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The trials, tribulations and absolute joys of electric motorcycling

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It’s been almost 5 years since I swapped from a petrol engined motorcycle to an all electric Zero. I’ve upgraded once already and just clocked 32,767km on my 2014 model.

According to my app, I’ve used 1,951kWh to cover that distance, averaging 59Wh per km at an average cost of $0.015c per km.

This bike is a miser’s dream machine. It’s also addictively fun with a silky smooth direct drive and a big fat torque curve.

I recently reduced the gearing to enhance this, bringing the torque down lower at the sacrifice of around 35km of top end speed, but still capable of almost 140kmh.

While I was in the modifying mood I also added a new set of smaller custom wheels with wider, sportier tyres laced to gorgeous alloy rims, changing the old girl from a dual sport machine to a zippy and ultra-responsive super mono-style city bike.

I also added the ultimate EV owner’s accessory – a fast charger.

Making a little history

With all these changes, the opportunity to road test the new set up was a no brainer.

The Sydney Electric Motorcyclists group is a collective of around a dozen owners from Sydney and between us we mapped, arranged and planned a trip a few weeks ago.

We’ve had a few rides before and our gang of nerds just keeps growing with no less than nine electric motorcycles on this run made up of seven Zeros and two Brammos.

We also had two petrol bikes, a Nissan Leaf and a Mitsubishi Outlander do the entire trip and Tesla P65 for part of our run.

We are without a shadow of a doubt, the quietest and oddest gang you ever saw.

Our route took us from our collective homes in and around Sydney to Jenolan Caves and back – around 500km in total over two days via some of the most legendary riding roads in the country.

This trip was a historic first in Australia – never have so many electric bikes ridden and charged together, testament to the slow but steady growth in popularity.

The ride

electric motorbikes - nigel morris 2 copy

Our ride started at Hawksbury Showgrounds for our first refuelling stop before the climb into the Blue Mountains.

Showgrounds are rapidly becoming the equivalent of an “EV oasis” due to the fact that Australia’s prolific grey nomads use them as rest stops in their campervans and as a result, almost every showground in the country is now swimming in a multitude of power outlets.

The beautiful simplicity of 3 phase outlets as a charging point has seen them rapidly becoming the preferred destination of EV owners alike because they are vehicle agnostic, ubiquitous, multi-purpose and typically deliver around 40kW which can be beautifully divided up into three single phase circuits, each capable of around 13kW.

That’s a stack of power for an EV owner.

We met up at our first stop where most of us only needed a top up of around 30-40min. Having said that, all the Zeros are now equipped with fast chargers, made by a local owner and electrical tinkerer which means most of us have 6.6kW plus 1.3kW, which is inbuilt.

With an 11.4kWh battery, that means we can theoretically charge from flat in about 1.4 hours.

So the good part is that we can now charge in very respectable times; especially since we aim to arrive at most locations with around 20-30% in reserve and can really quickly charge to around 80-90% full before the charger starts tapering off and slowing down.

The bad news is, with seven Zeros at full fast charging, the Brammos at 3.3kW and the Nissan Leaf at around 10kW, we are pulling close to 82kW.

Based on experience, we now like to refer to ourselves as “a free power and safety testing gang” – if there is a deficiency or fault of any sort, we are going to find it.

Fully charged, we headed up the legendary Bells Line road. Although the speed limits are low, the endless series of curves and spectacular views put us all in a great mood.

There is absolutely no difference between our bikes and regular bikes once you are on the road and riding.

We stopped at Bilpin for a coffee and a top up for one of our owners who has a smaller 8.5kWh battery, conscious of the steep gradient.

During this stop I learned that the owner of this bike lives 100% off grid and not only charges his Zero from his solar system but also occasionally discharges it too, to support his home battery when it’s weather depleted.

A telltale set of MC leads as you would normally find on solar panels, allows him to plug the Zero’s 116V Lithium battery in to a DC-to-DC converter and discharge into his lead acid battery bank, extending his run time at home.

We rode through the Bells Line at an almost silent yet cracking pace until we rolled down the hill into Lithgow, our next charging spot.

The local showgrounds are well equipped and welcomed us warmly with steak sangas and a rugby game to keep us entertained while we recharged.

Once again, there was an abundance of 15A single phase and 32A three phase outlets for us.

We barely had time for a feed and a coffee before we realised we were full again, it was time to stop the chatter and ride on, held up only a little by the slower-charging but gorgeous Brammos.

From Lithgow to Jenolan is an 80km riders dream.

The first section was tight, undulating and windy, bringing out the racer in a number of us with a quickening pace.

Towards Omeo, the road starts to open up into faster sweeping curves as it passes through the pine forests with a 100kmh speed limit.

Safe in the knowledge it was short run, the pace ramped up notably and we had a freight train of bikes whizzing down the road.

At one point I looked in my rear view mirror and smiled in awe at the line of headlights trailing into the distance, knowing that they were all electric bikes.

As you approach Jenolan Caves the road becomes a switch back of 40km bends as it endlessly winds down to the valley floor.

This is where programmable electric bikes are so cool; with a flick of a switch I engaged a different mode, enabling 100% “engine braking” which provides braking force and regeneration.

I had converted from a coasting throttle ideal for sweeping sports riding to a map that encouraged aggressive acceleration, tyre squirming stops, then repeat.

Again and again and again.

At one point I stopped with another rider and we slapped each other on the back, grinning from ear to ear about how exhilarating the road was, and watched the rest of our gang coming down the valley.

EV bikes - nigel morris story

Geek fest

With everyone safely at our destination, the now predictable horde of fascinated onlookers arrived including most of the rangers and staff. People are fascinated by electric motorcycles, but nine of them in a group was nothing short of bewildering.

Some of our guys had done a great job pre-confirming the availability of high-powered charging and the staff at Jenolan Caves were specially prepared for us.

They had a number of secure parking locations with leads at the ready. We slung our gear in our bunks, headed for the bar and warmed our bones.

Over a few drinks and a great meal, the profoundness and gravity of our motley crew and historic ride hit me, causing me to buy the most expensive bottle of wine I could for a celebratory toast.

I listened to off grid solar folks sharing stories about boiling kettles from their bike battery. I overheard business conversations based around the high-end technology fields several are in, but also the love for antique steam engines.

I marvelled at the amazing technical conversations on motors, batteries and chassis construction from three owners who built and raced electrics.

As a group, we connected dots locally and Internationally and how several of our gang were genuinely globally connected and massive innovators.

Then it hit me.

This has never happened before.

Jenolan Caves had never been asked to charge an electric motorcycle before and only a few electric cars had ventured in. A dozen or so riders had never sat around any table in this place slobbering over the latest Lithium Ion or permanent magnet motor advancements.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this first.

electric motorcycle charger - nigel morris story

In the zone

With a good nights sleep and a feed, we did the obligatory photo shoot , shot some video and headed back up the valley.

Change mode, enable max torque and go; I literally turned around and went part of the way back down so I could do it twice, it was so much fun; to hell with the energy-sapping gradient, the sub zero temperatures and the time.

I was now 100% in the “Zen with the art of electric motorcycle Maintenance” zone.

The ride back to Lithgow and then Hawkesbury was as fun as it was uneventful. The smaller capacity bikes managed to push through Bilpin without a top up because we were now coming downhill instead of climbing, knocking about 20% off the energy needs.

We arrived at Hawkesbury cold, tired but exhilarated.

I headed off with around 80% charge knowing my route home was easily within range and opted to eke out the last few drops of fun by taking the longer back way through outer western Sydney and Galston Gorge, then slowly eased down into reality.

Tribulations

Our historic ride was successful but we did have two minor issues. One of our gang suffered a “relay lock out” which is a symptom of his heavily modified bike and causes the main relay to lock out for 30 minutes occasionally.

We also had a charger failure on one bike, but luckily only the smaller onboard charger.

The standard chargers are heavy and gaining a reputation for high failure rates, compensated for only by their outstanding IP rating and nice form fit, living under the belly pan of all the larger Zeros.

Luckily, our fast chargers saved his day, as they connect through the auxiliary charge port.

However, around a week after our trip we all got a sting in the tail with a rumour that had been swirling for a while, confirming that US-based Zero Motorcycles have pulled out of Australia. Again.

Zero have come and gone Down Under twice now, much to the frustration of the 100 or so owners here. Selling electric motorcycles is hard and selling them in Australia has proven to be expensive and very difficult.

Initially, the bikes just weren’t good enough and Zero re-grouped for a few years before having another go. With the new models, sales took off once they re-launched but both importers and dealers have found the going extremely tough.

Selling a $24,000 electric motorcycle is hard, dealing with new technology is extremely tricky and the complete absence of charging infrastructure or incentives for EVs was the death knell.

In typical Aussie style, we have innovated our way around the problem of charging infrastructure with home built chargers and the use of standard 3 Phase power outlets but its all a bit too late for the factory.

However, early adopting isn’t easy.

When technical problems do crop up you need a special set of skills and tools to diagnose them and without meaning to offend, most traditional bike mechanics simply don’t have the skills required.

On top of that, Zero have inexplicably tried to keep profit margins the same as petrol bikes for dealers and it doesn’t and won’t ever work while they persist that way.

A single digit profit margin on a bike sale works OK (just) if you can also sell oil, spark plugs, servicing, tuning and accessories year after year after year – that’s fine for internal combustion engines.

However, Zeros need almost no maintenance, no tuning and very few if any spare parts. On top of that, there’s a huge learning curve and the inevitable occasional bugs that come with new technology.

Dealers need to make up for all of that with better margins or it’s never going to work.

Perhaps exactly the reason why Tesla sells direct?

Quite where we are all left now remains unclear.

The few remaining dealers are promising support, but I wonder how long they can offer it with no new sales. The importer says they’ll help and get parts but isn’t incentivised to do so, so is unlikely to offer better service levels.

As an owner, I know we’ll find a way through and manage, but it won’t be easy. Some bikes may well end up off the road for long periods of time if tricky problems come up.

Luckily we have a great and growing network of enthusiasts and some are extremely clever, so fingers crossed.

EV owners – contact us to learn how you can keep tabs on your EV charging using Solar Analytics monitoring.

By Nigel Morris, from Solar Analytics

Images: Thanks to Sydney Electric Motorcyclists  

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  • Radbug

    Vespa already offers the Li-ion Vespa, but I’m waiting for the Li-S Vespa. It would be so good to ride a quiet, silent bike. ps. But I think I’d prefer a big wheel Piaggio this time!!

  • Mark Byrne

    Great ride report, thanks Nigel. I was waiting for Zeros to drop under 20K before buying but that was obviously in vain! Not sure why the big bike makers haven’t gone electric yet; maybe when they do they’ll be more affordable.