Electric Avenue: 30 Days of Commuting on the 2016 Zero DSR

There and back again, and again, and again.

Zero motorcycle parked in a store
Prime parking spot, a few feet away from my perch at the D-Store SF.Gaz Boulanger

The San Francisco Bay is one of the most plugged-in cities in the world for electric vehicle use. With a 90-mile round-trip commute to work, I asked Zero to loan me its new DSR for a month. My objective? Circumvent the neighborhood gas station as I speed up I-280 from Mountain View to San Francisco, where I manage the Dainese D-Store on South Van Ness in South of Market, commuting for 30 days.

I had several goals in mind: would I be able to squeeze the same amount of performance out of an electric bike compared to my gas guzzlers? Would I have enough time to charge the batteries at work? Where would I park it? How many miles at highway speed could I get out of the DSR before running out of juice? Would drafting behind other vehicles extend my range? How about making it a game by only drafting behind electric vehicles!?

2016 Zero DSR static rear view
The slim profile of the DSR is ideal for lane splitting, with tires designed to go anywhere.Rachel Norton

San Francisco was recently ranked the third-worst traffic-congested city in America by U.S News & World Report behind Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. It helps that lane splitting is legal in California, so it lessens the pain of getting stuck in traffic behind visor-wearing slowpokes in the passing lane, and buses carrying young techies from their $5,000-a-month city lofts to tiny cubicles in Mountain View. My work schedule is staggered compared to most, so I miss most of the congestion, although many Bay Area motorists seem to struggle with maintaining their speed through curves. This indicates discreet mobile phone use, which becomes not so discreet when I drive alongside and catch them in the act.

But that’s getting off track. Let’s focus on the fun!

As I reported after the Zero DSR and FXS new product launch in January, the DSR packs quite a wallop: 0-to-60 mph in 3.9 seconds with 106 pound-feet of peak torque from the Z-Force Interior Permanent Magnet (IPM) motor. Additionally, the Z-Force ZF13.0 Power Pack boasts the highest energy density in the electric-vehicle industry. While packing more power in the same amount of space, improved cell chemistry operates more efficiently and increases range. With the Power Pack, cells last 2,500 full charge/discharge cycles before hitting 80-percent capacity, yielding as much as 331,000 miles on the original power pack, according to Zero.

2016 Zero DSR on-road action
Nimble bikes are the most fun.Rachel Norton

My 419-pound demo model was capable of 95 combined city and highway miles at 70 mph. Max top speed was 98 mph, with a 90-mph sustained top speed. The bike came with a 1.3 kW on-board charger that can be plugged into any household electrical outlet, and a cord long enough for use in my garage and at work, which I stored in the zippered compartment where the gas cap is normally found.

My 44-mile commute is fairly balanced: two miles through the sleepy Los Altos suburb, before hopping on the Junipero Serra Freeway/I-280 north for 40 miles of blissful vistas, ending with two miles of fairly painless San Francisco traffic through South of Market. The route includes plenty of wind and elevation gain, which saps a bit of energy from the DSR’s Li-Ion battery, so I needed to show restraint on the throttle. Drafting at a safe distance behind electric and hybrid vehicles kept more juice in the battery, extending my range a noticeable percentage upon arrival.

As I mentioned to Editor-In-Chief Hoyer, it’s not unusual to see 25-plus Teslas on my morning commute. The new Model X mini SUV started appearing on the roads during my 30 days in the saddle. I see almost as many, if not more, Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, and Toyota Priuses, while the Ford C-Max and BMW i3 are gaining traction. This makes my objective to conserve energy much easier, while avoiding toxic fumes filling my helmet. It also adds a modicum of fun to a somewhat monotonous routine, especially on a machine with no clutch. If my left hand and foot aren't needed for duty, a spirited game of drafting electric vehicles serves a double purpose.

Zero DSR in the rear view mirror
Riding in San Francisco traffic ain’t so bad.Rachel Norton

I typically leave the house around 9:30 a.m. Traffic speeds on the 280 ebb and flow, especially near the Palo Alto off ramps, where Silicon Valley’s brightest and best gum up the works on their way to work. Once I get beyond Redwood City it's smooth sailing, albeit at speeds nearing 85-plus just to keep up. This drains the battery, which forced me to throttle back a bit and play it smart.

It was common to arrive at the D-Store with 22 to 28 percent of battery life remaining. If the headwinds played against me I’d exit on Cesar Chavez and take side streets, benefiting from the Zero’s regenerative braking, adding a little more juice. Several times this worked in my favor. The instrument panel was easy to read, and it was up to me to do the math on how much range I could squeeze out of the DSR based on how much fun I wanted.

pluggin in the Zero DSR electric motorcycle
All I needed was a spot to park the bike close to a standard outlet; several hours later I was fully charged and ready for my return voyage home.Gaz Boulanger

Plugging it in was easy-peezy: I rolled it through our back entryway and plugged it into a power strip near the front of the store. A few seconds after plugging it in the instrument panel shows how many hours until a full charge. With my nine-hour workday there was never any issue of running out of time; in fact, it was common to reach a full charge in seven hours or less. I’d repeat the charging process at home in my garage, making sure to take the cord with me every time.

Our weekday store hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. I usually have my end-of-day duties, leaving between 7:15 and 7:30. Commuter traffic has slowed considerably by then, but it's still thick enough to be thankful I’m on a lane-splitting motorcycle. I also avoided the heavy evening winds coming over the Santa Cruz Mountains by taking highway 101, a flatter and shorter route, arriving home with an average of 45 percent charge remaining.

2016 Zero DSR instrument display
The Zero DSR’s display is clean, even when charging. The time was 5:39 pm, with 50 minutes of charge time left.Gaz Boulanger

Chasing Tesla
The DSR's stiff saddle took a little getting used too. Mind you, this is a dual-purpose bike, so the shape and thickness are a bit different than those on my Moto Guzzi California Stone cruiser or BMW R1150RT touring bike. The DSR sits nice and tall at 33.2 inches, with comfortably wide and upright bars. I added the $200 MRA commuter windscreen to cut down on the buffeting.

So how does an electric motorcycle perform? Motorcyclists are constantly playing mental hopscotch while maintaining appropriate speeds. Smooth throttle action and anticipating merging traffic are equally important. With the Zero DSR, speed and control are immediate. Lane changing is almost too easy, so mandatory head-checks and mirrors are used in tandem. Sometimes rogue riders like to lane split other riders while I’m lane splitting; a horrible situation if one’s not paying attention. My Spidey sense was on high alert a few days, allayed by the DSR’s warp-like speed.

The day before I returned the bike to its Scotts Valley birthplace, the stars aligned on my quest for a perfect tow to San Francisco. After 29 attempts, I was able to draft behind several different electric vehicles and arrive at the D-Store with more than 35 percent charge remaining. For the first 10 miles it was a Nissan Leaf, followed by a Prius. I caught a glimpse of a fast-charging Tesla S sedan in the passing lane. I sat in behind the silver-haired driver for a hair-raising 15 miles (averaging a Johnny Law-unfriendly 85 mph) before a more law-abiding Chevy Volt merged ahead near Hillsborough. I enjoyed a more pedestrian tow at 75 mph for nearly 20 miles before exiting onto Ninth Street.

view from Twin Peaks
The view from Twin Peaks.Rachel Norton

Costs of Ownership
According to the US Department of Transportation, the average 'driver' travels about 13,476 miles per year. That breaks down to roughly 37 miles on average per day. Riding a Zero 37 miles will cost you a penny per mile. With no routine powertrain maintenance, your only costs of ridership will include insurance, tires and a slight uptick in your electric bill. The typical cost to recharge the DSR is $1.46; in my case that amounted to $2.92 each day, or $87.60 for the month. Compared to my ICE bikes, which average 48 miles per gallon (at approximately $2.75/gallon), it costs me an average of $239 a month for fuel.

Zero motorcycles feature a direct drive, maintenance-free powertrain. Direct drive channels power directly from the motor to the rear wheel via a strong and silent, constant tension belt made by Gates Carbon. Not only does direct drive minimize friction loss by eliminating clutches and gears, but it also helps eliminate the need for routine powertrain maintenance and reduces the weight of the motorcycle.

riding the Zero DSR with Sutro Tower looming over
Sutro Tower looms 977 feet over the residents of San Francisco.Rachel Norton

The Z-Force powertrain produces so little heat under typical operation, that everything from the power pack to the motor itself is entirely air-cooled. The result is fewer possible mechanical problems and increased range. Like Zero says, when it comes to maintenance, parts, fluids, transmissions and heat, less is more.

The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present... he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future... he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear. ~Milan Kundera

The Future?
Internal combustion engines are thirsty for gas and oil, which are readily and conveniently available anywhere in the world. Electric vehicles are thirsty for voltage, which, thanks in no part to Thomas Edison's crushing blow to Nikola Tesla's dreams of wireless power, have yet to materialize. For now, Tesla Motors is leading the revolution to educate the masses on the viability of electric transportation, installing fast charging stations. Zero offers a couple fast-charging options:

For home or office use, Zero’s scalable Quick Charger system uses stand-alone (off-board) 1 kW chargers that work in conjunction with the motorcycle’s standard (on-board) charger. One $600 Quick Charger provides an additional 1 kW of charging capability. When used with your motorcycle’s integrated charging system, this approximately doubles the amount of energy flowing to the power pack during charging. As a result, the charge time of a Zero motorcycle is reduced by around 50 percent. To charge even faster, multiple Quick Chargers can be purchased and used with a $250 Quick Charger Y Adapter to reduce the charge time further.

2016 Zero DSR plug cord
The cord is long enough to plug in anywhere you need to charge.Gaz Boulanger

The $1,988 Charge Tank effectively triples the on-board charging speed by working with level 2 charging stations on the popular J1772 standard. This dealer-installed accessory complements the standard on-board charger of many 2015 and later Zero motorcycles, reducing typical charge times to 2-3 hours, up to 53 miles per hour of charging. It includes a new tank section that eliminates the tank bag from the motorcycle. The Charge Tank is not compatible with Zero models equipped with the Power Tank accessory.

At $15,995 before tax incentives and rebates, the Zero DSR is in the same price neighborhood as a Ducati Hypermotard 939 SP, BMW S1000R or KTM 1290 Super Duke R. What the Italian, Bavarian and Austrian fun machines don’t offer is a glimpse of the future, one where Nikola Tesla’s vision of a wirelessly-energized world flows to benefit plugged-in riders.

Zero has the best head start toward that horizon, if my 30 days in the saddle of the DSR were any indication.

taking in the San Francisco city view
The view was awesome, but the park ranger didn’t think my parking spot was so awesome.Rachel Norton

Give Me a Break!
Retail price for the DSR ZF13.0 is $15,995. Thanks to the Electric Motorcycle Federal Tax Credit, also known as the two-wheeled plug-in tax credit, buyers receive 10 percent of the purchase price of a Zero, up to $2,500. Plus: Electric motorcycle chargers (e.g., Zero Quick Charger and Zero Charge Tank) are eligible for a 30 percent tax credit up to $1,000. These credits are available in all 50 states and apply to motorcycles and charging equipment purchased in 2015 (retroactive) and 2016.

In addition to the Federal Tax Credit, many states offer incentives, making the purchase of a Zero even more attractive. In California it’s a $900 rebate (San Joaquin Valley riders get an additional $1000 rebate (lucky!); Massachusetts: $750 rebate (limited funds); Maryland: $125/kWh excise tax credit; Pennsylvania: $500 rebate (limited funds); Utah: $750 tax credit; Arizona: reduced vehicle license tax; and Illinois: reduced vehicle registration fee.