Electric Arrival

But are they really ‘green’?

Electric Arrival

Electric motorcycles are technologically practical devices now, especially if in-city commuting is your application. They are pricey, which you would expect for two reasons: First, they are new, so mass production has yet to drive down the cost of advanced batteries, electric motors and controllers; second, the word "electric" has become magic to parts of the environmental movement, and for this some persons will pay almost any price.

All makers (and there are a surprising number; see our selection of just a few) claim strong acceleration, and that's as it should be for a power source that can deliver essentially constant torque. Most light, commuter-oriented street offerings have a top speed in the 50-mph range. Some makers—Mission Motors, MotoCzysz and Brammo—claim racebike-like top speeds of 150 mph or more for their electric superbikes intended for the June TTXGP "green" race at the Isle of Man. Proposed street versions are said to offer similar performance.

With battery power, the big questions are range and recharge time. Mission Motors claims 150 miles—the most I saw in my research—but others allege as little as 35 miles, adequate for most commuting. Recharge for streetable machines generally takes place from household 110-volt outlets. Shorter-range vehicles typically claim 80 percent recharge in 2.5 to 4 hours, but the greater the range, the longer the batteries will take to recharge if limited to the typical 15-amp maximum draw from a household outlet.

The hot batteries of the moment are variants of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) concept, which is two to four times more compact than the more mature NiMH, the nickel metal hydride battery found, for example, in the thousands of Toyota Prius hybrids and the Vectrix VX-1 scooter.

For our convenience and instruction, makers of the Swiss Quantya break down the basic price of its $10,700 Strada's powertrain into: controller, $754; electric motor, $2215; and Li-Polymer battery (a durable variant), $7030.

What is the controller? It is the "brains" of the operation—the transistor device that allows smoothly "throttled" motor operation, charging and basically manages the whole operation.

It must be pointed out that these vehicles are "zero emissions" only at point of use, since half of U.S. electricity currently comes from coal-fired generating plants. So, an electric machine is 50 percent coal-fired, adding a discernible dark stain to your carbon footprint.

E-bike makers emphasize low operating cost—one claim is "less than one cent per mile." An internal-combustion scooter getting 80 miles per gallon has a fuel cost 2.6 times more than this (at current gasoline prices). Can electrics save money? In the auto industry, new fuel-saving technologies such as diesel, hybrid and gasoline-direct injection are currently being compared in break-even cost—the time or driving distance required for the fuel savings to pay the extra cost of the technology. In this case, it's not hard to figure, as the electric saves 1.6 cents per mile compared to the 80-mpg combustion scooter. If the electric costs the same to buy as the combustion scooter, you pocket the 1.6 cents a mile. Riding 15,000 miles a year, that's $240 saved. But if the "electric surcharge" is $1000, break-even comes only after 60,000 miles (or four years, at 15,000 miles a year).

But let's be honest: We didn't get into motorcycling to become cost accountants. We ride bikes because they are fun. So are these electrics, and they will become more fun as time passes and more is learned about how to build them and what they can do. The real reason to buy and ride an electric motorbike or scooter is because you want to.

Joining the full-size, 62-mph, $10,495 Vectrix VX-1 scooter is the VX-2, a $5195 "50cc alternative" with a 30-mph top speed and a 35-55-mile range. Recharge is 3-5.5 hours on household current.

MotoCzysz has switched from combustion to electric and is preparing the new E1pc for the Isle of Man TTXGP. It is estimated to deliver 0-120-mph acceleration times of less than 8 seconds.

Mission Motors plans to build 300 bikes in 2010, with the first 50 "premier" models going for $68,995.

Brammo's Enertia is an $11,995 plug-in commuter with a 35-45-mile range and a 50-mph top speed. Recharge takes 3 hours. Brammo is also working on a high-performance TTXGP Isle of Man entry.

Zero S streetbike (pictured, 225 pounds, 60-mile range, 60-mph top speed, $9950) joins Zero X motocrosser (151 pounds, 40-mile range, no top-speed claim, $7450).

Quantya builds the $9975 Track (off-road only) and $10,700 Strada (DOT-legal dual-sport). Both machines have a 45-55-mph top speed and a quick, two-hour recharge.

Mission Motors plans to build 300 bikes in 2010, with the first 50 "premier" models going for $68,995.