moped.
This small sample of electric motorcycle start-up companies shows that innovative design is driving the beginnings of a revolution (although maybe evolution might be a better
descriptor). Moreover, as the physical design of motorcycles change and evolve over the next few years, it seems one of the more important changes might be the way motorcycles are used and
business models to sell/rent them. Developments in the micro-mobility field, especially the growth of on-demand electric scooters, will likely drive changes in the way motorcycles are used.
Integration of motorcycles with Intelligent Transport Systems and smartphone technology via apps to control and monitor their electric systems and the riding experience, will likely also have an
impact on motorcycling (see The Future of Motorcycles is a Connected Story).
Some other observations. There appears to be lots diversity in the design of motorcycles, and maybe this reflects the different use cases and the types of markets open to motorcycles. Motorcycles also don’t have mass appeal, therefore, it will be interesting how motorcycle designs address lack of consumer demand, safety concerns, and reduce the learning curve needed to master riding a bike, especially for commuter travel in a land transport sector slowly moving towards an on-demand autonomous electric vehicle fleet. It’s probably fair to conclude the most likely area for the first mass expansion in production and use of electric motorcycles is the recreation off-road market. The bikes presented above provide some evidence to support this claim.
Motorcycles can be part of the micro-mobility land transport future, providing a small single person transport vehicle for local, short distance trips, but it will be interesting to see if they have a future based on how they are currently used (see Can motorcycle Travel Patterns Predict Future Mobility Trends?). There's certainly plenty of design innovation to predict a bright future for electric motorcycles.