Electric and Hybrid Motorcycles - Going Green

Your Bike Could Someday Run On Beer!

Electric bikes like the Brammo Enertia TTR, which finished third in this year's TTXGP at the Isle of Man, show potential but also the need for much further development.

Lately there's been quite a stir about electric bikes in the media. Several small-scale manufacturers are offering on- and off-road production models for sale. The Isle of Man hosted the TTXGP, a one-lap race for electric and hybrid motorcycles. And the FIM recently announced the addition of a race series for electric bikes in 2010. Over the past few years, technology for batteries and electric motors has made significant advances, to the point that a setup offering decent performance and range can fit into a motorcycle chassis. The result is often touted as a zero-emissions answer to our escalating transportation and energy woes.

Alternative fuels such as ethanol or bio-diesel are showing some promise for reducing the load on nonrenewable resources. In a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times, an article introduced the MicroFueler-a device that makes ethanol out of organic waste right at your home. In a tank in your driveway you put organic feedstock, which a still then converts to ethanol; with a pump you'd fill your car or motorcycle right there. Or you could refuel in minutes at a station, and the ethanol refueling infrastructure is already in place. Ironically, the MicroFueler people have contracted with a beer company to provide raw material in the form of waste beer.

I'm all for new technology and eco-friendly transportation, but it's hard for me to get excited about electric motorcycles-at least in their current state-for a number of reasons. Batteries have to be charged, and that power has to come from somewhere. More often than not, it originates in a power plant burning a nonrenewable resource such as coal or natural gas, with the resultant CO2 and other harmful emissions. Granted, the overall efficiency and environmental impact of using mass-generated electricity is much better than an independent internal combustion engine, but electric bikes are far from what you'd call zero-emissions. Late last year California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order calling for at least one third of the state's energy needs to be met by renewable resources by 2020, but a recent story in the Los Angeles Times indicated that this will be a difficult goal to meet. Taxing the system even more by adding droves of electric automobiles and motorcycles will put that goal even further away.

All that said, electrics will certainly be more eco-friendly in the long term. Eventually, an electric sportbike will be available that is competitively priced, offers decent range, performance comparable to a standard powerplant, and quick refueling. Until then, there's plenty of life-and room for improvement in terms of the environment-left in the internal combustion engine.

Another hurdle that electric vehicles must overcome is that batteries take time to recharge. The easy answer is that you plug your bike in overnight and it's ready to go in the morning. But what if you have to go more than the short range your ride offers? It's not like you can stop at a recharging station and juice up in a few minutes; run out and you're done for at least a couple of hours. What if you're stranded at the side of the road? Is AAA going to come by with a (gas-burning!) generator to get you on your way?

Finally, electric bikes still have a long way to go in terms of performance. Most offer speed and acceleration akin to scooters or a small-bore dual-purpose bike, and improvements are linked to battery capacity and life-in turn related to bulk and weight. At the Isle of Man, the TTXGP was won with an average one-lap speed of 87 mph. That seems plenty quick enough, but consider that bikes in the '50s were regularly topping that mark. Certainly that doesn't mean a performance electric sportbike is 50 years away, but there's a huge gap to be overcome. And in the meantime, internal combustion engines will continue to improve with more power and cleaner emissions.

Eventually, all these issues will be overcome and I can easily see an ideal future where the cars and bikes are all powered by electricity, and you can recharge with cleanly generated power in minutes at a service station. In the short- and medium-term, however, there are a number of solutions that are just as attractive and may even out-green electric bikes. Hybrids are one example already showing good results in the automotive world, but they would bring their own problems to a smaller motorcycle application. Fuel cells are another, again bringing certain issues to the table that are a long way from being resolved.