It’s not easy to impress the hipsters of Brooklyn, but I managed to do it more than once a few days ago during a visit to the borough’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Or to be completely honest, I didn’t impress anyone. It was my vehicle that did. I was in Brooklyn to test drive an all-electric, battery-powered motorcycle built by a California-based company called Zero (for zero emissions, naturally). Several times during my ride through city streets, pedestrians called out to ask me things like “What is that?” “Where’s the exhaust?” “How come that motorcycle doesn’t make any noise?”
Not only does it not make noise, aside from the whirring of the electric motor and the whoosh of the tires and the wind: the Zero also doesn’t heat up like a conventional bike (no danger, therefore, of burning off several layers of skin if you touch the tailpipe). It doesn’t require any shifting. It doesn’t need tune-ups, or sparkplugs, or expensive fill-ups (the electricity to run it, says the company, will set you back about one cent per mile).
Most of all, it’s incredibly fun to drive. By nature, electric motors are less powerful overall than comparably sized gasoline engines, but they draw on that power in such a way that they can accelerate a lot faster. Just like a human in a footrace with a horse, the electric will ultimately lose, but for the first few seconds it will outrun the more powerful bike. Since it’s smaller and lighter than the average motorcycle, the Zero is also remarkably nimble: it whips around corners almost without effort. No wonder motorcycle lover Jay Leno is quoted on the company website as saying: “This is pretty cool . . . I really do think that this is the future.”
The bike isn’t perfect, however. When I first talked with the Zero people about a test drive, they generously offered me a two-week loaner. Unfortunately, I’d have to pick it up at the dealer, Carbon Negative, in Brooklyn, and drive it back to my home in Princeton, N.J. I don’t ride a lot, though, and I was kind of nervous about taking it across the Verazzano Narrows Bridge and down the New Jersey Turnpike.
Turns out I’d have been unwise to do so anyway: at highway speeds, the Zero’s range is about 45 miles. I might have made it home, or I might have had to go begging at a pizzeria or laundromat for a plug-in. The Zero’s relatively small size also means the ride isn’t exactly cushy. A ride halfway across New Jersey would have been a jarring experience.
But that’s not what the Zero is really for, according to Zach Schieffelin, the owner of Carbon Negative. On the open road, you want a powerful machine that can take you long distances in comfort. Noise isn’t really an issue. “But I’m a social person,” he told me. “I want my neighbors to like me.”
The Zero’s silence therefore becomes a real asset in Brooklyn. So does its maneuverability, which is much better in city traffic than a conventional motorcycle’s. Unlike a heavier bike, which requires a foot brake, the Zero can stop with hand brakes alone, and, Schieffelin pointed out, “in urban driving, you have to put your feet down a lot, so a foot brake is inconvenient.”
Even though Zero Motrocycles are electric and have no tailpipe emissions, they may not be more climate-friendly than a fossil-fuel powered bike.
Credit: Zero Motorcycles.
The lack of range, meanwhile, isn’t really a problem in the city. “You would almost never need to drive 45 or 50 miles in a day.,” he said. Schieffelin isn’t just doing a sales job, either: he’s buying a Zero for himself. “It’s being customized for me right now,” he said.
One more thing potential buyers might keep in mind (aside from the $14,000 price tag, which Schieffelin noted is a bigger upfront cost than for most smaller motorcycles, but which is somewhat balanced by very low running expenses): driving an electric vehicle of any kind might save on carbon emissions, but it might not.
It all depends on where your electricity comes from. If it’s from nuclear or hydroelectric power, you really are contributing just about zero greenhouse-gas to the atmosphere. If it comes from natural gas, you’re doing a bit worse. If it comes from coal, you’re doing so much worse with emissions that you may actually be better off driving a gasoline-powered motorcycle. It’s true for cars, certainly, as a recent Climate Central report clearly shows. In the Northeast, we get most of our electricity from gas and nuclear, so for us, the Zero’s carbon footprint is probably favorable.
Its fun footprint, however, is gigantic.